Customer Engagement — a Top Priority of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant

by Kevin Finn, President, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant

Previously published in The New Brewer, a Journal of the Brewers Association

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One of the things that I am most passionate about at Iron Hill is creating a culture that understands the importance of customer engagement. What does culture have to do with customer engagement? One of my favorite books on the subject, Human Sigma by John H. Fleming and Jim Asplund, distinguishes between customer satisfaction and emotionally satisfied customers. Customers who have an emotional bond to your product or service are much more likely to return than just satisfied customers because they actually have an emotional, not a rational, attachment. Simply defined, what is customer engagement? Repeated interactions between a customer and a brand that strengthen the emotional investment a customer has with that brand.

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So why is customer engagement so important? Because earned media, including word-of-mouth (92%) and online reviews (70%), are still the most influential and trusted form of advertising, according to Neilson’s Global Trust in Advertising and Brand Messages study. On the flip side, why do consumers abandon a brand? The 2011 RightNow Customer Experience Impact Report found that 89% of consumers began doing business with a competitor following a poor customer experience.

We incorporate customer engagement into our mission statement and values. It defines our success and allows us to measure how successful we are. So what is our mission? Inspire Loyalty in both our guests and in our staff. We believe that this simple mission will allow us to be successful in both the short term and the long term as we grow our business.

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Our three core values are People, Products and Profits, which I often refer to as the Yin and Yang of Iron Hill. The concept talks about how opposite forces are often intertwined and complementary. Unlike a distribution brewery where employees have little or no interaction with their customers, a restaurant’s employees are an integral part of its brand. At Iron Hill, our core value of Products represents our brand and our core value of People represents our culture. If we have a successful brand and culture we will have a growing and profitable company.

Your brand is always an extremely important element of your business strategy. When we started Iron Hill almost 20 years ago, we wanted to create a brand that was different from most of the brewpubs at that time. We not only wanted great beer, but we also wanted fresh, from scratch food and exceptional service. We spent a great deal of time developing our brand so that it was more upscale than most of the brewpubs at that time. This helped us differentiate Iron Hill from our competitors. At the same time, we also understood that our staff was an integral part of our brand. We wanted to create a culture where they were proud of our brand and felt confident in serving our guests products that they felt passionate about.

Our number one marketing strategy at Iron Hill is delivering on our brand promise. A big part of that brand promise is customer service. We spend a great deal of time hiring, training and giving feedback to our employees because it is critical to our success. We then measure our success using our dashboard or balanced scorecard, which incorporates metrics for all three of our core values.

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We try to create ways to make our staff brand ambassadors. One of our most successful ventures has been our annual GABF party and trip. Each year we recognize and send one member of the staff from each restaurant to the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado. They pour beer at our booth and get a real understanding of where our place is in the craft beer industry. They bring back their experiences and share them with other members of our staff. As we all know, this is an extraordinary craft beer experience and this allows them to share that experience not only with their co-workers but also with our guests, continuing our mission of inspiring loyalty.

We also have had great success building engagement using our King of the Hill loyalty or mug club program. The program accounts for almost 20% of our sales and allows us to engage our most frequent and loyal guests. First, the mugs help the staff quickly recognize members. Second, we have exclusive rewards for our members. Finally, we have permission to directly market to them via email. Of course our staff plays a vital role in this program. Besides delivering on our brand promise, they also take the time to engage our members and are also integral in selling memberships to non-members.

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Customer feedback is also a big part of building engagement at Iron Hill. One of my favorite books on the subject is A Complaint Is a Gift: Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong by Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller. I believe that a customer who takes the time to complain is giving you an opportunity to fix that problem. If you are able to resolve the issue you actually have an opportunity to build long-term customer loyalty. Social media is playing a bigger role in our strategy. We use social media as not only a promotional tool, but also as a way to monitor customer feedback. In both cases we try to respond to guests to build their trust.

Customer engagement starts with ensuring that your staff understands and executes your brand promise. Your staff should be able to engage your guests in a fun way and impart their knowledge to your guests. They are your internal brand ambassadors, inspiring loyal customers! Those customers in turn become brand ambassadors who spread their passion for your brand, using word-of-mouth advertising and social media to their friends and the public. Looking back 20 years ago when we started Iron Hill, my main passion was to create interesting and hard-to-find hand-crafted beers. But today I’m passionate about the people because I know they are the key to our success.

With 11 locations in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, there’s an Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant near you. We specialize in handcrafted beers and fresh, from-scratch New American cuisine. Monthly releases vary by location, so scout out our beers on tap and visit us soon.

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