Surprise! It’s Not The Customer Who Comes First, It’s The Employees.


Very often I hear of people not feeling welcome in the orchestral world. Some people can feel too intimidated to even come to an orchestral concert, and those who do go to a concert can find their experience to be distancing or off-putting. Orchestras mostly know this but don’t really know how to effectively combat it. Some orchestras try to go the full opposite of what they perceive as offering an anti-elitism experience but miss the mark with sincerity in their singular goal: the pursuit of gaining butts in seats.

What needs to happen is for everyone to pause, read Danny Meyer’s book, Setting The Table, and find a refreshed and inspired way of inviting (and keeping) people to the concert halls.

Danny Meyer, a New York City restaurateur and the Chief Executive Officer of the Union Square Hospitality Group, has decades of practice behind his philosophy of what it means to offer hospitality. His restaurants consistently succeed in a welcoming and sincere way.

Starting into Danny Meyer’s book, the reader quickly realizes that Danny’s passion for the restaurant business is based off a simple principle that how you treat people, guests, and employees sets a tone of success.

I know what you are probably thinking: the restaurant business is nothing like the orchestral business. But the similarities are striking; both offer special experience, both can be considered luxury extras, both want and need repeat business.

The book is a virtual masterclass in how to treat people. Here are some of Danny’s points that every orchestra leader ought to digest:

  1. Understanding the distinction between service and hospitality has been at the foundation of our success. Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel. Service is a monologue—we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response. It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top.
  2. Shared ownership develops when guests talk about a restaurant as if it’s theirs. They can’t wait to share it with friends, and what they’re really sharing, beyond the culinary experience, is the experience of feeling important and loved. That sense of affiliation builds trust and a sense of being accepted and appreciated, invariably leading to repeat business, a necessity for any company’s long-term survival
  3. ABCD- Always Be Connecting Dots: Dots are information. The more information you collect, the more frequently you can make meaningful connections that can make other people feel good and give you an edge in business. Using whatever information I’ve collected to gather guests together in a spirit of shared experience is what I call connecting the dots. If I don’t turn over the rocks, I won’t see the dots. If I don’t collect the dots, I can’t connect the dots. If I don’t know that someone works, say, for a magazine whose managing editor I happen to know, I’ve lost a chance to make a meaningful connection that could enhance our relationship with the guest and the guest’s relationship with us. The information is there. You just have to choose to look.
  4. My greatest joy comes not from going it alone, but from leading an ensemble. Hospitality is a team sport.

In the book, the chapter about a term Danny coined, The Virtuous Cycle of Enlightened Hospitality, is one of the most thought-provoking things I have read recently.

In a nutshell, Danny breaks down the five primary stakeholders in the restaurant business. They are, in order of importance:

  1. Employees
  2. Guests
  3. Community
  4. Suppliers
  5. Investors

It was a surprise to see Employees were listed first but reading more into this philosophy it was reiterated that this is a cycle. Beginning this hospitality cycle absolutely must start with the employees. Here’s what Danny says:

“The interests of our own employees must be placed directly ahead of those of our guests because the only way we can consistently earn raves, win repeat business, and develop bonds of loyalty with our guests is first to ensure that our own team members feel jazzed about coming to work…….I place the interests of our investors fifth, but not because I don’t want to earn a lot of money. On the contrary, I staunchly believe that standing conventional business priorities on their head ultimately leads to great, more enduring financial success.”

There are a lot of metaphors between serving food and serving music. My hope is that the orchestras out there take time to look at successful restauranteurs’ methods of customer service. As Danny said so well: “Good food is not enough. Good location is not enough. Good service, training, branding, leadership, adaptability, and luck are not enough. Survival depends on putting all of it together night after night. If you fail, you disappear.”

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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2 thoughts on “Surprise! It’s Not The Customer Who Comes First, It’s The Employees.”

    • Thanks for your comment, Larry, I’m really glad you thought the post was nice.

      Everyone who works with an orchestra and gets a paycheck is an employee. I highly recommend getting this book, reading it, and absorbing the message Danny Meyer has to offer, because I merely touched the surface of his philosophy and passion. I also recommend reading the last two sentences of my blog again as that ought to clarify the bigger picture….it’s not an Us or Them kind of conversation.


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