How to Ensure a Great Customer Experience: Keep it Simple

Flowers on Table - OpenTable

In my previous post, I sang the praises of OpenTable, the online restaurant reservation service that I believe has helped both diner and restaurant by establishing such an easily managed relationship between the two.

I’m still praising OpenTable, but this time around, I’d also like to offer the company a gentle admonition: Stick to what made you so successful and keep it simple to ensure a great customer experience.

As I wrote before, much of the genius of the OpenTable is its sheer simplicity: a minute or two at a computer or on a mobile device, and you’ve got a restaurant reservation anywhere in town—or internationally, for that matter.

My admonition is best introduced by way of a quick story. Over the years, OpenTable has added some extra features for diners, such as limousine service, which are fine ideas. I think the company should indeed build on its success and offer even more. (How about chilled champagne waiting at the table for special occasions?) I certainly don’t think OpenTable should remain a static, unchanging service, or someone else will come along and better it.

But this past summer, as my wedding anniversary approached, I decided to try out one of OpenTable’s extras. I used a feature that would enable me to order flowers for my wife, which would be waiting at the table. First, I’ll happily report that on our anniversary, the flowers were there as requested, and the evening was great.

So what was lacking? In a word, simplicity. When I logged in to OpenTable to set this special evening up, I expected the same satisfying customer experience—ease of use—that I had enjoyed for years at the site. Instead I encountered a minor customer experience nightmare. When I asked for flowers, I was rerouted to a third-party vendor, a florist that handles OpenTable requests in my area. Suddenly, I was looking at literally dozens of floral arrangements and being asked to choose something.

I’m sorry, but I don’t know a damned thing about flowers. If I’d willingly gone to the website of a local florist, I’d expect to be overwhelmed—wondering what flower or color was fitting for what occasion, etc. But I wanted better from OpenTable. I didn’t want them to hand me off to the local florist. I wanted them to show me a small number of flower arrangements, and possibly suggest whether the flowers were more appropriate for a funeral or an anniversary. That’s how OpenTable is supposed to work.

If you think my lack of floral knowledge is to blame, you’re not really getting my point. Forget that and consider a few points. First, I have used OpenTable for many years. I watched the company grow in stature because it provided customer experience that was second to none. I’ve also given OpenTable endless data about myself over all those years—my favorite restaurants, my favorite tables, my traveling habits, etc.

These points lead to some important questions. Why, if a company like OpenTable wants to expand its services, would it forget its reputation for seamless coordination between diner and restaurant, and bounce me to another website to order flowers—and one that was little more helpful than the Wikipedia entry for “plant”? Why not, instead, a page that lets me choose flowers—directly through OpenTable—with one more mouse click? My personal web page, or a local tourism site, can link to a florist. I rightly expect more from OpenTable.

And why isn’t OpenTable, if it wishes to expand services, doing something with the wealth of online data it collects?

Think about it. My dry cleaner knows my birthday and sends me a physical card. Netflix and Amazon know me a bit better and manage to expertly recommend things I might wish to buy or rent. But OpenTable, which undoubtedly wishes to expand it scope, seems to do nothing with my data. This company knows me better than just about any website, but I’ve never had a recommendation from them for a restaurant I might like, in my hometown or the places OpenTable knows I visit frequently. Never an invitation to enjoy a birthday special. And, to reprise, when I clicked an option to have flowers waiting at my table on my anniversary, I felt like the OpenTable response was, “Try a florist.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve already said that my anniversary dinner was very nice. And I don’t mean to imply that the extra time in ordering flowers left me angry or with a grudge. It was really no big deal.

I remain a fan and promoter of OpenTable. That’s why I hate to see a company that has done so much so well suddenly taking elementary and awkward missteps as it evolves. OpenTable didn’t make its name by doing everything well. It handled only restaurant reservations, and magnificently so. My hope is that the company, as it grows, will maintain the same simplicity and wonderful customer experience that is the trademark of its core service.

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About Steven Salta

Steven Salta is co-founder and CEO of Ascentium, a digital media and interactive marketing agency. Steven has overall responsibility for the agency's revenue, profitability, customer loyalty, and corporate culture.

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