After reading T. Scott Gross' book, Positively Outrageous Service, I was inspired to do an unheard-of thing when I operated Big Dave's Pizza. During my monthly team meeting, I asked my crew if they would work for tips only, on a to-be-announced day. 'Stay with me on this one while I explain,' I pleaded as they collectively rolled their eyes. They were used to my guerrilla marketing mentality, but this one really got them nervous. 'What do you mean, work for tips only? Only drivers get tips.' They thought I had lost touch with reality and said so.

I explained, 'Next month is our anniversary month. We traditionally do some very aggressive advertising to put the screws to our competition, and maintain a high community profile. This year will be the same, but instead of discounting ourselves to the point of non-profitability, I have got a plan to thank our regulars and have a lot of fun at the same time. I'm going to give away, absolutely free, every single order on a day next month. I'm going to get this town talking about us. I'm going to surprise everyone, because they won't know it's free until after they order. I'll print up a letter thanking them for their loyalty and gently tell them that you are working for tips only that night. This will either guilt or happy trip them into being a big tipper. I have worked in the cost of food in the advertising budget, but I can't afford labor cost on top of that. I feel that you will do better than your wages – cause people are really good at heart, especially our customers. I may be wrong, but my gut says this will work. Are you with me?'

By the time I had delivered this impassioned speech and had answered their questions, I was pumped up. This got their juices going, so by the time I passed out a sign-up sheet, strictly voluntary, mind you, all but one of my 21 employees agreed to work for tips only for one night in the near future. The permission my team gave me by agreeing to gamble with their wages was the biggest hurdle I had to get over. They were excited and had personal ownership of the success of the promotion. This let the team play and play is fun. The manager and I retreated to the office to look at the calendar. Our first task was to choose the best day of the month to be our Customer Appreciation night. I chose a Friday. My manager whined, 'Dave, we barely can keep up on Friday now. Let's do it on a Monday.' We tossed the best day around and he agreed with me after explained to him my point of view. 'The reason I think Friday is better is our goal is to astound as many customers as possible in the shortest time.' He agreed, especially after I reminded him his labor cost percentage would be zero for the shift, and he could schedule anybody and everybody.

I had several tasks left on my list. I called my speedy printer, composed the hand-out letter and ordered a thousand copies. I then borrowed a glass fish bowl style terrarium. I then left a voice mail for my food DSR to pitch him for some free samples to offset the cost of the event. It was time for me to call in some favors. He was very generous and obliging. With a few changes in prep levels and scheduling, we were ready to go.

The best promotions always have to least three of the following four components: Unexpected, Unadvertised, Outrageous, Invites the customer to play. Let's fast forward to the promotion day. The staff arrived for the normal four o'clock shift change. They noticed that almost everybody is scheduled. The real tip-off was the duct tape over the time clock. This is it! Nor one can make an outgoing phone call. We don't want to let the secret out just yet. Time will soon take care of that! The crew was given a typed copy of the rules of engagement. The rules of engagement were as follows:

  1. You are not allowed to tip off your family or close friends.
  2. All customers will be quoted the normal price of their order for all deliveries.
  3. All dine-in and carry-out customers will be rung up at the cash register as usual. After they go for their wallet and the money comes out, they will be handed the letter. Again, unexpected and outrageous. We will point out the working for tips only portion and invite them to put money in the huge fish bowl next to the cash register.
  4. All delivery drivers will swear a solemn oath not to hold out tips and immediately after returning from delivery feed the fishbowl.
  5. All tips will counted at the end of the shift. The grand total will be split equally amongst every employee on a dollar per man-hour basis.
  6. Crewmembers are required to remember to pay all taxes on their own.
  7. We will always be aware that this random, free night is to foster loyalty and good will to our customers.
  8. Non-customers will hear of this event and possibly try to take advantage of our generosity. We will deal with them on an individual basis, striving to convert them to a customer for life.
  9. We will be legendary and have fun.

I'll never forget the first family who arrived for dinner. The guest check came to around $18. The cashier said, 'On a normal day this order would be $18, but today is your lucky day,' and handed them a copy of the letter. They read in disbelief and amazement. The dad exclaimed, 'I can't believe it, you mean to tell me that our entire dinner is for free? I've never gotten anything for free in my life.' We assured him it was our special way to say thanks for being our customer. He looked towards my crew and asked, 'Are you guys really working for tips only?' Ten heads nodded affirmation as he dropped a ten spot in the bowl and was last seen muttering to himself as he found his table. For the next seven hours, this scenario repeated itself. We had invited the customer to play. By 5 p.m., we were getting busy and delivery was kicking in. The drivers were returning to the restaurant and were scrutinized by the cooks until they coughed up their tips to the bowl.

Some drivers were not doing well and we had to coach them into actually explaining the letter at the doorstep, pointing out you know what. By 6 p.m. we had made over 100 pizzas and countless salads. Here comes the fun stuff. Our delivery customers are calling their friends and neighbors and at our invitation, telling everybody that Big Dave's is giving away free pizza tonight. We were ready for this.

A typical phone conversation would go like this: 'Thanks for calling Big Dave's, this is Paul speaking, may I help you?' Customer replies, 'I'd like to order four large pizzas with everything on them.' We reply, 'Will that be pickup or delivery?' 'Make that a delivery to 123 Main St.' 'Great, that's four large pizzas with everything on them. The total will come to $49.65 and we'll have them there in less than 30 minutes. Would you care for anything else?' Customer replied, 'Whad'dya mean $49? My neighbor called and told me you were given away free pizza tonight. In fact, he read me your letter over the phone. Was he kidding me or what? He's such a kidder, I never know when to believe him.' We reply, 'In fact, your neighbor did receive free pizza tonight. He's one of our best customers and this is customer appreciation night.' 'Well, is my order free or not?' asks the customer. At this time, we know we are talking to a friend of a regular customer who would like to take advantage of a good thing.

Since this person will probably hang up and never call back if I don't offer some options, and it's my primary goal to thank my regulars and possibly garner new customers, I tell a little fib. 'I just don't know if your order is free tonight. We couldn't afford to give the whole night away. Every other order is absolutely free.' 'Well, is mine?' 'That's decided at the back door as drivers get their printouts. The even numbered orders are free and the odd numbered orders pay full price. Please allow me to make a suggestion. Let's order one Big Dave's Special instead of four. The price on that would be $14.70. You have to ask yourself that famous Dirty Harry question, ' Is this your lucky day?' You know what? I have a special feeling about your order; even though I don't personally dispatch the drivers, I'm asking you to go for it.'

At this point, one of two things happened. The caller would cancel the order entirely, or play along. If the caller reduced the order to a realistic amount the order was free. If he chose not to play, he hung up – nothing lost. I never had him in the first place.

If you try this promotion, within the first couple of hours, amazing things will happen. You will hate me and wish you had never considered this promotion. Just kidding. If you love to have a good time, get your employees and customers really interacting, this one is for you! This story will be repeated hundreds and hundreds of times for months! People can't wait to tell the world a story of what happened to them. It's the most delicious way I know to get customer loyalty for life.

At 11 p.m., my manager asked me, 'When are we gonna shut this down? We're getting close to running out of everything. Let's shut it down in 15 minutes. We've made over 600 pizzas in the past 400 minutes. We're pushing 200 deliveries, but you know what? The crew is so pumped up they don't want to stop – Especially after watching that fishbowl fill up with money. By the way, how many 50-dollar bills did you put in the bowl?' I said, 'I didn't put any in. I seeded the bowl with twenty dollars at four o'clock.' 'Dave', he said, 'There are at least three fifties, maybe four in the bowl. The crew has been eyeballing them all night.'

I was astounded. You would have try real hard to spend fifty dollars in my place. I couldn't conceive of a customer actually tipping $50. On the other hand, there was the proof. In fact, four customers drove to my restaurant to put money in the bowl. Apparently, when the driver delivered the pizza, they just didn't get it. But after rereading the letter, they felt a need to clear their consciences and make the trip back so they could place money in the bowl. You could spot them coming across the parking lot. They looked like deer in the headlights, carrying this letter in their hands and speaking softly, 'Where can I tip the driver?' We gestured towards the bowl and they were relieved. My staff applauded. This is the stuff legends are made of.

Before I forget, the fish bowl had over $1,500 in it at 11 o'clock. We had 95 labor hours invested in the that shift. Regardless of seniority or pay rate, they split it equally, making a little over $15 an hour. By seven o'clock, even my holdout employee was a believer. In fact, they suggested we do it every Friday night! The rest is history. This promotion was repeated annually in October since the first Free Night in 1991. The results… goodwill and word-of-mouth advertising… are priceless. I'd like to make some suggestions to you if you decide to create you OWN Customer Appreciation Night:

  • Plan to be extremely busy. Put your aces in their places. In other words, station your strongest people on the phones, counters, delivery, etc. Bring back former superstar employees that would like to help out for a reunion. We call them re-treads. Role-play telephone, counter and delivery conversation. Play the game of 'I say…You say' until the replies become automatic.
  • Give your guests a permanent gift besides the meal. This may be a refrigerator magnet or a pizza buck. Every time you get a non-customer to play, note it on the computer or guest check. Follow up with a thank you postcard several days after the event. The following day's sales will be very busy. Within one week, you will make up for any lost sales in increased business. Prepare a press release. Invite radio and TV to interview exiting customers. Everybody loves a feel-good news story. Your competition will think you have finally gone over the edge. They will be so slow it will almost depress you – NOT! Thank everyone; Customers, employees, food suppliers and Pizza Marketing Quarterly.

Isn't it time to take control of your marketing? It's time to get out the rut. Customers want and yearn to feel special. After all, they are our lifeblood. How much are you willing to do to prove it to them? You must earn top-of-mind position by giving them something to talk about. If this article has not answered all of you questions pop in to PMQ's Ask the Experts section or the Think Tank and ask me a question.

If this article hasn't answered all of you questions and you want to discuss it further please visit my website at and post a question or call me at (888) BIG-DAVE.

Copyright  2002 Dave Ostrander, all rights reserved.

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