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When faced with big challenges, knowing how to frame the real problem by asking the right question is the key to success.

Viewpoint: Questions restaurant operators should ask themselves to move forward into a post-pandemic world

Knowing what to ask and how to ask it can both clarify the real issues and expose hidden opportunities and obstacles

As a result of all the challenges we faced in 2020, many foodservice operators are cautiously optimistic about success in the near-term and long-term. The imprudent ones are putting their hopes on “normal” returning. Wiser operators are not grasping for normal, but instead reaching for better. And the smartest ones of all know they don’t have all the answers. But they’ve learned to start asking the right questions.

When faced with big challenges, knowing how to frame the real problem by asking the right question is the key to success.  Take Marty Cooper for instance. Way back in 1972, the 45 year-old Motorola engineer was sitting in a concept meeting with a team tasked with developing the first commercially-viable cellphone. His colleagues were focused on creating a “portable” phone that was still tethered to a base receiver linked to the copper telephone hard line in the wall.  (To be fair, in 1972, the very notion of a portable phone tethered to a landline base was considered radical.) Cooper brought the discussion to a dead halt by asking a question that changed the face and course of modern technology and communications: “When we make a phone call, why do we have to call a place?” he asked. “People want to talk to other people, not a house, or an office, or a car.” This query propelled the team to think in a completely different direction — a truly mobile phone — which lead to the infamous DynaTac “brick” phone prototype that weighed a whopping 30 ounces, required a companion briefcase battery, and cost $3500 when it became commercially available in 1983. Today the smartphone you hold in your hand is living testament to how powerful the right question can be.

Over 60 years ago, Dick and Maurice “Mac” McDonald were struggling with the design for their new restaurant, trying to fit the optimal number of dining room tables and chairs into their limited space and budget. The story goes that they drew and re-drew design options with chalk on a tennis court until Mac asked his brother a simple question: “What if we got rid of the dining room and just had a walk-up window for ordering?” Then some twenty years later, one of Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s franchisees reportedly asked another good question: “What if the customer didn’t have to get out of their car at all?” And so the drive-thru window was born.

Knowing what to ask and how to ask it can both clarify the real issues and expose hidden opportunities and obstacles. Asking questions allows managers to work more efficiently, improve team member performance, serve better, and teaches them how to think instead of simply telling what to do. For instance, you could tell your managers: “We want to raise sales 10% in the next quarter” or instead you could ask them “What are the three things we can do each shift that would raise our sales 10% in the next quarter?” Which directive is likely to garner the better buy-in and results? The skill of artful questioning is critical in a post-pandemic digital world that is drowning in information and starving for knowledge. None of us is a smart as all of us.

To be honest, the skill of the artful question is harder to pick up than a watermelon seed on a linoleum floor. Smart questioning requires patience, thoughtfulness, and reflection, three skills in short supply in this faster-harder-smarter-more world we live and work in. And it starts by learning to ask the right question, not just a question. To spur better questioning skills in you and your team, consider the following smart questions to ask, by topic:

Repeat business. Most systems and process experts agree that the critical metric for gauging customer satisfaction starts with the question: “Will you come back, and would you recommend our restaurant to your friends?” The customer’s response to this question is all that matters in the long run. You either did or didn’t create a valuable experience that generates repeat visits.

Performance and execution. Don’t ask, “How can we get better?” Instead ask, “If every other part of our business remained at its current level of performance, what’s the one area where improvement or change would have the greatest impact?”

Hiring. Don’t ask, “What position do we have open?” Aim higher and redefine new hire expectations by asking instead: “How well do I want the job done?” The answer provides clarity on who should be hired based on personality, experience or current talent or training gaps.

Process. Improving systems can be achieved via six questions: “Why do we do it this way? Why do we do it all? What if we did it another way? If our restaurant was ideal, what would it look like? How would we know when we got there? What kind of training, talent or leadership exactly is necessary to get us to that level?

Goals.  Always clarify and verify next steps after setting performance goals with your managers. Ask: “What exactly has to be done? What obstacles will you likely encounter? Where do you need more help from me? Where do you need less help from me? How can we best help our team succeed?”  

Asking the right question usually results in uncovering the right answer or answers, but that’s just the first step. Knowing what to do must be paired with how to get it done. Progress is measured by execution. “How can we break this goal down into daily application each shift?”

In 1953 Albert Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first fifty-five minutes determining the right question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Not saying Einstein is correct but anyone whose very name is synonymous with genius always gets my attention. Learning to ask the right questions enhances today’s work and tomorrow’s future for everyone on your team. Am I right?

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership conferences worldwide. He’s the author of Multiunit Leadership and Fundamentals. You can learn more at or For daily inspiration, join his 400,000 social media followers on LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter @Sullivision. 

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