After more than 15 years steering the brand images for two of the most popular restaurant chains in the U.K., Marcel Khan knows how to build and maintain a loyal customer base. During a decade with Nando’s as regional managing director and, more recently, six years with Five Guys as operations and brand development director, he has overseen incredible growth for both brands.
This industry leader is now focused on inspiring workforces to create great customer experiences and, in the process, help brands stand out in a crowded marketplace. Khan sat down with CMO.com to talk about “being real,” his unique approach to recruiting talent, and what he has learned from speaking directly with customers. Also of note, he also will be speaking about these topics at this week's Adobe Experience Forum; register now.
CMO.com: During your decade with Nando’s UK, the company grew from 46 to 260 restaurants. How did the brand change as that growth occurred?
Khan: I've been really lucky to work with brands with incredible foundations. So I think before you talk about brand growth, you look at what those foundations are. Nando’s is a company that's very much driven by values, things like passion, family, and pride. There’s a relentless optimism to that business. Because of those things, the brand is curious and wants to be better tomorrow than it is today.
As the company grew, it was important to fundamentally focus on making the relationship with the customers stronger all the time. I think that’s what supported that growth. With any brand, the foundation should never change, but as it evolves, you have to put more in place to make sure you don't lose sight of those core values.
CMO.com: What do you do to keep building those relationships with customers?
Khan: You always want to feel that you’re being “real,” although I often think that if a brand is always striving to feel real, then by definition, it probably isn’t achieving it. I think where Nando’s gets it right is that the relationship with the customers is real, which means that they can make mistakes and everything will be OK because you’re working on a relationship, rather than just a transactional brand promise.
And you see that with Five Guys as well, with their commitment to locally sourced, fresh food, which has been the same since 1986. All of those things are very fashionable now, but since day one it’s always been the case. The chips have always been hand-cut and the burgers hand-balled, and you won’t find a freezer in our restaurants. Customisation is another big thing these days, which Five Guys has always offered. These aren’t trends that the brand has tried to jump on--they are and always have been part of the core values.
CMO.com: What mistakes do you feel those brands make when they try to be real?
Khan: I think that trying to be all things to all people is a big one. And a really good example of that is when you look at a brand’s Instagram posts and they’re always trying to attach themselves to whatever cultural event is happening, regardless of whether it has anything to do with their values or their brand. ... I always think that's such a mistake. Be who you are, and be confident and bold with it.
CMO.com: As a brand grows and the business expands, how do you keep those values as new talent joins?
Khan: You have to ensure that your recruitment, your training, and your retention processes all underpin what you want to achieve. Working in that kind of environment, I think you love it and you want to protect it. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but you recruit on personality. You can teach the rest.
CMO.com: What do you do in the recruitment process to discover those personalities?
Khan: There are little practical exercises that you can run when you're building your team. So if I’m recruiting for someone in the kitchen, I won’t walk up the stairs [with them during an] interview; I’ll run. I want to see if they have the sense of urgency to run after me. To name another example, if there’s a piece of paper on the floor, I’ll purposefully not pick it up to see if they do. Little things like that show me how attuned they are to the demands of the service industry, which is very important. I think it’s a combination of practical testing and intuition. Most of all, it’s about making sure that you don't dilute the love, the passion, and those things within the business that made it a success to begin with.
CMO.com: How do you ensure that the brands you work for are offering what your customer base really wants?
Khan: I think one of the most undervalued skills in business is the ability to listen, and I think smart organizations are really good at that. Pret a Manger CEO Clive Schlee is a great example of someone who uses his social platforms well. I think Pret comes to a lot of the decisions it makes by simply asking their customers what they think and what they want.
Every week when I worked with Nando’s, I would go up to a customer in the line and offer to buy them lunch in exchange for five or 10 minutes of their time. I just wanted to know what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong. In 10 years with that business, I never had a customer turn me down. When your brand has that honest relationship with your customers, I think, even when you get things wrong, they know that you’re trying and they will forgive you.
CMO.com: What was the greatest lesson you learned from speaking to those customers?
Khan: You learn something every time, but the biggest learning I get from asking customers is that they want to give more than the money. If people love their experience and care about it enough to part with their hard-earned cash, they genuinely also care enough to support your business in other ways, by spreading the word, for example. I’ve always found people to be enormously generous with their time and their opinions.
CMO.com: How do you use data to inform your marketing decisions?
Khan: Five Guys commissioned CGA Peach Brandtrack research to understand more about who our customers are, and it wasn’t a great surprise to learn that Millennials comprise our largest customer group. The study revealed that the average repertoire of restaurants a Londoner would consider, if they’re looking for somewhere to eat, is 11.1. For Millennials, that number rises to 17.6 at any given time. I think that tells you that you’d better make every connection with Millennials count because that audience won’t hang around for you to get it right.