I must admit it. I’m a sucker for valentines. I smile when I get one from a friend or loved one. But, I swoon when one comes unexpectedly from a total unlikely source. It always reminds me of getting a valentine in the fifth grade from the cute redhead on the back row. I did not know she knew I even existed. When I opened it and turned to look at her, she winked and smiled. I melted on the spot!! But, I am getting way ahead of myself.
Creating a Customer-Focused Culture
I had a mid-afternoon keynote in Alexandria, VA and strolled down the street from my hotel to find lunch at a local restaurant. The place where I settled was quiet, comfortable and with an interesting menu. But, mostly I noticed the upbeat attitude of everyone in the place.
I had finished my lunch and the waitress brought me my check…and, a valentine signed, “Susan.” When I opened it and turned to look at her, she winked and smiled.
The consultant inside me demanded I learn a bit more about the restaurant manager whose leadership no doubt contributed to her ingenuity and warmth. Now, I fully realize folks can be creative and friendly without the permission of some boss. I also know leaders can contribute to the capacity and commitment of frontline employees to deliver innovative service, not just good service. Good service is like a tasty cupcake; innovative service is like a great cupcake with sprinkles! Susan added sprinkles.
I cornered the manager-owner, Jim and asked if I could buy him a cup of coffee for ten minutes of his time. “Sure,” he said, “the place is in good hands with all my people.” I told him about the valentine and smile (the wink I considered just between Susan and me).
“That Susan is always coming up with whimsical ways to surprise our guests,” he told me. I was not chalking it up to just her personality. “What do you do to support your employees in helping them deliver surprising service?”
“First,” he said as he began his leadership lessons, “I don’t think of them as employees but as fellow-owners, partners you might say. That means the respect and consideration you would give a friend, especially a friend you depend on like I depend on them. People come here because we have great food. But, we want them to tell their friends. And, it is things like your Sandy valentine that makes them tell other people. They need the freedom to try silly things. One of our employees brought in leftover gourmet desserts from a family reunion so our guests would have a free dessert for a day.”
“Do you worry about them giving away the shop?” I probed. “For instance, it they got free desserts there would be no need to buy the dessert on your menu.” He smiled. “They make smart decisions when they are intimately familiar with our P&L. Everyone here knows what comes in, what goes out, and what everything costs. Remember, they are like owners. And, if we have a nice profit, they get free ballgame tickets or a case of wine or a night with their family in a nearby hotel. But, mainly, they get a kick out of watching people like you smile when something like a valentine comes with your check. That is the kind of people we try to hire.”
Leadership is about instilling pride, inspiring greatness, and supporting innovation. As I was getting up to leave, he offered one last lesson: “Take great care of your partners, they will take care of your guests, and your guests will take care of your growth and profits! And, the coffee is on me!”