What I Learned From the Frozen-Yogurt Shop

ImageEditorial Emergency's favorite source of post-gym sustenance is 21 Choices, a cheery but unassuming little frozen-yogurt shop on the main thoroughfare of Pasadena's heavily trafficked Old Town.

21C keeps a cornucopia of low-fat, high-flavor, largely organic options in rotation on its daily menu. Those without cholesterol issues can up the ante with mix-ins like Butterfingers, Reese's and Ding Dongs. Our usuals: the healthful and aromatic Vanilla Bean, mashed up with fresh bananas and strawberries, and the deceptively decadent-tasting Valrhona Chocolate, stirred in with almonds. Not that Peach Pie, Root Beer Float or other cultured confections are off the table.

What, you might be wondering, does this have to do with business? Grab a napkin and I'll elaborate.

21 Choices sells a product, and that product is hardly in short supply — there are Pinkberrys, Pinkberry knock-offs and assorted other fancifully appointed fro-yogurterias dotting the neighborhood like so many Queen palms. Yet unlike those other vendors of frosty desserts, 21C always seems to be teeming with customers. Is its yogurt the best? Perhaps, but I don't believe that's the key. Because although this business sells a product, it wins by providing superior — and inspired — service.

The difference is immediately discernible. Motown classics tumble from the speakers. The teens on duty sing and shimmy as they serve up cups and cones. A bank of TV screens beams out cooking shows, vintage cartoons and other eye candy. Lest visitors become restless while waiting in line, staffers come through offering tastes of the day's flavors — simultaneously easing the delay and aiding in customers' decision-making. As they press their mixing spatulae into the creamy mounds of pliant yogurt, methodically folding in fresh fruit, nuts, chocolate morsels and (heaven help us all) Gummi Worms, the unfailingly good-natured counter kids offer pleasant small talk. They even remember us when we walk in the door; one attentive yogurtista recently asked how the writing was going.

Although this business sells a product, it wins by providing superior — and inspired — service.

If a mix-master is on break and the queue gets a little long, the staff (1) apologizes sincerely for the wait and (2) hands out coupons for free yogurt, without any coaxing or complaining on the customers' part. And if you aren't crazy about that Mandarin Dragon with brownie dough and Skittles after all, they'll happily supply an alternate choice at no charge. Then there was the time the cashier so admired Julia's sock monkey key chain that she gave her a free scoop.

But the company's service ethic goes much further, and this is where you should put down your Snickerdoodle Swirl and pay particular attention.

21C makes its customers feel like part of a community. A poster by the front door lists regulars by name (customers are "interviewed" onsite the first Sunday of every month), acknowledging them for their business and including them in the definition of the brand; the 21 Choices powers that be understand that their community of customers is 21 Choices. They've also made the transition to biocompostable cups and spoons, because being green matters to that community. A handmade sign explains that this move has added to their overhead and resulted in slightly higher prices. No one seems to mind.

ImageThis old-fashioned nurturing of customers is augmented, meanwhile, by digital-age marketing savvy. 21 Choices' website invites visitors to read about "the 21 Choices Culture," provides the opportunity to comment and offers the option to receive a daily list of flavors by e-mail. That e-mail blast surely flies into the phones of the young people who descend upon the place in the late afternoon, not only to snack but also to gossip and flirt. Having logged some hours as customers in such convivial surroundings, I'm certain more than a few become 21C team members themselves.

As far as those other yogurt joints up and down the arteries of Old Town, some of them boast a more fashionable design sensibility, more obviously market-tested flavors, a greater air of zeitgeist significance. But look at the walls; are they decorated per instructions from the chain's corporate HQ? Regard the mien of the staff; do they display the bouncy esprit de corps described above or the grim jaw-set of hourly wage slaves? No matter how much money and resources are allocated to make a business like this fit into a community, there's no substitute for earnestly getting to know and embracing that community.

As an entrepreneur, I'm constantly humbled by my favorite fro-yo spot. And as much as I learn every day from our cutting-edge clients in advertising, entertainment and new media, I take 21C's lessons to heart. If a client calls at noon and says he needs something by 4:00, we'll do whatever it takes to make it happen. If she needs five tagline alternatives, we'll give her 15. That fourth (or fifth or sixth) round of changes, the one we'd ordinarily bill you for? It's on us.

Moreover, with this newsletter, we're building our own community; some of our colleagues are doing likewise with blogs and events. How about you? Do you have a creative idea for enhancing customer service? Are you connecting with your constituency in a way we should emulate? What business lessons might you be learning from your local establishments? Serve 'em up, folks: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .