Interviews

How one entrepreneur transformed their business by creating a memorable customer experience

7 min read

18 June 2015

Former editor

Making the customer experience unique is a tough proposition, but one which can transform a company’s potential. Whether a high street retail outlet or an out of town call centre, good customer service - and the customer experience offered - goes a long way to determining business success.

A good customer experience is one which can have a ripple-like effect, not only encouraging existing customers to keep coming back but also prompting them to tell others about their positive experience.

To find out more on getting it right, we met Deborah Holden, managing director of Nest Home & Cafe – an independent tableware and gift shop with embedded café in rural Surrey which has become the heart of its village.

The customer experience Deborah Holden offered when she launched her shop five years ago has evolved in line with her business offering. Although the tableware and gift shop was steadily successful, Holden felt she could take the customer experience to another level and decided to diversify.

“I decided to add a cafe to the shop to provide something extra for browsing customers as well as taking the opportunity to showcase the tableware we sell.

My father had 40 tableware shops across the UK and my brother has a very successful tableware business himself, based in the United States. As the leading UK stockist of my brother’s line, Nest can serve food and drinks to our café customers on tableware that can be enjoyed, and then purchased in the shop.”

For Holden, it all comes down to creating an atmosphere of welcome and comfort. It’s not as simple as it sounds to establish that, she added, and is rare in a world populated by large chains on every corner.

“I believe that those who buy from independent shops value the experience and interaction with the staff just as much as they value the product they’re buying, and I had this firmly in mind when I opened the cafe. Now that side of the business is in great demand and growing apace. What we’ve managed to do is create an environment that feels like a home – hence the name, Nest. It’s proving hugely popular with all our customers.”

Holden’s strategy extends to small touches such as carefully chosen music and fresh flowers on each table. Also crucial is the calibre of the staff she employs. Describing herself as “very fussy” when it comes to selecting the right hire, she looks for intelligent, sparkly people who embody the spirit of Nest.

“We have quite a few mums working with us, and women who have had big careers but now need flexible working hours. Anyone working at Nest has a way of connecting with customers. They will naturally remember little details about customers lives, can suggest appropriate gifts, and of course, know how they like their coffee. I have high standards and expect my team to match them.”

Holden’s previous experience working with high-end luxury brands has made her uncompromising on quality and style. “Where Nest stands out is that we work very hard to create an approachable and warm atmosphere. The café helps make our space feel accessible, buzzy and welcoming.” She wants customers to visit her retail destination without worrying about being “sold to”.

“I actually didn’t have any experience in the food industry, but I knew what I liked as a customer, and so applied the same principles. There is no compromise on quality, and no cutting corners. Everything we serve is beautifully presented with great care. Just what I would expect as a customer myself.”

One of the many ways Holden has connected with her customers, new and existing, is through the American Express”Shop Small” initiative. Shop Small is about highlighting and celebrating the importance and contribution of small businesses within local communities, and sees American Express Cardmembers incentivised to spend at independent stores by receiving cash-back on purchases. The promotion launched for the first time in November 2012 and coincides with Small Business Saturday which takes place every December.

For Holden, from the moment she started up she felt it was important as a small business to accept American Express. She said, “We like to offer our customers a choice of how to pay just as we offer an experience and service tailored to them.

I think American Express has a similar approach to their customers – when you call up as a merchant, you talk to a real human being and it feels like you matter to them.”

Last year, Holden made sure her customers knew about the Shop Small promotion via emailed newsletters and social media – which saw a great deal of them spending more at Nest to qualify for the offer.

Holden believes that it is her ability to provide a bespoke experience, one which takes into account every customer as an individual, that will hold her in good stead, reminding people about how enjoyable and rewarding it can be to bring their custom to a small and independent company like hers.

The success she has had with this approach means Holden is wary about growing too fast. “We’ve seen it time and time again – owners are very present and involved in the first business, it then rolls out across ten other locations, and suddenly that authentic feeling is diluted. So that is now the challenge for Nest – how do we expand but still keep the crisp brand message and unique feeling of customer service.”

For now though, Holden has developed a lifestyle business that is not just incredibly popular but award winning. The café has taken off and now represents 60 per cent of her business but she remains steadfast in her belief that success will only continue if the customer comes first and their experience is memorable.

To find out more about the Shop Small campaign or to join the American Express network please click here.