When brands fall down.

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Although I am training for some upcoming races and watching what I eat a little more carefully than at other times of the year, I thought it would be fun to take the family to Sticky Fingers' sunday brunch buffet yesterday. The promise of all-you-can-eat pulled pork sandwiches, SF's signature au-gratin mac & cheese and delicious chicken wings was enticing enough to take a break from the Spartan nutrition program for just one meal.

Except that Sticky Fingers let us down.

#1: Our waitress wasn't all that friendly... or good at being a waitress for that matter. Not a good way to start things off.

#2: Sticky Fingers' usually scrumptious Mac & Cheese had been replaced by some cheap, bland, pasty, 10-minute product not worthy of cafeteria food, much less Sticky Fingers. Way to cut corners. Bleh. Even the kids said it sucked.

#3: The chicken wings were bland. I could probably boil chicken and get more flavor out of it. WTF?! Not at all what I would expect from Sticky Fingers.

#4: I mentioned the waitress, right? Okay. Just making sure.

#5: The kitchen didn't start baking desserts until both cobblers were already gone. The result: A line fifteen people deep that lasted twenty minutes... when everyone finally gave up and went on their way. I'm glad I paid full price for four people to have two thirds of the items taste lousy and the third run out in the middle of their brunch rush.

So let's see... Poor service, average food, and no dessert. Guess how many of the people who were there Sunday will return to Sticky Fingers anytime soon. Probably none.

Guess how many will recommend Sticky Fingers to their peers anytime soon. Zero.

Way to go.

The string of bad luck with customer service started Friday with a visit to a usually fantastic local retailer I won't name (they're a client). Even they dropped the ball, which is almost unheard of. Why? Two part time employees who were too busy talking with their friends to actually take care of customers. The customers started putting back the products they had come in to buy, and several walked out. Not good. Not good at all.

Even the almighty Whole Foods Market fell short of their brand promise this weekend, showing that no one is immune to the occasional broken window:

I watched a cashier question a customer over a pint-sized container of $1.99/lb peanut butter. She had forgotten to weigh and label the container , and the cashier couldn't find the item code on her peanut butter page. She insisted that the peanut butter had to be $3.99/lb. The customer insisted that it was $1.99/lb. (I know she isn't lying because I buy the same one.) The cashier spent a good minute arguing with the customer over her honesty. "It isn't in my book. It must have been mislabeled."

Um... no.

She called a supervisor over. The supervisor was obviously having a bad day... or didn't really want to be there, because she already had an attitude when she walked up. Never making eye contact with anyone, she sighed and puffed and rolled her eyes at having to void out the transaction to let the cashier start over.

And then she yelled at someone three or four cash registers down "I'LL BE RIGHT WITH YOU SIR!!!"


I'm sure I enjoyed having my eardrum shattered almost as much as having her hot pastrami breath punch me in the face.

With the supervisor gone, the argument between the lady in front of me and the cashier resumed. "You know, there's a scale back there with the peanut butter. What you really should do from now on is weigh your container and stick the label on it back there."

The lady in front of me, already annoyed, retorted "What I should probably do from now on is go buy my peanut butter somewhere else."

That pretty much put an end to that unfortunate dialogue.

I sent my son to go run down the item code on her peanut butter, and he returned twenty seconds later to save the day. (The cashier was still struggling with the absence of $1.99/lb peanut butter in her price book.) Armed with an item code and confirmation from the register that the customer was indeed right, the transaction ended and the lady left without a word.


Trust me, people don't shop at Whole Foods to be treated as if they were at Wal-Mart or Bi-Lo. They pay a premium not only for the organic food, but also for the upscale experience of shopping there. They want to feel special. They want smiles and hellos and thank-yous. They want things to go smoothly. They want to leave the store feeling happy.

What they don't want is a cashier giving them grief over a two dollars-worth of peanut butter!

What they don't want is to leave the store angry.

What these three retail establishments needed is the same: Better management.

Period. Here's where all three companies dropped the ball:

1) They hired bodies to fill slots instead of investing in quality employees. The waitress. The guy in charge of starting the next batch of food. The two kids. The cashier. The supervisor. None should have been hired to begin with.

I hear some of you already: "But Olivier, be realistic here. Sometimes, you just can't find quality employees and you just have to make do with what you can get. Especially in the foodservice and retail industries."

Bull. You just aren't looking hard enough. (It takes more than going through a stack of applications. You might have to actually get out there and recruit people from other businesses.)

But for the sake of argument, okay. Let's say you're stuck with lousy employees. Well, I guess someone is going to have to turn them into decent employees, and yes, that too takes work, mostly in the form of training... which brings us to item #2:

2) They didn't train them properly. As long as they are willing to learn and professional enough to want to do a good job, anyone can be trained to become an expert at their job. The cashier and supervisor should have simply sent someone to look up the item code on the peanut butter. Or entered the price manually.

I think of Starbucks giving me coupons for free coffee drinks if I have to wait in the drivethru line too long, and I wonder... why couldn't the Whole Foods cashier be trained to do whatever it takes to make her customers happy, starting by NOT arguing with a customer? By not questioning her honesty? By not creating a problem for her?

3) There was a management void at the time of the incidents. At Sticky Fingers, no one was checking on the kitchen. No one was making sure that the quality of the food was adequate. No one was making sure that our waitress wasn't turning off customers with her attitude. There was just no one there to mentor and monitor the situation. At the super top secret retailer, no one was there to tell those kids to pay attention to customers and stop screwing around. At Whole Foods, no one was there to send that cashier on break, ask the supervisor to wait for them in their office, and take care of the peanut butter lady personally.

Poor leadership (or the absence of leadership) causes broken windows to happen.

I don't blame the lousy cashiers and waitresses for screwing up. Most of the time, they aren't being paid enough to care all on their own, or to know any better. Most need someone there to give them pointers. To help them when they get overloaded. To make sure that everyone is able to do their work. Even to give them a boost of self confidence or positive attitude with a compliment, a bit of encouragement, a joke or a reward.

Believe it or not, a good leader isn't there to crack the whip and sit in an office all day not wanting to be disturbed. A good leader is there to make sure that everyone has the tools they need to get their job done. That means clear instructions, adequate training, assistance, and motivation.

A good leader spends a lot of time on the floor.

When brands fall down, it is more often than not because of a leadership failure somewhere along the way. It could have something to do with a senior level decision to replace a large percentage of your specialized workforce with cheap, inexperienced labor.

It could have something to do with a decision to cut corners on design or production.

It could be because someone decided not to invest in a new technology.

It could be because employees were hired too quickly, or not trained adequately, or left unattended too long.

Brands fall down because somewhere along the way, someone decided to cut a corner here and there and figured that nobody would notice.


We notice.

Have a great Monday, everyone. :)

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