Why feedback is the breakfast that’s fuelling this Fast Track 100 business

For Pranee and Andy Laurillard, customer feedback is king. Forget last week’s sales figures – they can wait. But if one of their restaurants scores a low customer-satisfaction rating, then it’s a Code Red. They’re on it faster than a hungry shark on a dozy seal. The husband and wife pair who founded Giggling Squid receive around 3,000 pieces of feedback each week. Every Tuesday morning, their feedback-aggregator system clearly tells them the story of the previous week. They build a robust action plan based on what they hear. Any indigestion caused by these breakfast feedback sessions is eased by the knowledge that their company has appeared in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 for the past four years. Relentlessly listening to customers is clearly good for business.

Pranee and Andy opened their first Thai restaurant – decorated with driftwood found on the beach – in Brighton in 2002. Today they run 30 Giggling Squids (soon to be 32) and employ around 800 staff. Ask Pranee and Andy to name the key driver of their success and they’re clear: listening closely to customer feedback, and then acting on the improvements this allows them to make. “Great customer care is what makes us to stand out in the extremely competitive restaurant market,” says Pranee.

Andy explains how their feedback system works: “We collect our data from social media, Google and our own feedback-request emails. That’s about 100 pieces of feedback per restaurant per week. Everything is marked out of five: food, atmosphere, service and so on. The very first thing we look at each Tuesday morning is the customer-service score for each site. Those at the bottom automatically receive an awful lot of attention. Around 4.4 out of 5 or above is the goal. Anyone below 4 has serious questions to answer.”

Good service is so important to Giggling Squid’s founders because they know just how damaging failures in this area can be. “If you are not properly cared for in a restaurant – if your experience is not properly managed – it feels like you are being put down,” says Pranee. “In some places the attitude is terrible. You pick it up straight away.”

“If the customer is happy, they come back,” Andy says. “We want to make our diners feel special and we need to spread that desire to everyone in the business. So to embed it, we reward it. Everyone with a customer-facing role gets scored on customer service and we incentivise high scores. For example, a site manager earns a bigger bonus if their score increases.”

This brings us to the second key factor in Giggling Squid’s success: corporate professionalism… but wrapped in a velvet glove of artful informality. Before running a chain of restaurants, Andy worked in senior positions at Unilever, Coca Cola and Tui Travel. This gave him the tools to build a solid business foundation for Giggling Squid. “When I first applied for a bank loan, I presented a 30-page business plan that drew on my corporate experience,” he says. “The bank manager said: ‘This is amazing – people usually give me stuff scrawled on the back of an envelope.’ That’s when I realised we could use our professionalism as a big competitive advantage. We stand out by doing things properly, in a blue chip way. My corporate background helps because I can walk into a meeting with investors and speak the same language, literally and figuratively. It also means I know how to create a strong stakeholder experience. Banks, investors, local authorities – they must all be kept happy too.”

Pranee, on the other hand, provides Giggling Squid’s authenticity, emotional pull and artful informality. She comes from a family of Thai business people: her mother, father and every one of her eight siblings are all entrepreneurs. This gives her a different perspective from her husband – a non-corporate, creative, entrepreneurial drive. “I focus on the food, service, interior design and menu,” she says. “My aim is to create a delightful experience that’s neither rigid nor formal.” It was Pranee who persuaded her husband to quit his corporate job to focus on Giggling Squid: “I said to Andy: ‘You spend all your time and energy working for other people. Why don’t you use your talent to do something for yourself and grow it?’”

Grown it they have. And the role that customer feedback has played in their success cannot be underestimated. The lesson from Pranee and Andy’s story is simple: relentlessly listen to what your customers say, warts and all. Yes, it can be painful, but listen anyway. Ignore the unhinged stuff and suck up the rest. Then act. The future of your business does not depend on last month’s sales figures. It hinges on your customers’ happiness. If you don’t listen to them, you’re setting yourself up to fail.

So, now’s the time to book those weekly breakfast feedback-monitoring sessions. A little early morning indigestion is definitely a price worth paying.