I had a favorite cafe where I used to like to go to write these articles. It had a nice ambience, healthy foods, and good service. Then one day, it all changed. The tables were the same and the menu as well, but the smiling servers, the quick table service, and the attentive vibe were all gone. Menus did not appear until I was putting on my coat to find another place to go. Things I ordered arrived so late I no longer wanted them. And when they finally showed up, they were cold, wrong, or otherwise problematic. The servers were mostly grumpy, frequently uncaring, and always unmotivated. It got so bad, I stopped going. Then, 2 weeks ago, because I was in need of a nearby venue, I went back. And was pleasantly surprised. Here’s what changed and how you can use it to take your business to the next level.
1. Help staff to find dignity in what they do. Employees at all levels of a business can succumb to the idea that what they do is meaningless, superfluous or even undesirable. It is our job to help them see that every action they take, every task they perform, every service for which they are responsible, brings value. When they make a coffee, they are not just preparing a beverage in a paper cup, they are warming the life of the person drinking it. When they create a report that is carefully compiled and accurate, they are not just sharing statistics, they are sending truth out into the world. When they respond to a customer’s complaint, they are not just making it go away, they are restoring that customer’s faith. At the cafe, I heard the staff asking customers if they had done a good job, and as those being served responded with a hearty and happy “yes!”, the waiters in turn radiated dignity and joy with their whole beings.
2. Test continually to find weak links. My food coming out cold, wrong, or late was not the fault of the waitstaff. They were not the ones behind the stoves. The breakdown was elsewhere, but the waitstaff paid the price with every tip lost and every angry customer’s tirade. As owners, it is our job to ceaselessly monitor, question, and evaluate to make sure that clients are getting the best of what we have to offer. Processes should never become set ’em and forget ’em, no matter how successful they seem. If we constantly imagine the ways in which something could go wrong, we can keep it from actually doing so. At the cafe, a new order to cooking and plating was established, the menu was re-focused on foods that could fit in that routine, and the result was a well-paced and more delicious dining experience than before.
3. Accountability belongs to everyone. Human nature pushes us to look for the easy way out. In business, this usually translates to people passing the buck. As owners, it is our responsibility to encourage accountability. A waitress who clearly forgot to enter my order in the system and then lied that the order had been “lost” because the system went down was the last straw that caused me to leave the cafe for good in its bad period. Had she just said she had forgotten it, and asked me to repeat it, she could have saved the relationship with me. At the cafe today, a server had to bring me a tea in a pot that was smaller than normal because of brisk business. Before I even noticed, she told me that she realized she was serving me less tea than usual, but was happy to provide me refills whenever needed. Her accountability for both the problem and the solution made everything go smoothly.
4. Bad behavior starts at the top. Management is paid not to minimize the faults of others or blame underlings for bad performance, but to set the standard of how things should be done. They should not hide behind evaluations or waste time pushing paper. They need to be performing the same tasks, under the same constraints, as those they are paid to manage. At the cafe, each time I have gone in recent weeks, a manager was not only present on the floor, but was helping to seat guests, take orders, serve food, and clear tables. They were not just standing around watching, they were showing up to support their employees, and both the team and the customers were the beneficiaries.
I’m glad my favorite cafe has become frequentable again, but it will only remain so if the company that owns it continues to pay careful attention to the components that make it work. The meta view won’t work. Getting down in the trenches and hands on with the dirty details will.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.