Nathalie Schooling is the CEO of nlighten, one of South Africa’s foremost customer experience companies.
JOHANNESBURG - “Pack your bags and get ready for an adventure.” Words posted just a week ago on Melissa’s Instagram page (as part of an advert for one of their Peppertree Bags) seems strangely appropriate, given the events that unfolded this week.

Melissa’s the much-loved cafe, restaurant and retail franchise business is to be liquidated, cashing assets to pay unsecured creditors. 

That’s a big blow. Not only to those of us who’ve come to depend on the lift offered by a quick shot of robust Melissa’s coffee on the way to work, the wholesome comfort of a gourmet soup or the indulgence of a sticky sweet chocolate brownie. It is especially a big blow for the more than 400 people employed by Melissa’s nation-wide. So, what went wrong?

To date there has been no formal communication or response by Melissa’s regarding the businesses’ impending liquidation, and there are sure to be many factors that’ve played a part in what has unfolded. However, from a customer experience perspective, we can make some observations. 

Customer experience is the sum of all the interactions a customer has with a business and its products or services. In the case of a restaurant the customer experience is not only the dining experience. It is the booking, how you were greeted at the door and seated, the service you received through to how a complaint or query was handled. 

An effective customer experience must therefore ensure that each point of interaction with the customer is planned for and executed to perfection. Focusing on just one or two aspects of the customer journey, to the detriment of others, will in the long run erode customer loyalty. In a world where customers have more power than ever, multi-level access to brands and the means to voice their opinions through numerous social media channels, not giving heed to the importance of your entire customer experience comes at a very high cost.

The customer experience you offer is just as important as your product. 

Melissa’s has always been known for providing exceptionally high-quality products made with only the best ingredients served in a pleasant homely environment. 

For this, Melissa’s was able to charge a premium and their clientele happy to pay for it. The consumption of a product is however just one part of the customer experience and, in most cases, a relatively small part of the experience. Even a cursory look at Melissa’s interactions with customers on their social media channels reveals a disconnect. On the one hand exceptional quality products on the other unhappy customers.  

Rated below a 3 on average by its customers, Melissa’s responses to complaints on social media were often delayed, indecisive or just not forthcoming. Taken in isolation one may be able to reason away the veracity of an unhappy customer, but when there is a consistent trend you need to sit up and take notice. Melissa’s didn’t and are paying the highest price for it.

Customer expectations are higher than ever and if your customer experience is not constantly given attention to and nurtured it will negatively impact on customer loyalty, retention and ultimately revenue. So, what do customers want? In a word, empathy. We all want to be understood and cared for. 

In the case of Melissa’s. Could it be that those very same exacting standards of quality, the quest to increase the company’s footprint and the drive to offer a wider range of products to an increasingly diverse market all eventually served to undermine the very spirit with which Melissa’s was founded? 

When the business started, more than 21 years ago, it was about Melissa (van Hoogstraten) sharing her passions, love for food and the good things in life. Intuitively the market responded. It was fresh, authentic and relatable because the brand was the embodiment of a real person, made even more real by sharing her name. You had empathy. As the brand matures, menus grow, product ranges expand, and the temptation grows stronger to focus on the things you feel you can control. The focus shifts from customer experience to product, from authenticity, humility and empathy to sales, projections and growth. The consequence? Your business grows quicker than you can cope with, you need to employ more people than you can adequately train and educate to be your authentic brand voice to the customer and you become less adaptable to meet the needs of a changing market, leaving your customers feeling increasingly disillusioned.

As Melissa’s braces for the inevitably messy process of dealing with insolvency, the market will look back with nostalgia at a business that, when it started, truly offered something new and unique, but now as it closes has shown the very real consequence of focusing on product rather than customer experiences. 

Nathalie Schooling is the CEO of nlighten, one of South Africa’s foremost customer experience companies. 

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

- BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE