The rise of made-to-order food stations has brought back-of-house staff to the forefront—literally. At the University of Utah’s dining facilities, line cooks working stations like pizza and meat-carving interface with diners during their entire shift.
“Essentially, they’re the face of our company,” says Matthew Seare, executive chef of student dining at the U of U. “If we have people that are not friendly and outgoing, it really is going to affect how these students perceive what we are doing.”
These face-to-face interactions mean customer service skills for all staff are more important than ever. But since time remains at a premium, operators are refining their training to get to what works best.
At the start of each school year, Seare dedicates a portion of staff training to customer service and finds that simulations help employees be more engaged. “We come up with some different scenarios and do a little role-playing on how to diffuse a situation or help somebody have a better day,” he says. That might include answering questions about allergens or going the extra mile for a homesick student. “If someone says, ‘My mom made this great meatloaf,’ we’ll say, ‘Give us the recipe, and we’ll make it for you,’” says Seare.
Kim Smith, corporate director of dining experience at Senior Living Residences, which operates 12 facilities in the Boston area, says she prefers hands-on training to simulations, because impersonating customers can devolve into a comedy routine. “I just don’t feel [trainees] take it seriously,” she says.
Instead, employees at SLR train for a week with a dining supervisor, starting with observation of correct practices for the first few days before transitioning into hands-on service. One of Smith’s favorite staff training activities is setting a 1-minute timer and waiting for it to wind down. “One minute, to us, doesn’t seem like a long time … but to [a diner], when they’re sitting there, it’s a long time,” she says.
Though resident surveys have reported high scores for satisfaction in recent years, Smith always is looking to fine-tune customer service during rotating site visits. Observing service helps her zero in on missed opportunities. “Saving steps is key with a lot of service. Certain things [a server] may ask one person, they can ask the whole table,” Smith says. “I might suggest they say, ‘While I’m going into the kitchen, would anyone else like something?’”
At The University of Scranton in Scranton, Pa., Director of Operations for Dining Services Joe Boyd long has trained employees using Aramark’s WEST program. “W stands for welcome and say hello, E stands for engage with eye contact or a friendly question,” Boyd says. “S is service with a smile and a helpful suggestion. And ... T is thank you, thank [the customer] and show you care.” WEST is covered during new employee onboarding and fall and spring semester welcome-back sessions, and reviewed in daily meetings prior to service. Boyd also uses Aramark’s new mobile app to observe and track how well employees are hitting all four WEST steps during the day.
At University of Utah, table tents encouraging students to send feedback via text have helped Seare monitor employees’ effectiveness. It’s a good sign, he says, “when you get a text that says, ‘Hey, Alicia is doing a great job at this station.’”