The 23 year-old waiter, part 2

Some people who have listened to my yarping about brand issues for awhile eventually feel they have to challenge me: “You’re talking about operations, org dev, HR – you’re not talking about brand at all.”

True or false? Well, both. It just seems that when I dissect a case where a brand has gone wrong, I find that the underlying factors frequently lie well outside the purview of whoever in an organization is formally charged with branding activities. And when I see a brand that’s hitting on all cylinders, it doesn’t take long to understand how the nominal face of the branding activities are best understood as expressions of deeper organizational commitments to doing all kinds of other things right.

The upshot is that I tend to use the term “brand” in a lot broader context than some of my colleagues do. So, back to my days as a waiter and bartender…

Lesson 2: Failing brands usually make their workers feel meaningless.

Savvy organizations not only think about the system that delivers the brand, they structure so as to promote seamless teamwork and commitment. In the restaurant I worked in back in the early ‘80s, for instance, there might be a guy back in the kitchen with the ability to cost me $20 on a table. If his compensation is the same regardless of whether he helps me or hoses me, then we have a significant brand risk-point. From the perspective of the waiter taking the hit to the wallet, it’s a personal problem. From the standpoint of management, the issue isn’t that Sam got a bad tip, it’s that the structure of the organization resulted in a negative hit to the brand – that bad tip results from a customer who’s unhappy with something, and that customer will be telling friends.

A big part of the problem in that organization was related to how employees felt about their importance to the company. People in the trenches of the service industry don’t get paid all that well to start with, and the less they make the less they care, on average. Tip-sharing policies addressed some of these issues in the front of the house, but kitchen staff were provided with no mechanisms, financial or otherwise, that would allow them to participate in the perceived successes of the company.

These conditions hamstrung the restaurant’s ability to truly delight its customers at every turn. Uninvested back-of-house workers undercut the efficiency of waiters, for instance, and unless their actions were egregious, there weren’t likely to be significant consequences. Frustrated wait staff, inexperienced in negotiating their way through organizational minefields, often reacted in ways that only confirmed the us vs. them dynamic.

In the end, a disproportionate amount of the management team’s time and energy was consumed not by fine-tuning an exceptional customer experience with the brand, but by managing internal conflict. In operational terms, success was less about excellence and more about keeping the wheels from flying completely off.

There were productive options available to management, but in the final analysis their corporate philosophy saw their employees – front and back of house – as expendable and replaceable. (Never mind the conversation we can have about the cost implications of penny-wise and pound-foolish acceptance of turnover – we’ll address that one another day.) Employees knew they were irrelevant, that they weren’t valued, that no matter what they did they wouldn’t be missed. Their compensation communicated the message. Management’s refusal to take legitimate concerns seriously reinforced it. And seeing 90+ percent turnover rates tolerated as a natural course of business hammered the message home for even the best of employees: we entrust 99+ percent of our brand contact to people who do not matter to us.

A lot of number of companies today have similar employee relations policies, and none of them will admit it. When I encounter a business whose customers aren’t happy with their relationship to the brand, though, my first reaction is to examine the company’s view of its employees.

Did I mention that this once-booming restaurant chain went out of business a few years back?

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