“So, what business are you really in?”
When I pose this question during my franchise presentations, many answer in terms of their products. “We’re in the ice cream business,” or, “We sell pizza.” Invariably a more sophisticated owner chimes in with, “We’re in the people business,” making the point that it’s not just about the food, but about the people they’re serving.
This answer is better, but still not adequate. Lots of people say they’re in the “people business.” But what does that really mean?
Humans are distinguished by emotion. Unlike a network of computers, a marketplace of people is directly impacted by how those people feel about things. Because feelings impact behavior. They also impact performance.
Franchise Business Review recently brought me in to lead a discussion of franchise executives. When I asked where their franchisees are most challenged, all agreed they have more issues with their thoughts and feelings than with their knowledge and ability. They struggle most with their soft skills. They lack trust. They resist change. They make decisions based on fear rather than with data. These factors are much bigger obstacles than a lack of operational knowledge. The opposite is also true. The highest performing franchisees infuse solid operations with strong soft skills. That combination enables them to run the best locations. Most executives who work with franchisees would agree.
But when I attend their franchise conventions, what topics make up their conference agenda? New products and services. Marketing. The new POS platform. The spotlight always focuses on operations.
The “how-to’s” of a restaurant are critical. Restaurant operators need tactics and tools. They need to know how to market and sell and cook and clean. And they need to do these things better than the competition. That’s why it’s important to continuously improve recipes, processes, speed, and, of course, profitability. These are the hard skills of running a restaurant.
But restaurant operators need more, something deeper. They need soft skills. They need to be able to manage themselves. They must also be able to meet others’ soft needs — their (often unspoken) emotional necessities and desires. Because in a true people business, two parties don’t just transact; they interact. That interaction makes people feel a little better or a little worse — or a lot.
Every aspect of running a franchise business has a soft, human element. Here are three ways to tap into that humanity to help you get hard results.
1. Sell feelings
People businesses don’t just provide products and services. They elevate emotions. They deliver their offerings in a way that makes people feel good. Because what the customer gets matters less than how the customer feels. With every food order comes an underlying emotional desire. Groups of teenagers ordering ice cream aren’t just filling their stomachs. They’re probably also looking for fun. An office assistant with a large catering order probably also needs reliability, assurance, and stress relief. Customers won’t directly state their emotional longing, but they have one. Every restaurant, no matter how fancy, casual, or quick should offer a dining experience that meets these needs and elevates emotions.
Certainly speed, value, and order accuracy contribute to that. But all the small, nuanced things that give better restaurants their edge are what really makes an impression. That extra friendly barista who remembers your name and that you prefer almond milk, the server who never lets your glass go empty, that Chick-fil-A team member who always responds with “my pleasure” — these practices go beyond the value proposition. They exceed customers’ expectations. They make customers feel seen and appreciated, and not just as patrons but as people.
The trick is to keep these moments authentic and not robotic. The cashier who handed me my change, walked away, and said “Have a nice day” over her turned shoulder brought closure to our transaction, but didn’t make my day nicer. On another occasion I was inside a franchise hair salon waiting to get a cut. I stepped outside to take a phone call, and when I came back in, all of the stylists said in unison, “Hello, welcome!,” as if I hadn’t already been in the salon minutes earlier. You must be purposeful about selling feelings, and that means being present. In a people business, good feelings are what customers remember, talk about, and want to repeat. Serve their hearts as well as their stomachs.
2. Accommodate feelings (of employees)
Of course, you can’t get employees to sell feelings if you can’t get employees. Staffing is a huge challenge in today’s climate. And the challenge isn’t just finding workers. It’s understanding them. The way they think, the way they behave, their values and their expectations. At best it’s a workforce that’s mysterious. At worst, it’s one that’s infuriating. Every day I speak with business owners and managers who complain about entitlement, sensitivity, and a lack of loyalty.
I understand these feelings. The way I was brought up, I can’t imagine quitting a job by simply no longer showing up. (In those days, “ghosting” was when a spirt appeared — not when a person disappeared!) I would never call out after only working two shifts because I have to study for a test. I’ve managed employees like this and have felt the exasperation. I’m totally guilty of complaining about “kids these days.”
No one has all the answers to today’s staffing challenges. But some people have some of the answers. I’m continuously interviewing franchisees from the brands that bring me in and that includes a lot of restaurant chains. I spend a lot of time picking the brains of those with better recruitment and retention compared to their brand counterparts. While they have different tactics, all of them go to greater lengths (than others competing for employees) to understand today’s workforce and use that knowledge to generate more positive feelings among their teams.
More positive feelings is not the same thing as more compensation. Employers just throwing money at their staffing problems won’t solve them. Money is the hard need. But just like customers, employees also have soft needs. They want to feel safe, supported, and cared about. They want to feel connected to others — to be part of a team. They want flexibility and life balance. They most certainly value mental health. Gone are the days when people willingly endured their jobs. Plenty of people want to work, but few are willing to suffer. As you’re reading this, you might be rolling your eyes. But like it or not, if you want to manage today’s workers, you have to roll with the times. (What’s the alternative?)
What I’ve learned from talking to these better franchisees is that they’ve accepted the new workforce. Instead of complaining about them, they seek to understand them. Then to accommodate them. Slowly but surely, they’re cracking the code.
One multiunit franchisee from IHOP told me that for her, it’s all about creating a best-in-class culture. She has weekly meetings with her managers to monitor and enhance it. Another franchisee from Rita’s Italian Ice told me he recruits very busy high school kids — a lot of them — and then only schedules them for a shift or two per week. (This gels with the results of a recent study of 33 companies who found that moving fulltime employees to a four-day work week led to an increase in morale, productivity, and company revenue. People are desperate for more time outside of work, and work better when they get it.) He also makes it easy for them to swap shifts. He’s let go of the idea that employers dictate the schedule and employees must blindly oblige. As sensible as this traditional mindset is, for better or worse, the rules have changed. Freeing his mind of those expectations has allowed him to approach staffing more creatively and more effectively. His shifts are covered.
These are but two of the many franchise owners I’ve recently come across who are making progress with staffing in today’s climate. They’re not without challenges, but they’re moving the needle in the right direction. Compared to others in their brands, they’re complaining a lot less without having to pay more. All things being equal, employees will go where they can make the most money. But a job that better meets their soft needs is not equal — it’s more attractive and more retentive.
3. Promote and practice resilience
It’s hard to run a restaurant. There will always be fires to extinguish. The best owners can manage through these times better than others. They’re also the first to find the opportunities often hidden in these challenges.
The hard skills side of resilience is problem-solving, determining what needs to be done to stabilize the restaurant when the status quo has been disrupted. There’s also a soft skills side of resilience, which is coping. That means keeping your thoughts and emotions in check. That’ll allow you to find solutions more easily and resist acting on impulse. As the adage says, “cooler heads prevail.”
It's tempting when things get tough to take immediate action. No one wants their problems to linger. But problems tend to elicit emotional responses before intelligent ones. Anxiety leads to urgency and knee-jerk reactions — the ones you’ll regret. What’s good for your mood in the short-term may not be what’s best for the business in the long-term.
Before you act, check your thoughts and feelings. You’re one of the people in your people business. Like it or not, you have emotions that need to be managed. Do nothing until you’re sure you’re operating from a calm, clear place. You may need to be deliberate about getting there. Common methods include meditation, breathing, exercise, and writing/talking it out. Time itself calms us down, provided we’re disciplined enough to wait. Resist giving in to urgency. You’ll manage your external problems much more efficiently when you start with some internal self-management.
That’s also when you’re more likely to discover new opportunities buried beneath the unpleasantness. Adversity calls us to action, and that action often leads to long term gains. It took a global pandemic to get many restaurants to pivot more towards delivery and digital ordering. Today these elements are huge streams of revenue. Sometimes pain leads to profit. The sooner you manage your emotions, the sooner you’ll spot those opportunities. Cope first, then act. (I discuss the relationship between adversity and opportunity in a recent TEDx talk.)
Being in the “people business” means you’re in the emotion business. To excel, everything you do must promote better feelings within your guests, your employees, and yourself. It’s hard when you’re in the weeds. But putting a little more energy into the emotional side of your operation might be the best way to see greater results on the financial one.
Scott Greenberg is a speaker, writer and business coach and the author of The Wealthy Franchisee: Game-Changing Steps to Becoming a Thriving Franchise Superstar. Find more information at www.scottgreenberg.com.