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Gauging Engagement | by Christopher Wolf

Your Crew Is Your Brand
Think of your crew training as a marketing project and your brand experience will benefit.
Christopher Wolf

When consumers choose a restaurant, they expect a seamless integration of product, service, and atmosphere that ties back to the restaurant’s brand image. If training programs are downsized or focused on minimal operational tasks then the service aspect of the experience falls short in meeting the customers’ expectations and ultimately undermines a restaurant’s marketing investments.

In today’s environment, where only the strongest brands survive, this trend in short-changing training efforts is creating a growing competitive opportunity to reorient managers and employees with the brand experience. Not only can this orientation enhance the experience for the customer but it also inspires employees when their role can be defined by something more than operating cash registers, fryers, and fountain machines.

What’s Missing Unfortunately, front-line workers typically aren’t screened or equipped to be the brand ambassadors their customers expect them to be. Bob Phibbs, “the Retail Doctor,” says that much of what is causing quick serves to struggle in this environment has to do with their failure to recognize the importance that customer service plays in fulfilling the brand promise at the point of sale: “No one wants the experience that’s currently being delivered. You get plastic people meeting customers at the point of contact when you want to be memorable to them. You’ve got to go back to the things that made most of these brands great.”

The core issue, Phibbs says, concerns what employees are taught to focus on. He says that all too often, “we give people a checklist to go over like bathroom schedules. Clean this. We don’t teach them how to talk to people.” Kevin Higar, a senior research manager at Technomic, agrees. “If the employer is not putting the training out there, about the menu items, or what the employees should do when they interact with the customer, [customers] are going to leave if they don’t feel comfortable,” he says. “It’s the employees’ job to make the customer happy. So get them invested.”

What’s Needed Higar says the most successful restaurant concepts are those that look at the brand experience from the customer’s perspective. He tells me Technomic has a “winning restaurant formula,” which includes a combination of a solid coverage of service and food as well as hospitality and lifestyle integration. According to him, concepts “win” when their crew “embodies what the concept is and delivers that to the customer on every visit.”

Yet the hiring and training practices of many restaurants today don’t emphasize the brand experience. Alex Frankel, author of the book Punching In, spent two years researching the employment industry by working for a series of marquee retailers including Starbucks, The Gap, Whole Foods, and Apple. He says he was surprised by the lack of customer-oriented instruction in the training programs of the six companies he worked for: “I thought there’d be more about what to do when you have an unhappy customer.”

We give people a checklist to go over like bathroom schedules. Clean this. We don’t teach them how to talk to people.”

He says he understands training can be a challenge. “These quick-service restaurants have so much turnover of employees,” he says. “New people throw things into disarray, but it’s key for these companies to master the training process. They [have to] see training as a constant part of the work environment.”

Who’s Working It The brand-employee connection does exist in the industry even if it’s not a prevalent concept. Tony Pace, chief marketing officer for Subway, sees the employees behind the counter as the single most important element in fulfilling the brand promise. “We call our front-line guys and gals ‘sandwich artists’—we obviously want them to feel special about what they do, but the consumer has ultimate power in terms of what they want,” he says. “The degree of interaction in the prep of the food is integral to our concept.”

Subway’s integration of brand, operations, and employees has elevated the consumer’s experience at the chain above that of many traditional quick-service operations, putting it ahead of the pack and propelling its rapid expansion in the past couple of years.

Starbucks, of course, was one of the first companies to connect employee engagement with brand building, incorporating titles like “partner” and special training programs for baristas that affected both employee and customer impressions. According to Frankel, “What makes Starbucks a different place than another coffee shop is the company’s values and also the ways in which employees might be able to take things they learned [in their training] and become part of the culture through being involved in espousing those values.”

At the end of the day, Higar says, the success or failure of a restaurant’s marketing efforts can hinge upon employee attitudes toward the consumers and satisfying their needs. “As the customer, I want to really feel like the people are happy I’m there, they’re on my side,” he says. “When the customer feels that, it really starts to develop brand loyalty.”

As director of strategic innovation for The Turover Straus Group, Christopher Wolf serves a wide range of manufacturing and retail-based clients seeking strategic and culinary innovations for consumers and the food industry.