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Myths do staff a disservice

Myths do staff a disservice

Separating fact from fiction helps your employees take care of customers

Whenever company leaders grow concerned about rising customer complaints, dipping same-store sales or escalating employee turnover, they often exhibit similar reflexive behavior. They think back to when they worked at the unit level and try to get a sense of what’s different — or missing — between then and now. Inevitably, an eerily similar “Eureka” moment arrives. A meeting is scheduled, directors are summoned, and the CEO issues forth this sober directive: “Fundamentals — that’s what we’ve forgotten; we need to get back to the basics!” The group nods in unison, shares a collective, “harrumph,” and it’s solemnly sworn: “Fundamentals, yes! Back to fundamentals!”

Problem is that no one in that meeting came to any detailed consensus about which “fundamentals” exactly we’re talking about, whether the guest truly values them, or how we know they’ll correct drooping same-store sales or slumping service scores. It’s presumed that the training department and unit managers will figure those details out, along with what to teach, what to measure and by when it gets done. At first blush, the logic seems sound; after all, every sports team “works on” the fundamentals in practice, right? But further examination unravels the rationale. If fundamentals are key, why does every sports team not win every game? Is it that some “fundamentals” are sounder than others? Are we practicing wrong? Do “fundamentals,” in fact, change when the guest does? Or is it execution that plays the bigger role in success? 

The foodservice and movie industries share a common trait: our core assets, customers, walk out the door every single day. Given that reality, it makes more sense that “the fundamentals” should be defined by the customer, not a CEO mistaking nostalgia for strategy. Products, processes and performance will change in direct proportion to how the customer changes. For instance, look at how quickly and radically social media and mobile phones have redefined foodservice marketing. And since most of us agree that the foodservice customer has changed in the past five years, it logically follows that the meaning of customer service has changed, too. So what are the “new” fundamentals relative to service delivery? That’s a big question and one that the space this column resides in cannot possibly accommodate. But we can address seven common myths that may inhibit your focus on the fundamentals of service. 

Customers like being served. Service is usually perceived as an act of transfer; something you “do” to or for a customer. But I’m convinced that the best service is not what you do, but what you don’t do to a customer. Don’t make them wait, don’t mess up their order, don’t make them get out of their seat or their car to do some part of your job that was overlooked. The core fundamental of better service today is eliminating dissatisfaction. Good service means never having to ask for anything. Customers today define good service as “the absence of complaints.” The key to a better customer experience? Get it right the first time and have a plan to fix it when you don’t. 

The customer comes first. For unit managers, our employees are our first market. Never treat a customer better than you do a team member. If you’re not serving the customer directly, you’d best be serving someone who is.

The customer is always right. No. The customer is usually right. Rather than assigning blame, focus first on hiring, developing and retaining a focused team that enjoys making customers happy. Happy customers buy more.

A satisfied customer is not enough. There’s a popular book titled “Customer Satisfaction is Meaningless, Customer Loyalty is Priceless.” I disagree with the former and agree with the latter. I’m sure the author’s point is that we should aim higher than “satisfaction,” but the fact is that habitually satisfied guests are extremely likely to be loyal.

Memorize the steps of service and you master the skill of service. My experience has shown that if you train only to a process, all thinking stops. Meeting or exceeding the different expectations of the variety of customers you serve is ultimately a thinking and adaptation skill, not a process of rote memorization. The best way to inspire better service is to share effective true stories about team members who demonstrated exceptional customer care. This is more effective than memorizing “The 10 Steps of Service.” 

Secret-shopper scores accurately measure service. Accurately measuring customer satisfaction by tallying mystery shopper scores or “comment cards” alone is like judging the quality of chili by counting the number of beans. When it comes to service, everything speaks. Measure all that matters. Same-store sales, customer traffic, COGS, and lower employee turnover are also key indicators of good service to consider as well. 

Service is what the customer-facing team does. Wrong. If you’re a manager or owner your customer is anyone who isn’t you.

Depending on your perspective, this list may be enlightening or just so much “myth information.” One thing’s for certain: service is our invisible product, and if you don’t examine the obstacles to better connecting to the customer and distinguishing yourself from the crowd, you’ll just be the crowd. 

Jim Sullivan is a popular speaker and consultant. You can get his free monthly leadership e-newsletter, downloads and product catalog at

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