Goldies 2012—Focusing on the Guest: Chartwells Higher Education

By focusing on training its staff, Chartwells was able to improve the guest experience.

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

YouFirst's Simply Recognize celebrates associate
birthdays and provides recognition during preservice meetings.

Chartwells Higher Education believes that to most effectively focus on the guest the company had to create a program that fully trained their associates on how to deliver exceptional customer service.

“Before the onset of the declining economy, I challenged my team to develop a program that I felt would become the next big industry movement in commercial dining services,” Steve Sweeney, president and CEO of Chartwells, says. “With the main focus on training our associates first and foremost, we set out to create a program that would rely upon knowledgeable staff to provide the ultimate campus dining and guest service experience.”

That program is YouFirst and it is the winner of the 2012 Goldies Award in the Focusing on the Guest category. YouFirst, according to Chartwells’ Goldies submission essay, is an “associate- and student-focused guest service program . . . that boosts associate and guest satisfaction by supporting employees through targeted training and recognition to enhance the dining experience through meaningful interaction with students.” The program was in demand, according to Sweeney, because he felt that no one else in the industry was taking an aggressive approach toward enhancing guest service based on training.

“Training and development for motivation and retention existed at Chartwells but not to the extent that we desired,” Sweeney says. “We became determined to raise the bar and set the standard within college and university dining services. We started by putting our associates first.”

Training for the guest: The YouFirst program consists of several components, including role playing, recognition cards and rewards, but Sweeney says the “Simply Rally” component is the most successful in ensuring employees are focusing on the guest.

“The Simply Rally component, which is a very instructive team service meeting, has been extremely successful in preparing our associates and providing them with a strategy for ensuring outstanding service at every meal period,” Sweeney says. “During these meetings, all associates from part-time staff to culinary teams, discuss menus, ingredients and food provenance with management. Associates practice service skills with two-to-three-minute exercises. All guest comments or suggestions are reviewed and team discussions are held. Situation analysis, potential outcomes and remedies are addressed to help prepare the team should they encounter a particular guest or similar scenario. It’s a win-win situation, and associates appreciate the insight for solving problems and providing solutions prior to meal service periods.”

But how exactly do you turn employee training into guest satisfaction? Sweeney says the program gives operations a blueprint for a new service culture that Chartwells has tried to establish companywide.

“We learned that our staff primarily wanted Chartwells to continuously invest in training that enhanced their skill sets so they can do a better job, be recognized, rewarded, involved and heard,” Sweeney says. “Through training our associates gained confidence and skills to manage different guest service situations and feel comfortable interacting with guests throughout every meal period. Whether it’s from a smile exchange or recognizing students by name, management knows that YouFirst is working. It’s evident by increased guest service survey scores—4%-to-5% point increases—and the many associate compliments [operators] receive.”

Despite the program’s successes Sweeney admits there have been several challenges along the way. One of the biggest challenges Sweeney notes was getting buy in from the 17,000 associates in Chartwells accounts across the country.

“We tackled this by ensuring the entire executive team continuously supported management teams throughout all operations and also lived by the commitments of Chartwells’ new YouFirst service culture,” Sweeney says. “[It was also a challenge] to retrain individuals and break certain rigid practices that didn’t put the guest first and foremost, no matter what the circumstances. Through daily training, rewards and recognition, we have overcome this challenge, but we understand that we will continue to encounter this as we welcome new associates.”

Sweeney advises operators in other locations to embrace some of YouFirst’s philosophy of improving guest satisfaction.

“[My best tips include] critiquing your operations. Start with having team members critique your operations and also obtain observations from outside sources including guests,” Sweeney says. “Use social media to gain feedback and focus on which guest service issues need priority and require an immediate or long-term remedy. Don’t just do patchwork. If something isn’t working, adjust it or drop it immediately. Investing in your team is also very important. Note which team members need additional help working with guests and offer all levels of training supported through leadership or mentoring that tie in with recognition and rewards. Lastly, provide access to management so guests and associates can contact you 24/7. Plus be sure to follow up immediately with any and all guest or associate inquiries. Guests are extremely satisfied when we contact them, remedy the situation or provide them with information immediately.”