A Business Leader’s Recipe for Great Service

Ari Weinzweig
Co-Founding Partner and CEO
Zingerman’s Community of Business

Zingerman’s is an Ann Arbor institution— the source of great food and great experiences for over 500,000 visitors every year. Each day, the Deli serves up thousands of made-to-order sandwiches and offers an array of farmhouse cheeses, smoked fish, salamis, olive oils, whole bean coffees, and much more. In 1982, partners Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw started Zingerman’s Delicatessen with two employees in a 1,300- square-foot space. Today, the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses includes 8 different businesses, all located in the Ann Arbor area, with total annual sales of about $38,000,000 and a staff of about 500. But customers don’t come back just for the great food. It’s the service they’re hungry for. We asked Ari Weinzweig for his philosophy on how to create this craving.

Why should businesses give great service?

AW: If you want to stay in business, it’s just what you do. I’ve always worked with the belief that customers have no reason to come back unless we give them one. After all, we aren’t selling anything people need, or anything they can’t get somewhere else. My hope is that we give great service and we offer great food, and we make that a great experience.

We don’t think of customer service as a competitive advantage. You create a better workplace when you’re service-oriented.
Our mission statement is to deliver a great experience. Our mission is our inner compass, our North Star. And we don’t post the mission for the public to see. If the public has to see it to know what your mission is, it doesn’t say a lot for your integrity. Every day, our work is to support our staff to live it.

And how do you do that?

AW: We’ve identified five areas that are critical in building and maintaining a strong culture of customer service.


  • We teach it – Providing great service can be taught and learned. It takes practice to improve, and some catch on more quickly than others. The training needs to connect the interests of the employee to the organization so both can benefit from service improvement.
  • We define it – Start by defining the behavior you want to see. What does great service look like to you? It’s different for each business, and it’s up to you to define. Are guests greeted as soon as they walk in the door? Do you greet them by name? How should staff handle complaints? These are tools that your staff can use to measure themselves against.
  • We live it – A service culture can’t thrive unless the leaders model exceptional service, not just to customers but to staff and to each other. We’ve found that the service our staff gives to our customers will never be better than the service that leaders give to our staff. If we want to raise the organization’s service level, we start by figuring out how we can raise the level of service we personally deliver.
  • We measure it – You need to know where you are and whether you’re on track toward where you want to be. We’ve started using an organization-wide service measure based on the NPS (Net Promoter Score) introduced in Fred Reichheld’s book, The Ultimate Question.
  • We reward it – Does your organization recognize the best service providers by giving them more work because they “do it better”? Rewards that recognize individual performance are important, but so are group rewards that inspire teams to work together. Being a great service provider becomes a prerequisite for advancement in the organization.

Doing any one of the five alone is better than doing nothing, but the incremental value of doing all five expands geometrically, with each one building on the others.

What do you look for when you’re hiring service-oriented employees?

AW: We use the “smile rule.” If people don’t smile when we greet them for an interview, we don’t hire them. Sure, they may be nervous, but won’t they be nervous with customers too? We really stick with this rule 98% of the time—it works.

We also like to ask open-ended questions. Most of the time, when you’re on the floor or on the phone, you need to ad lib within the situation. We also like to ask paradoxical questions, how they would handle things in those less than black-and-white situations.
I especially look for things they’ve actually done, not what they might do in a theoretical future. We also do role-plays so we can see what they do instinctively. And we interview people in the setting in which they’ll work. We’ve interviewed candidates for a delivery position while they were driving a truck. What would be the point of interviewing them in an office? If someone is applying for a night job, we interview them during that time—getting a morning person to be happy at 10 at night doesn’t work.

As a leader, who is your customer?

AW: We treat everyone in the organization like a customer. We state it explicitly: We treat employees like customers and kick it up a notch through servant leadership. As the CEO, my primary customers are our managing partners; their primary customers are the managers in their business; the managers’ customers are the frontline crew. This frees up energy for the customer on phone, at the counter, or on the web. Our frontline people feel that support, and they know they have what they need to be successful. It seems natural, but it’s not the way most organizations operate.

In most places, people who teach the personnel part aren’t asked to live it. It’s like a coach who gives a pep talk to his team before a game. That’s great, but it’s the players who have to go out and score the points. Most leaders expect the frontline to live the mission. But if the top leaders aren’t doing it, chances are the customer-facing people aren’t either. They won’t give better service to our guests than we give to them.

We do a lot of work with servant leadership. If you want a great organization, leaders need to serve their people. This doesn’t mean you can’t make money by not giving great service to the people on the front lines. But if you don’t make it easy for your employees to focus on customers, they’ll be doing a sub-optimal job. In a happier workplace, service spills over into the culture in the way we treat each other.