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Domino’s Pizza: Be Inspired By Your Harshest Critics

We all know that Domino’s Pizza isn’t exactly a New York slice. But when Domino’s finally realized just how many people hate their product, they did something drastic about it. Watch the video below.

Whatever you think about Domino’s Pizza, whatever you feel about the brand, you have to admit one thing: it takes a lot of guts to expose your shortcomings to the world. While the cynic in me sees their Pizza Turnaround “documentary” for what it is — a marketing campaign — there are still many customer experience lessons to learn from their story.

Remember your roots

Patrick Doyle, president of Domino’s Pizza, walks us through the history of the company, from its modest beginnings in Ypsilanti, MI, just outside of Ann Arbor.

“Two brothers had a great idea. They said they wanted to get it delivered within 30 minutes — and that was something that no one said could be done.”

That was their vision. Remembering who started the company and why helps you to focus on the problem you’re trying to solve. It’s your purpose for being. As you start to grow you can lose sight of your larger goal; the day-to-day becomes more about running the business and less about the initial ambition. But taking a step back can create renewed perspective and help you change your course.

Solicit customer feedback, and listen

“You can either use negative comments to get you down, or you can use them to excite you and energize your process.”

No one enjoys being criticized. It hurts, but the pain has a purpose. It’s growing pains, really. When the going gets tough, it’s wonderful to be surrounded by people who encourage us and support our endeavors — but are they really the people who force us to be better?

It’s crucial that we be open to all sorts of feedback, positive and negative. The positive helps you to know what to keep in place, and the negative helps you identify what to move forward. Actively soliciting feedback keeps you in a state of momentum, without which you’ll never get where you’re trying to go.

This isn’t just about asking for help; we need to listen to what is said. It requires paying attention, having humility, and believing that there is value in what another person has to offer you. You can see the Domino’s employees sitting around the conference table watching the videos of their focus groups. “This is hard to watch,” they say, but they’re doing it anyway.

Accept the feedback as true

You might not initially agree with everything that’s said. “When you first hear it, it’s shocking.” These people didn’t think that they were putting out cardboard with ketchup on it. They thought their product was fine. But now they’re admitting that they were wrong.

I hear what folks are saying about our stuff.” They’re repeating it back to us. They’ve internalized it. They printed out the comments and pasted them on the wall for everyone to see. To serve as a reminder for what people really think of them.

“Most companies hide the criticism that they’re getting, and we actually faced it head on.” You have to believe that the feedback is true in order to make any real use out of it. It’s not enough to listen and then dismiss it all as inaccurate, a fluke, a misunderstanding. The truth becomes the new baseline.

Create a culture of change

More than your opinion needs to change. Your whole approach to your product needs to change in order for you to get better. That means creating a “culture of change” within your organization. This isn’t just about adjusting a few people’s job descriptions; it’s a new philosophy that the whole company has to believe in. It’s a way of life. New principles, new processes, new thinking.

“We listened to our consumers and they want us to be better, and we want them to be happier. We want people to love our pizza.”

The new goal that Domino’s had to adopt was to make people love their pizza. That wasn’t their previous goal. If I had to guess, they were probably focused on using inexpensive ingredients and finding ways to make and deliver the pizza faster. The emphasis had been on efficiency instead of enjoyment. That kind of shift requires a whole new set of priorities from top to bottom. It’s about coming into work one day and doing everything differently.

Pay closer attention to the ingredients

“We had our best chefs working hard to find the best combination, looking at 10 crust types, 15 sauces, dozens of cheeses.”

What are the ingredients that compose your product? You need to reconsider every single one, not just the ones you think are the cause of the problem. Maybe one ingredient is wrong, maybe they’re all wrong. Maybe just the way you’re putting them together is wrong.

Cast a wide net and be willing to try anything. Pay attention to how they interact. Care about quality. Use all of your senses to determine what is best. Taste test! Try them out separately, together. Let other people test them. Focus on one piece at a time, and also on the whole. Micro, macro.

The Domino’s brand hasn’t historically evoked quality, it evokes expedience, convenience. Chances are their chefs hadn’t been keeping up on the latest research on cheese, sauce and bread. They probably had to do a lot of learning in a short period of time. They gained an appreciation for the ingredients.

“You can’t just add a little salt or add a little something to the recipe. We basically had to start over with a new recipe….We changed everything: the crust, the sauce, the cheese. And now it tastes better.”

They threw away a recipe that the company had been using for almost 50 years! They let go of what they thought they knew in favor of what they learned. That takes a lot of courage, and a lot of faith. But they knew it was the only way to make it good again.

Work tirelessly to improve

“And they were working day and night and weekends to get it done.”

This isn’t going to be easy. You’re going to have to work longer and harder than you have been, possibly than you ever have before — but you’ll be enjoying it. It won’t feel like work. It will feel like progress, like invention. When you have the end goal in mind, the fatigue fades away because you know how important your mission is, and why you’re doing it.

It can feel like the iterations are endless. This change for Domino’s didn’t happen overnight, and they had to throw away a lot of bad pizzas before they got to some good ones, and then they had to throw away some good ones until they got to some great ones. Just when you think it’s right, you find another flaw, and you have to start over, make another change.

And then…

When it’s right, you’ll just know it

“She put this in front of me and I said, ‘Dang, this is the real deal.’”

The lead chef had seen a million pizzas go across his counter, and yet when the one came along, he immediately recognized it.

There’s a lot of science and a lot of experimentation, but when it all comes together in the right way, you can feel it in your gut.

Complete the feedback loop

“We’re gonna bring her the new pizza, see how she likes it.”

They felt it was right, but it didn’t matter unless it pleased their harshest critics. The was one woman in particular that kept them motivated. In the focus groups, she was honest and she was tough. But mostly she was just disappointed. It was obvious how much she cared. So when the Domino’s team finally had something they were proud of, they wanted to share it with the person whose opinion mattered most.

Better than just doing taste tests with another set of prospective customers, they went back out to the people who had initially participated. It’s worth underscoring the importance of this because it goes beyond the typical practice of “usability testing” so to speak. They needed to find out more than whether their new pizza was well liked; they needed to determine if it overcame the original complaints, and that meant going to the complainers.

The chefs hand delivered it themselves. They were ready to face reviews firsthand, and there was no guarantee that they would be positive.

The first video ends with them showing up at Adrianne’s house, with a teaser of more to come. More spots have been running on TV lately, showing people’s reactions.

At the Door of Our Harshest Critics, dated December 2009:

Watching this actually gave me chills. It’s hard to know whether it’s all real or if these people are paid; how could we really know? I believe it’s real, and I believe really they impressed the people who previously thought the worst of them.

Immediately after I finished watching the second video (20 minutes ago), I went out and got myself a slice of Domino’s pizza (I called first to make sure they were serving the new pizza — they said they switched over last month).

The verdict

It’s good!

I’m a particularly tough sell because I was born and raised in New York City, and pizza was my second word after taxi (after ma and da, of course). Truly nothing can compare to a New York slice, but the new Domino’s Pizza is actually pretty tasty. The crust has some nice herbs in it, and the sauce definitely has a kick. It’s not too oily, not at all rubbery or cardboard-like.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had Domino’s before, but I had my fair share of chain restaurant pizza in college, like Pizza Hut and Papa John’s. From what I can remember, this is way better.

In the last frames of the video, Domino’s says: “Special thanks to our loyal fans. Inspired by our harshest critics.” Inspiration is a stimulus, it awakes our imagination and helps us find our vision. Mentors and heroes can only bring us so far. It’s how we react to our critics that demonstrates our passion and makes us stronger. Even when it’s really hard to admit that they’re right.

Just remember: success is the best revenge.


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  • http://twitter.com/dszuc Daniel Szuc

    Excellent post and especially like being open to criticism :)

  • http://www.texburgher.com texburgher

    Whitney, Dominoes ought to be paying you something for what a spirited defense you've given of their integrity as a company and the resulting recent product upgrade.

    Looking at their ads, I'm hard-pressed not to respond cynically. But campaigns like this are also what companies like the one I work for do for companies like Dominoes when there's a genuine story to be uncovered. I've been on the discovering end as a UXer enough times to know that cynicism is crusty, whereas new truths are dynamic. Articulating them and supplanting old stereotypes with new truths is difficult business. Doing so without dismantling a brand is even trickier.

    You're absolutely right about the virtue of all the points made in these videos. As designers, we should be so open to the upending of world order in pursuit of improvement. That it took Dominoes 20 years to clean out the wax from its corporate ears isn't the point. The point is that its final willingness to abandon that to which they're attached may end up being its salvation.

    I can't take anyone's word for whether or not the new pizza's better than the old. Taste is like that. But after reading your post here, I'm willing – for the first time in 15 years – to bother with a pizza from Dominoes. And know knows- maybe it'll be new love.

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  • michaellis

    Awesome post! I blogged about Domino's last week and they responded within 5 minutes of my post. I love that they are listening and I love how they have embraced social media.

    There's a handful of companies out there that really understand how to use social media and Domino's is one of them.

    I think an interesting blog post would be to do a landscape of companies that are using social media and graph which ones are 'owning' social media. I think there's 3 spots on the graph:

    1 – having a social media presence
    2 – listening, talking and engaging fans through social media
    3 – embracing social media as a tool

    your thoughts???

  • BillyCasarez

    Many such companies forget about their humble beginning and about the fact that the customer's satisfaction should be a priority for them. Although a marketing trick, admitting that they have lost sight of what is really important, the customer, and taking a step back in time to get in touch again with the initial goals is something most companies don't ever do.
    _____________________
    Manchester pizza manager

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