Inside Look: How to Make the “Special Sauce” of Excellent Customer Service

Winning ideas stand out to me, even when enjoying a fine dinner of fresh grouper and a glass of red wine.

So it was recently at Duval’s restaurant in Sarasota, FL, where I was impressed by the shared responsibility, customer service teamwork of the staff.

According to  Joshua Halbrucker, the restaurant’s General Manager/Partner, their approach is simple:

“Treat every customer like they are your mother (and if you don’t like your mother… haha, treat them like someone you love dearly and would do anything for).”

Duval's Logo

Our waiter orchestrated the evening and was our primary service provider. He was friendly and effective. Where Duval’s stood out, though, was the totality of service provided. The entire team, regardless of title or role, formed a rapid-response customer service unit. Whenever someone passed by our table, he/she did so attentively and ready to act. For instance:

  • Need more bread? Coming right up.
  • Low on water? Be right back.
  • Appetizers finished? I’ll clear your plates.

It was customer-focused versatility in action, all geared to make sure that Duval’s provided us with an excellent dining experience. As one of the managers told me after dinner: “I tell the team to look at the tables as you walk by and if the customers need something, take care of it.”


A few days later, I reached out to Joshua Halbrucker to learn more about the restaurant’s operating philosophy. He answered my questions via email. Look for a number of marketing and business nuggets, some of which I’ve highlighted, followed by my three takeaways for your company.

Credit: Duval's restaurant.

Credit: Duval’s restaurant.

>  How would you describe your customer service approach?
Our customer service approach is simple. Meet and exceed the expectations of each and every diner at Duval’s and do whatever it takes to provide an outstanding dining experience. When dining out, it is not solely the food, the service, the ambiance, or the beverages that will determine whether or not you enjoyed a good meal. It is the comprehensive package of all aspects which determines whether or not it was a bad, average, good, or phenomenal overall experience. Our goal and mission is to provide world-class A+ dining experience for each guest and we strive every day to improve and find better ways to do so.

>  How do you talk about customer service internally and with new hires?
We emphasize our approach to customer service and how important ensuring the happiness of EVERY guest is, from the moment someone interviews at Duval’s. We continue to hit home customer satisfaction on an ongoing basis and touch on it every week in our weekly training meetings.

>  Is your service approach something you picked-up and/or modified from previous employers? Or is it something the Duval’s team came up with?
Our service approach is definitely the Duval’s way. I have been in the customer service business (restaurants) my whole life (I’m 32 now) and have picked many things up along the way from various establishments I have worked for. I have instituted what I have felt have been the best aspects of each at Duval’s.

But, I credit why our customer service is at the level that it is today to my mentor and business partner Jim Abrams. Jim is the silent partner at Duval’s and is a very successful businessman. He has built three customer service companies that have gone global in his past and present. One that went public in the 90s (Home Service Experts); one that he sold privately (Clockwork Home Services) and is now the parent company of three of the top home services companies in the United States (Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning, and Mr. Sparky electric); and one that he is currently growing that is the fastest growing physical therapy company (Fyzical) in the world! Over his 60+ years on this planet, the man is a customer service genius and amazing at what he does. I have been fortunate and lucky enough to be mentored by him and have instituted the knowledge that he has passed on to me to assist in the growth of the Duval’s customer service team.

>  What’s the reaction from new staff when you explain your expectations in regard to the shared customer service team approach?
I guess I can say that I really do not get much of a reaction. The personnel that we hire at Duval’s are hired for a reason. In the recruiting process we ensure that we identify that the new hires have got that special sauce…. That special sauce is that customer service gene, you either have it or you don’t. The best professionals in customer service have an affinity for making guests happy and will do whatever it takes (teamwork) to get it done. We continue to hone customer service excellence with training and ongoing coaching but the best in the biz have something special that you can’t teach.

>  Since you have a shared service approach, how do you handle tips?
As much as we preach the token “team work makes the dream work” motto, we are not a “pooled” house. Some restaurants will pool all of their tips and split them evenly amongst the staff, we do not. Each individual server makes their own tips and just has to tip out the assisting personnel (Server Assistants and Bartenders). I am a firm believer in this approach. I believe it is more motivational to the service personnel individually, to see a direct reflection of their efforts. When coaching the team mentality with staff in regards to tips, we will always hit home, helping each other out will lead to better service, which leads to happier customers, which leads to better tips for everyone.

>  What else would you say about your customer service philosophy for the restaurant?
We treat our customer service with a family mentality. The Duval’s team is a family and we treat each customer as a guest in our home. We want to ensure that you are well taken care of, well fed, comfortable, and have everything that you need while staying with us.


3 Takeaways For Your Company

Think about how you can get a little bit of the Duval’s customer service mindset into your teams and across your organization.

First, develop your team so each person understands the overall purpose/mission of the company. Make sure each is trained, equipped, prepared and incentivized to act on behalf of and deliver that objective and/or experience.

Second, foster the mindset of “If you see something, do something.” Strive for a team and organization whose members are prepared to act and solve, rather than just inform or worse, ignore. In addition to generating positive results, this way of thinking helps break down silos. At Duval’s, there isn’t any “it’s not my table” syndrome. They win together, or not.

Third, to achieve one and two, you need smart, talented, versatile performers in your company and on your teams. People who get the big picture and can do all the little things to make that big picture come to life.

Harvey Chimoff is a versatile marketing and business team leader who believes good marketing sells. Contact him at harveychimoff dot com.

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