Human Resources | December 2012 | By Mary Avant

All Hail the Crew

How four brands best maximize their employees’ potential.

Quick service employee programs invest in critical component to business.
Pinkberry believes its employees add to the customer experience. pinkberry
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They open and close the store and keep it running in the time between. They cook and serve your food, operate your drive thru, and even empty the trash and clean the bathrooms.

But most importantly, your crewmembers are the ones who represent your brand to the customer, and they can single-handedly make or break the guest experience.

“The crewmembers are a visible sign of the brand for the customers,” says Patrick Lencioni, a management consultant who’s worked with executives at brands such as Sonic and In-N-Out. “They are the people who either deliver on the promise of the brand or don’t, so people judge the brand … based on their experience with those employees.”

When used to their fullest extent, a brand’s employees can yield a sizeable return on investment, with results like stronger customer loyalty, increased return visits, and an improved guest experience. But this can only happen if they’re given the right tools.

The following four brands go out of their way to make sure they’re maximizing their employees’ potential and reaping the many rewards.

McDonald’s Turnover Solution

Turnover may be one of the biggest battles quick serves face, but McDonald’s does more than the average brand to keep its employees in the system. In fact, the company places a major emphasis on not just keeping employees around, but also on promoting from within to help them rise to the position of manager, operator, owner, or even corporate executive.

Steve Russell, senior vice president of U.S. human resources for McDonald’s, says more than 75 percent of managers, 60 percent of owner-operators, and 40 percent of corporate-level executives at the brand began their careers behind the counter at a McDonald’s.

Take Jan Fields, for example. Since joining the brand in 1978 as an hourly crewmember, Fields has gone on to become Pittsburgh’s regional vice president, then chief operations officer, and now her current position as president of McDonald’s USA.

“We really look at our restaurants as classrooms, if you will, for future owner-operators, future managers that run our multimillion-dollar restaurants, as well as a classroom for future corporate leaders,” Russell says.

Keeping employees around for the long haul ensures better results for the individual, the guest, and the company, he adds. “The more you learn, the more of a foundation that you build in the business, the more powerful you can be in supporting and advocating for our business,” he says. “When you promote from within, you have individuals that have the ability and the luxury of developing a foundation of knowledge, experience, and skills. The more knowledgeable, experienced, and skillful an individual is, the better they’ll actually serve our customers.”

Lencioni says giving employees opportunities to climb the proverbial company ladder creates associates who think about the brand’s long-term success and their role in it. “You create people who know that they’re going to be there for the long haul, so they have an interest in making things better,” he says. “They’re thinking about the long-term impact of their behavior and their actions, and they feel like an owner. They feel like they’re really invested in the success of the business.”

Knowing there’s a path laid out for advancement—thanks largely to shining examples like Fields—means McDonald’s employees are motivated to perform to the best of their ability in the store, Russell says. “If they feel like they’re set up for success, they’re performing well, and they can grow, there’s a larger percentage of people that want to do that,” he says.

He also acknowledges that McDonald’s has a responsibility in priming its employees for the type of career growth it hopes to promote. “If we do the job that we should, as well as we should, in developing them and training them, we’re setting them up for success,” Russell says.

[Editor’s note: This article originally published before Jan Fields announced her resignation from McDonald's.]

Pinkberry’s Competitive Edge

With such fierce competition brewing in the frozen yogurt market, brands are fighting for ways to stand out among the rest. Los Angeles–based Pinkberry, a fro-yo brand with more than 200 locations in the U.S. and abroad, chooses to do so with its staff.

“Our model relies on our people,” says CEO Ron Graves. “They represent our brand every day, and we believe in service, so they’re integral to our experience.”

He says it’s the company’s ability to find, train, and retain top-notch employees that allows it to deliver an unparalleled customer experience.

“Because we think so much of our experience is about service and connecting with our customers, what we do is we look to hire people who have the right DNA, the right attitude, the right perspective,” Graves says. “Because at the end of the day, our experience is representative of what we value.”

Pinkberry’s strong core values—including human connection and service, as well as an inspiring store experience—help the brand determine the specific type of employee it wants to hire, creating a company with universally high-performing associates.

Lencioni says Pinkberry’s innovative hiring process is one reason it can develop a staff that delivers such a distinct customer service experience. “If you’re looking for people with extraordinary skills, you have to have an extraordinary process for doing that,” he says.

At Pinkberry, a group of 15–20 applicants might be paired up and asked to present a 30-second commercial about the brand. “There’s no right or wrong answers in these exercises,” Graves says. “It’s how people interact with a team. It’s how the people in the audience who are vying for the same job are supporting those that are up there presenting.”

Graves says the brand looks for individuals who believe in uncompromising quality, possess an entrepreneurial spirit, connect with the customers, and are willing to take risks, solve problems, and continuously improve themselves and the customer’s experience.

“We need people who can make decisions,” he says. “There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to in-store experience, and we need people who won’t compromise on that customer experience. We look for ways to create small, powerful moments, and we look for people who serve with humility and gratitude.”

Whether it’s helping customers pick flavors or toppings or learn more about the products, or simply engaging in conversation, Graves says Pinkberry’s staff creates a customer experience that gets rave reviews from guests all over the world and keeps them coming back for more.

“It’s key to the experience, it’s key to our customer satisfaction, it’s key to frequency and the experience they have,” he says. “And it’s one of the reasons they want to come back.”

Yum! Brands’ Barrier Buster

With demographics rapidly shifting both at home and abroad, connecting with various consumer segments is becoming increasingly vital to brands’ survival. And Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC, has found a unique way to do so, all while attracting and developing employees around the world—and getting a hefty return on investment, to boot.

Two years ago, the company embarked on a partnership with language-learning brand Rosetta Stone to offer its employees across the globe a chance to learn one of more than 20 languages at a significantly reduced price.

“We know that language can be a barrier for individuals to move up within our organization or our franchises’ organizations,” says Rob Lauber, vice president of Yum! University, the global learning and development center for Yum! Brands.

He says that not only is the program helpful to international employees who want to learn English, but it’s also beneficial to those stateside crewmembers who speak English as a second language. “This provides them with an opportunity to improve and/or refine their English-speaking skills,”
Lauber says.

Conversely, the program is also paying off for U.S. employees who don’t speak Spanish, as it helps them better communicate with staff and customers in the restaurants.

“We saw it as a win-win opportunity for people who have a need … to take advantage of the opportunity to get pretty easy access and affordable access to language learning in a way that wasn’t available before,” Lauber says.

And because the program is an offer rather than a requirement, crewmembers are more likely to see it as an investment in their careers instead of a time-consuming burden. “It’s attractive for individuals who are trying to advance their career in the organization, or who need a language skill as part of a role they might be going into,” he says.

Lencioni says offering the program as a way to help employees better serve customers and communicate within the store, as well as to improve their own careers, is a plus for both the company and the staff.

“If you’re doing it because you’re interested in your employees’ growth, then they’re going to see this as a great investment in them,” Lencioni says of the language-learning program. “If you’re doing it just because you want them to have another skill to help their customers, it’s good, but they don’t necessarily see it as investing in them.”

Lencioni adds that the program is a demonstration of Yum! Brands’ interest in its associates, as the additional language skills make them more marketable in their own careers.

But it’s also one way Yum! Brands can differentiate itself and attract hard-working, driven potential employees, Lauber says.

“It’s a, ‘The company cares about me as a person’ message in the context of, ‘They provide me with access to language learning that would cost me a lot more in the marketplace,’” he says. He adds that the program is just one component of Yum! Brands’ overarching focus on attracting stellar employees.

“We see this as one piece in the big pie of the overall employee value proposition about why they would want to work in our restaurants,” he says.

Chick-fil-A’s Gift Back

Since its launch in 1967, Chick-fil-A has consistently set out to provide employees with opportunities to improve their lives. And in 1973, founder Truett Cathy found the perfect avenue through which to do so: education.

As part of the Leadership Scholarship program, the company gives $1,000 scholarships to employees who demonstrate exceptional community service and leadership abilities. Since 1996, the program has awarded almost $30 million to help more than 28,000 staff members attend college.

And though offering its staff the funds to attend college may mean employees ultimately leave the store, Chick-fil-A knows providing these opportunities to its team members is the right thing to do, says Tiffany Greenway of Chick-fil-A corporate public relations.

However, Greenway says the company does receive tangible benefits from the program. Namely, it helps Chick-fil-A attract the high-quality team members it’s recognized for in the industry.

“Chick-fil-A is known for its service, and one of the reasons we’re able to attract that caliber of employee is that we’re giving them opportunities and they know that Chick-fil-A will help them,” she says. “The benefit for the brand is that we’ve got these great team members who are community-minded, who are leadership-minded, who are being developed for further leadership opportunities, even if that’s not at Chick-fil-A.”

Because the program has a work requirement—employees must work a certain amount of time in a restaurant before applying—and requires a letter of recommendation from the operator, it creates a highly motivated staff.

It also results in crewmembers who want to stick around for the future, or at least associates who will return to the company once their education is complete.

“I know people who are lawyers that have owned a [Chick-fil-A] store or people that started there, went to college on a scholarship, and came back to Chick-fil-A because they’re like, ‘Why would I leave this place?’” Lencioni says regarding the loyalty a program like Chick-fil-A’s instills in employees.

He says this brand allegiance is only heightened by the company’s and managers’ genuine commitment to the employees, whether through interest in their education or simply their everyday lives.

When you combine the scholarship program with that really active interest in their lives,” Lencioni says, “it’s a huge benefit.”