Fun for All: Creating Happy Workers and Customers
When workers delight customers and the immediate positive feedback of those customers in turn delights workers, you've got the flashpoint effect--and a successful and happy business.
Every year between mid-March and mid-September, drivers heading north along Highway 11 about 78 miles north of Toronto encounter an intriguing sight. After passing one nearly deserted roadside burger joint after another, they spot what looks like some kind of mob scene directly ahead. As they get closer, they realize it's just another burger place--except the grounds of this one are crowded with people. It's common to see two long, separate lines of customers winding out the doors and trailing in opposite directions across the parking area. The air above the restaurant is thick with blue smoke from the charcoal grills inside. What's hard for newcomers to grasp is that this scene of near-pandemonium represents business as usual at this particular roadside restaurant.
The mob scenes are virtually a daily, all-day phenomenon on the site. The place is called Webers, and it provides a striking example of one of those peculiarly successful smaller businesses where the normal problems and headaches of business life somehow doesn't seem to apply. Of course if we're going to use a restaurant as our first example, there are others we could choose--many towns have their own popular eating spots that draw crowds of happy customers from far and wide. So why this place in particular?
- Longevity. Webers has been attracting daily mob scenes to its site for over 40 years, which makes it impossible to argue, "This kind of excitement can't possibly last."
- Ordinary product. Webers' main stock-in-trade has always been the common hamburger, which eliminates the argument that "With their unique one-of-a-kind (or new and trendy) product they just can't miss."
- Ordinary employees. At Webers the workforce is (and always has been) drawn from the pool of local area teenagers, which kills the argument that "Their ability to delight customers can only come from special kinds of workers who have been put through special kinds of customer service training." In fact, Webers gives its employees no customer service training whatsoever.
Yet the mobs of eager customers just keep coming back and getting in line. So much so that back in 1983, the restaurant installed (entirely at its own expense) a pedestrian bridge over the highway's four lanes, to give southbound travelers a safer and more convenient means of reaching the site. The 117-foot structure remains the only privately owned bridge or walkway over a major highway in Canada.
Just how much volume does this business actually generate? The restaurant's website gives us some idea of the volume of business:
- "We serve up to 6,000 people on a Friday in the summer."
- "Last August we served a little over 110,000 people in one month."
- "Webers grinds on site over 100,000 pounds of fresh grade 'A' chuck every summer."
- "We sell 120,000 pounds of French fries every summer."
Numbers like these would be enough to give managers of burger-chain outlets along the same roadway serious indigestion. But how can one small independent roadside restaurant be pulling in this much business day after day, year after year, when so many seemingly similar direct competitors in the same area--despite their brands' huge and continuous multimedia advertising campaigns--remain largely ignored? Either the food at Webers is dramatically superior...or there's something else going on here.
We get our first clue out in the parking area, when we hear applause issuing from inside the restaurant. Employees slowly work their way along the lines in the parking area, taking orders. The objective is to get the food into customers' hands within two minutes of their arrival in the line. Even if this objective is not always easy to meet, the wait time for customers is usually shorter at Webers than at conventional fast food outlets, although the lines are much longer.
As the lines advance and customers make their way into the restaurant, it's common to hear the employees inside break into song while they work. A favorite tune comes pumping out of the restaurant's high-quality sound system and the workers inside bellow along at the tops of their lungs.
"The singing is very much part of the whole experience here," acknowledges general manager Lynn Telford. "The customers request it, like, 'Where's the singing?'" But no matter how spirited the vocalizing becomes, it never slows the pace of the work--a pace that can only be described as frenetic. Everyone is in a perpetual hurry to keep the orders coming, keep the line moving.
Simple physical movements like walking from one part of the counter to another or applying mustard to a hot dog are performed as if in some insane fast-motion film. Customers in line are routinely inspired to spontaneously applaud the singing--and the sheer exuberance--of these young workers.
"People know they will have fun here," says 21-year-old Steven Keyzer, putting in his fifth summer at the site. "What makes it fun is the singing, the joking around. You sing, you yell, you joke around with staff right in front of the customers, and they think it's funny too. If you make them laugh, you know they're having a good time. Webers is a fun experience."
The determination to delight customers runs deep among these young workers. "Last summer," says 16-year-old Andrew Tillmann, "there was a staff member here who was in drama at school, and he did [an impromptu scene from] Romeo and Juliet for all the customers. That got applause."
"Rule number one," explains Keyzer, "would be making the customer happy, no matter what, no matter how much it costs, no matter how bad a mood they're in that day." Does laughter and applause from customers have an effect on the workers? "For sure! For sure!" cries Keyzer. "It makes [the job] a lot more enjoyable."
"If [the customers are] really appreciative it makes you feel that much better," agrees 15-year-old Katie Brownlee.
"You see the effect of positive customer feedback on all the employees," according to Ken Robbins, a 17-year veteran with the restaurant and its second of two general managers. "You see it especially with the cashiers. The energy level goes up."
Lynn Telford, who's been with Webers for 18 years, has no illusions about what the primary magnet is that keeps customers coming back: "It's the staff, and the show that they put on. That's what makes us different."
The Flashpoint Effect
And there, in its purest, simplest form, is the essence of the flashpoint effect: the enthusiasm and exuberance of a team of workers determined to delight customers, and the immediate expression of that delight (in the form of spontaneous positive feedback) inspiring the workers to strive even harder to keep the customers happy and coming back. It's a closed feedback loop, with employee motivation driving up customer satisfaction and customer satisfaction driving up employee motivation--each fueling the other in a virtual chain reaction of contagious enthusiasm.
This kind of employee enthusiasm is a defining characteristic of all flashpoint businesses. "Most of our guests only interact with [a given employee] for 30 seconds, so enthusiasm is more important than anything else," says Rob Ell, whose mother owns Dinotown, a 12-acre theme park located 62 miles east of Vancouver. The park employs about 50 teenage workers during its 90-day operating season and attracts some 50,000 visitors each season; it's celebrating its 30th year of operation at the time of this writing.
"[The guests] just love the staff," says Rob. "I just hear that all the time. People can't put their finger on it: 'There's something about those kids you've got working out there that's really special. And everybody, they seem so happy there. How do you do it? How do you get happy teenagers?' There's a direct link--the kids can see when they come up with ideas for the park, or they want to build a new show, or fix something, they take accountability for it because now they're interacting with what's most important to our guests. It amazes me, because these are the same kids most parents can't get to clean their room. And we're running a business that's entertaining thousands of people every day, and it's the same kids."
The Spirit of Volunteerism
Virtually all customer-service training programs take the same basic approach. Participants are shown examples of desired behaviors and are encouraged to practice behaving the same way in role-plays within the classroom setting. The assumption behind this approach is that maybe, if we're really lucky, once some of the participants have had a chance to try some of these behaviors on for size, they'll discover they kind of like them, and the same skills will be transferred to the workplace in real-world situations with customers. This is a term that comes up often among training professionals-"skills transference." They worry about it a lot, because (in customer-service training, at least) it almost never happens.
Managers typically attempt to bolster their training investment by coaxing, bullying, or legislating the desired behaviors out of their employees any way they can. Workers in call centers are provided with written scripts, for example, to ensure they don't neglect to ask such "caring" questions as "Anything else I can do for you today?"--and, as one call center manager admitted to me, workers can often see each other rolling their eyes in exasperation when the customer at the other end says yes. Cashiers in retail stores are mandated to conclude every transaction by muttering the three words "ha' nice day." (About the only time they refrain from using this hackneyed phrase is when they're dealing with someone they know personally and would actually wish to have a nice day for real.)
Now contrast this with volunteer work. Right across the breadth of our society, many of the very same people who grumble about their unsatisfying jobs and skimpy wages choose to put their time and skills in the service of worthy causes that often involve difficult, unpleasant, even dangerous activities--and often for little or no pay. So what drives them to do it? What makes a worthy cause seem "worthy"?
Virtually without exception, people volunteer to become part of an effort to help other people in some way. It's a shift from an internal "self-interest" focus to a focus outside of oneself, beyond oneself, onto something larger than oneself. Students of human motivation such as Abraham Maslow have recognized a hierarchy of human needs: once basic survival needs have been met, other needs come into play, such as a need for self-worth, a need to feel "useful and necessary in the world," as he put it. The spirit of volunteerism is a natural result of this deep-seated need--and it explains why volunteer work feels so satisfying to those who do it. It gives them a sense of purpose. It gives meaning to their lives.
But what does philanthropy have to do with the kind of experience that draws customers to a smaller flashpoint business like Webers restaurant?
When Customer Delight Becomes a Worthy Cause
A tour of the grounds at Webers begins to clarify what it is that inspires the young people who work there to voluntarily direct all their energies toward customer delight.
For starters, though there are no actual railroad tracks in the vicinity, there are nonetheless eight railroad cars around the grounds. The cars serve as a staff change room, a storage shed, an office, and even a full meat processing plant. Beside the parking area sits a luxurious railway dining car, which guests can use to enjoy their meal in air-conditioned comfort; the car is also equipped with restroom facilities. Children never seem to tire of climbing on and off the nearby caboose, which, like all the other cars, is kept in immaculate condition.
Also, directly behind the restaurant is a large, well-shaded area with picnic tables and an expanse of well-groomed lawn, for customers who prefer to dine outdoors. In this setting, a "quick bite on the road" becomes a full-blown family picnic in beautifully maintained, park-like surroundings, but featuring hot, freshly prepared food with an emphasis on quality and including train-themed playground-like fixtures for children to climb on and play around.
The key principle at work here is that at Webers, amenities like these (including the pedestrian bridge) are not reflected in higher food prices. They are in effect an outright "gift" this restaurant makes to its customers.
As we'll see again and again, in flashpoint businesses many elements of delight within the customer experience are treated as gifts the organization gives to its customers. By adopting this semi-philanthropic approach, these businesses encourage employees to tap into their latent spirit of volunteerism as part of their jobs. Employees in these businesses share a sense of higher purpose--the sense that the work they do for a living is making a positive difference in the world, by helping others or by brightening their lives in some way.
Remember: there is no customer service training for employees at Webers--and this is typical of most flashpoint businesses, including many that are held up as exemplars of superior customer service in books and magazines. No one at Webers spells out the specific behaviors workers are to use in order to please customers in specific situations. Every situation is different. The only constant is have fun, keep things moving, do whatever it takes to make the customers glad to be there; the particulars are left up to the workers themselves.
And not even that much is formally spelled out by management--this is how employees describe their role to each other, to new members of the team. There are no employee handbooks describing the culture of the place in detail; even before new hires come on board, one visit to the site as a customer, for a burger, and they know everything they need to know about the culture of the place. It's imprinted on them for life.
The same is true in any flashpoint business. The most popular deli in New York will have a culture very different from Webers--but no less immediately palpable. Instead of being vague and diffuse, as most organizational cultures are, in flashpoint businesses the culture is razor sharp, laser sharp. In simple terms, it's focused. All of the organization's energy and attention is visibly directed toward one single focal point that overrides everything else: the customer experience. When ordinary sunlight is brought into sharp focus--through a magnifying glass, for example--it can ignite a fire. When the culture of a business is brought into sharp focus, it can ignite enthusiasm that spreads like wildfire.
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