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People-First Approach Makes for a Successful Business

Lucie Wong standing in the Bethesda Deli.

Lucie Wong manages the Bethesda Deli with a positive approach to customer service, team building, and leadership.

For Lucie Wong it is not just about putting customers first, as with many other well-managed businesses. Her philosophy is even broader and more generous than that — it's people first. While her customers naturally take high priority, so do her team members. Lucie has been serving meals at her thriving Bethesda Deli in the Bethesda Place complex for more than 17 years. She counts many Program Support Center (PSC) team members among her regulars.

For Lucie, it's all about creating a welcoming atmosphere at her café. In fact, if you visit Lucie's place more than two or three times, you'll be struck that this is no ordinary deli. For starters, she quickly knows your name and what you usually order. Don't be surprised if she asks you about your family, too. She's genuinely curious and enjoys getting to know people. This is a big part of the success of her business and what keeps people coming back for breakfast, lunch, coffee, and snacks.

Russell Robinson, Ed.D., Director, Organizational Development and Leadership, Federal Occupational Health, Program Support Center (PSC), recently interviewed Lucie to find out how she makes running a successful business look so easy — and to see what we can learn from her inspirational story.

What is customer service to you?

From her personal interactions as a business owner, Lucy knows 1,000 customers by name.

"To me, if I had to put it in one sentence, customer service is something I do to make my job easier because once I serve them better, then everything goes smoothly — and then my job is so much easier. Getting to know people is a big part of customer service for me.

As I say, I do like people, so customer service comes naturally to me. I like serving people and I like to make them feel welcome. I like to make them feel comfortable. To me, customer service is about caring and getting to know them, and even though it's like a small step just like calling them by their name, it helps them feel a lot more comfortable."

How do you remember what everybody orders?

Lucie's deep interest in people is enhanced by a photographic memory — which she comes by naturally. "The funniest thing is my whole family has photographic memories. I am the one with weaker skills out of the bunch. My mom has better memory than I do. My brother is even better than my mom. It's so hilarious. We're talking about a particular day in 1988, and then we're talking about the weather for that day.

"Most of my customers, once I get to know them and serve them in a friendly way, they all behave better — trust me. I wanted a little more respect and, at the same time, for this to be a fun place. Think about it: if you come down and you don't feel comfortable at my store, there are like five other stores right down the street. They can just go down there. I want them to come in and say, 'Hi,' and we joke with each other and just have fun — then they will feel comfortable to just come down and see me again."

She also fondly remembers Paul Durn, who we lost earlier this year. Paul was Lucie's customer for seven years and liked to order a BLT on multigrain toast with light mayo and black pepper. She even remembers that he was one of the very few people who always emphasized black pepper. "He was always smiling genuinely and very soft spoken in his native British accent. It broke my heart to find out that he had passed away because I saw him on the 13th on the way home."

What are the benefits and challenges of being a business owner?

"Dealing with people can be very tiring if you don't enjoy it, but each day I open up my mind, and then I try to listen, and I share my story. They share their story, too, so that way it's more fun, and then it doesn't feel like I'm draining myself to just serve them all day. I'd rather be happy than feel like, 'Oh, I'm here on my feet for 10 hours and I'm just here to serve them, and then just take the money from them.' That's not how I see it. That's why I think I can do it, and I feel like I'm looking forward to coming to work every morning.

"It's more fun — even though my day gets busy, I feel like I'm just seeing a hundred of my friends each day, because I know who they are; I know what they do. Like the other day, John [Moynihan, the editor of PSC eNews] wore a really nice trench coat. I complimented him and then I found out his mom has really good taste — she's the one who picked it out for him."

Lucie knows that these seemingly small and simple exchanges can make deeper connections.

What is your leadership philosophy and how did you get to it?

"I tell my staff pretty straightforward what my expectations are and then I try to give them a chance to prove themselves. At the same time, I actually show them what I do — and how hard I work at it. I'm not one of those bosses that says, 'Hey, I'll sit down and make all the phone calls, and you guys do the work.'"

Lucie has found that her interest in people and strong sense of customer service is also picked up by her team. "I think that's why they [my team] like to serve my customers because they see how I treat them, and how I know exactly what they want and what they like," she said.

"Even though I cannot eat lunch, I make sure they all take their breaks, and I take care of them throughout the day. Since it's a small business, it's really easy to be a family, so I do know their family and family situations, and things like that. I treat them like a family, which is good."

What's the benefit of that philosophy?

"The benefit of the philosophy is, the way I see it, I cannot do everything myself. My employees are the people who actually generate the revenue for me, so if they are happy, they will be here for a long time, and they will follow my rules and do things the way I want to do it — then my business will be successful.

"It's almost like it's their own business, so I give them a lot of freedom and then they don't have to act like I'm the boss, while I'm overseeing everything.

"Plus, if I'm not taking care of them and then they just quit every two months, then my business will struggle. You have to take care of people first. It's not only about the money, you know. You want to take care of people, then they will take care of me, and they'll take care of my business — so it's just a natural cycle."

Do you have a favorite customer experience story?

"We rescued a dog from the shelter and he was our first love — even before my daughter was born. He was 13 so we knew it was coming, but we were so sad when he died. In fact, after he died, my husband was so depressed that he called in sick and he did not go to work for a few days because he was literally crying for three days. But when you have your own business, that's not an option, so I came to work the next day. Of course, my eyes were all swollen and I was puffed up — and I couldn't stop crying."

Lucie received more than 20 sympathy cards, comforting her during her time of loss. "They treated me like I was part of their family — and as a friend. I am not just a lady who owns the deli." She even received flowers from several people and some customers donated to charity in memory of her dog.

Where did you get your education?

"I went to George Mason for my finance degree. Then I worked in Japan for two years. When I came back I worked for a nonprofit in Reston. Next, I worked at the Red Cross, and while I was working at the Red Cross, I was getting my master's at George Washington. I knew that once I had a baby, my life would change. My priorities when I was working for Red Cross and getting my master's degree were focused on getting higher, and higher, and higher. I knew this would change once I had a baby. Running the deli allows me to be home when my daughter gets back from school each day."

What motivates you?

"I have always been good at what I do — it didn't matter what it was. I bring this to my work at the deli, too — even though it's just a small business, I don't want to be an average person. That actually comes from my inner self. It really helps me to feel good at the end of the day."

Lucie is a shining example of how to make work fun and successful. There is much we can learn from her style of customer service, team building, and leadership. She starts with a people-first approach with personalized service targeted to each customer as an individual. She's genuinely curious about who people are and what needs they have.

She always takes a positive approach with her team, too. Under Lucie's business model, her team is the orchestra while she's the conductor. She allows them the autonomy to own their particular piece of the operation. She wants to be the best and gives her team the independence and motivation to do their best, too.

She also makes her job interesting personally — always thinking of ways to make it more positive, enjoyable, and meaningful. If she were a PSC employee, she surely would have been nominated for a BRUCIE since her approach addresses all the PSC values: partnership, curiosity, simplicity, impact, and passion.


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