Skip links

Thriving in the Tough Times: Focus, Focus, Focus on the Customer

This is Part 6 in a series called “Thriving in the Tough Times.” Read Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Continuing series on my approach to surviving and thriving in a downturn:

  • Double down on quality
  • Lead by example
  • Serve our people
  • Focus, focus, focus on the customer
  • And remember why we got into this business

Thriving in the Tough Times: Focus, Focus, Focus on the Customer

I was in the shop and present basically open to close, 7 days a week for the first couple years.

I was so present, that I remember one time having a couple days off and driving to my cabin in Wisconsin. It was 552 miles from Charleston, Illinois. When I arrived at my cabin, I called the store to check on them. The manager told me the next shift manager quit. I was literally at my cabin 5 minutes and I turned around, left and drove back to Charleston to run the store, I lost a guy.

What does this have to do with customer service? It is customer service. Had I not driven back, nobody would have been there to run the store, so I had to run the store. This would provide my customers with the service they had come to expect from JJ’s. I wasn’t going to let anyone, or anything, come between myself and my customer.

This was one example, here are some more:

I set the tone in my sub shops that was a culture of, call me anytime there is an obstacle, or if a customer treats you poorly or you just need help. What I learned about this is that in the beginning when I told my guys to call me when they needed help, and they woke me up at 1:00am with a call, my initial reaction was to yell or react negatively to being woken up. The more I reacted negatively, the less they called. Why? Because, I said it, but didn’t mean it and my reaction showed it, so they called less, and problems arose. I failed my people.

As I learned to lead, as I learned to take the tougher tasks, and as I learned to set my guys up for success, my 2:00am phone calls changed dramatically. I started to answer the phone with, “thanks for calling what can I do for you”? No matter what it was I would head straight into the store and help them. Things like running out of bread, I would bake, running out of prep, I would prep, short staffed, I would jump on the line, short a delivery driver, I would deliver. No matter what the customer threat was I embraced it as an opportunity to serve. As you recall when I didn’t know how to be a leader all my guys quit. I wasn’t going to allow that to happen ever again.

It got to the point that when they would call, and I would rush in to help, I would just stay and help finish the evening business. I would prep whatever needed to be prepped for the next day, I would clean the slicer (a very tedious time-consuming task), and then sweep and mop for my manager while they counted the cash and prepared the bank deposit. We would leave the shop together.

What does this have to do with customer service? I served my manager and helped remove the obstacles that were keeping my customer from being served. I felt the pinch and the pain, but the customer did not. Even more powerful was the manager’s seeing how I reacted at 2:00am when I got the call. I came in and served, it didn’t matter how late it was or how shitty the task was, I came in and rocked it. I got better at it and did it more often, I would thank the manager for calling me and waking me up. It was an opportunity to serve. The more opportunities I got to serve, the better my customers got served. Even bigger was the example I was setting for my managers, they were shown what leadership looks like, how it acted in tough situations, what to do when a teammate is in distress. So, guess what they did? They did exactly what I did. When their assistant managers would call them, they would come in and serve. The trickle-down effect was the most shocking to me. The more I did the more they did it. It created a culture of make it happen no matter what.

I used to think great employees were great because you didn’t have to tell them what to do. In this business the opposite is true. The great employees do exactly what you tell them to do and they add rocket fuel to it if they are incentivized right and have great leadership.

Ultimately this results in customer service that today is only received at chains like Chick-fil-a or Chipotle, two brands I admire a lot today (besides JJ’s of course).

When the team is served the customer is served, period. If you want to win, it only works when you’re willing to remove the obstacles yourself. It simply doesn’t work by pointing fingers or yelling at someone. That’s just lame!!

Now let’s talk about customer service and focusing on the customer.

In the beginning when a customer would complain about a mistake, I took it personally. Someone would order a Turkey Tom and I would make a Turkey Tom. They would get the Turkey Tom and bring it back and tell me I made the wrong sandwich, they wanted ham and cheese. I used to fight the battle and say no you did not.

I learned that was a huge waste of negative energy and negative vibes. I learned over time, when in doubt give it out. So, I changed my attitude and started just taking the sub back and redoing it. When I started this policy, I would make the customer give me back the old sub and I would exchange for a new sub. Then that became a shit show, so I just started saying, yes is the answer, what can I do for you?

It was that answer that became the foundation for the customer is always right. Even when I knew they were wrong, I didn’t like the negative vibes, so I just made the customer happy and gave them what they wanted.

The summary of the story is this: Step one, set your teammates up with enough prep, enough leadership, enough tools in their toolbox to eliminate as many fuck ups as possible. Then, have an attitude of gratitude when the teammates call you while you’re sleeping, on vacation or whatever. Then, when a customer has a complaint have an attitude of gratitude and do all you can to go above and beyond. The cost to replace a lost customer is gigantic. Once you make a customer feel unimportant it’s so hard to bring them back. This is identical to an employee you lose trust with. Once they are gone, they are gone.

Impeccable customer service starts with serving the team and then serving the customers with whatever the heck they need. Even if they are wrong, sometimes we have bad days. In that case, to bring a ray of sunshine, or some positivity to someone’s soul even if it’s a sandwich or an encounter that we can make positive, we are sending a positive message to the customer, to the employees and to the community.

When in doubt give it out, yes is the answer, what is the question and serve your people. If you can do this, you will run circles around your competition.

We are in the hard work business, and remember, hard work is hard work. The good news is that’s all you have to do. This culture at JJ’s is an upside-down pyramid. I serve the people that serve the sandwiches, they don’t serve me.

Meetings longer then 30 minutes in this industry makes leadership feel important but drives the hardcore operators nuts. That’s a story for another day.

I just want you to know, that being a leader and succeeding and being effective and making it happen isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s damn hard to be successful. I graduated second to last in my class and have no formal education. I learned all this stuff by getting my ass handed to me over and over. I made change, I took the bull by the horns and changed my ways and it worked. You can too if you want to.

Good luck,


Jimmy John Liautaud - Official Signature

Any questions you may have reach out to me at