National news, Twitter and YouTube are loaded with examples of customer service gone wrong. While there are lessons to learn from service breakdowns, there’s even more value in following leaders who share a consistent set of guiding principles for “getting service right.” Harry D. Cohen and his wife Jan Cohen excel at leadership for customer service excellence.

The Cohens own the Black Pearl Restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The reasons this upscale seafood and martini bar is successful go far beyond the delicious food and quality customer experience. They stem from a clear and consistent approach to leadership. It’s simple enough that any company can adapt it, and yet so simple that it’s easy to overlook.


Harry invited me to have dinner at The Black Pearl to discuss his approach to achieving high profitability, engaged employees and customer retention. Basically, they follow a set of principles like being a good listener, showing compassion, earning trust, and using kindness in all situations. In addition to the restaurant, Harry owns a management consulting practice, offers executive coaching, and has earned a PhD in psychology.

Turns out, The Black Pearl is not simply a restaurant, it’s a place where Harry puts into practice what he’s been teaching other businesses to do for years.


I first heard about Harry D. Cohen from a client who sent me a link to Harry’s must-watch TEDx Talk on positive leadership. Harry explained that in nature, there is what’s called a Heleotropic Effect – a tendency to move towards energy that is life sustaining, and away from what is life depleting. A plant’s leaves lean toward the sun. Though, when you pour salt water in the soil, the plants roots contract away from the salt.

It’s a great analogy for leadership. People who take a positive approach to leading and serving customers make people feel great. While, those who act “salty” – being negative, indifferent or self-involved – cause people to pull away and retreat.


What would your employees say about working at your organization? Would they rave about their coworkers and leadership? Roll their eyes? Or something in between? Are they happy with the support and training they receive? It’s easy for a leader to talk about creating positive experiences for their staff and customers, but putting it into practice takes action.

Harry was confident in his team’s happiness, so he let me to talk with some of his employees. The woman who greeted me when I arrived had only been with the company for a couple of weeks. “Everyone has been so welcoming and supportive,” she told me. As she talked about her position, her coworkers and her training, it wasn’t so much her words but her “being” that I was paying attention to.  Like the difference between a fake and a real smile, you can just tell when someone is genuinely happy with their work environment.


I also spoke with a server who had been with The Black Pearl for an extended period of time. Have you noticed that in negative workplace environments, long time employees tend to slip into resignation or robotic behavior? Not this server. He was energized, serving our table with care and charisma. When I asked him about working at The Black Pearl, his eyes lit up. He was a great example of what happens when your leader is a positive energizing manager. It’s contagious! Leadership concepts – like teamwork, respect, forgiveness when things go wrong, and compassionate guidance when it’s needed – are not just great in theory. They work when they’re put into practice every day.


Leaders sometimes respond to the pressures of responsibility with hostility, especially when employees make mistakes that cause customers to complain. Having strong self-awareness makes it easier to remain calm under pressure and stay true to the values of your organization. It doesn’t just happen. Self-awareness and resilience need to be developed and become part of a consistent daily practice.

I recognized strong self-awareness in Harry. The principles he leads with – authenticity, follow-through and commitment to your team – are simple, though using them consistently takes awareness and focus.

I asked Harry, “Have you done a lot of personal development work?”  He gave a resounding, “Yes!”  Continuous improvement isn’t just a great idea, it’s the way things are done for those who excel with customer service.


To keep a business fresh, enticing and relevant over time means being receptive to new ideas and ways of serving customers. Harry and Jan have a friend who was starting a business growing micro greens. The Cohens were immediately interested. Micro greens are a flavorful nutrient-packed, visually pleasing power food – perfect for health conscious consumers and those who want something that tastes as good as it looks.

They invited their friend to use the lower level of the restaurant to grow microgreens. It took off! They now serve microgreen salads and sell the product to other local businesses. Harry took me on a tour of the lower level to see rows and rows of lit beds filled with luscious inch-long sprouting greens. They’re now exploring the idea of franchising the micro greens endeavor.

Listening is a critical skill to successful customer service. Listening to colleagues, customers, and trends in the market take customer experiences to greater heights.


In addition to the restaurant, Harry has a new book in the works based on his TEDx Talk. His first book, “Secrets of the Obvious,” challenges the assumption that personal improvement is an overly complex process that is difficult and challenging. A visit to The Black Pearl offers a shining example of how simple it can be. (Though we’d never imply it’s without effort!)

The best piece of advice I heard from Harry D. Cohen is this:  “Be the sun, not the salt. Leave an afterglow not an aftertaste.”


What about you? What practices have you put in place to create a positive workplace that that offers exceptional  customer service?


Written by Marilyn Suttle, conference speaker, trainer, and bestselling author who works with organizations to ensure a strong customer focus and successful leadership teams. Reach out to Marilyn by email at:  

Resources to support your service excellence:

Who’s Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan by bestselling authors Marilyn Suttle and Lori Jo Vest is known as the business bible – a blueprint for client service success.

Taming Gladys! The Busy Leader’s Guide to Creating Fierce Customer Loyalty is filled with activities you can do with your staff to keep customer loyalty strong.

The Customer Service Roadmap is an in-house customer service training program designed for employees who have front line customer contact — face to face, telephone, email, chat, forums, etc.  Instead of a one-time training event, we offer a series of short, bite-sized courses focused on developing 7 core customer service skills.

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