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Managing Onsite's Contradictory Expectations

Without a doubt, the onsite foodservice business is correctly classified as a “service industry.” This leads many of us to a certain sense of satisfaction and job security. After all, the service industry is an economic sector that's forecast to account for 20.8 million of the 21.6 million new jobs to be filled between now and 2013.

But in another, very realistic sense, those of us in foodservice are in a manufacturing industry as well. We assemble and produce goods every single working day, taking raw ingredients and converting them into value-added, finished goods (delicious, wholesome and nutritious food) ready for customer consumption.

My point is that a solid understanding of the onsite foodservice market really puts us in both camps. It is also one of the reasons there are often competing and contradictory expectations in our business.

The expectations of the users of our services — the customers who consume the food we prepare and serve — are often quite different than the expectations of those who hire us to manufacture product and provide those services.

The latter are client customers, those who are held accountable for having successful operations at an institution, organization or place of business.

Expectations differ again when it comes to our own production staff, who are charged with satisfying both camps. There are quite different management requirements for developing and training service personnel as contrasted to manufacturing personnel. Further, the types and personalities of individuals who are likely to excel in either endeavor can vary significantly.

In short, these differences in expectations can make the management process more complicated than many imagine it to be. We all have had days when the job has seemed very much like that of managing a three ring circus.

Peeking under the tent

Let's take a peek under the circus tent canvas and see more closely how these contradictions play out in practice.

In the first ring, consider the end user customers. They typically have a set of expectations that focus first on price. To be satisfied, the consumer wants the value of the meal to be greater than that which may be available from nearby, off-site retail establishments. This demand for a higher comparative value is driven by the customer's perception that he or she “belongs here,” and is “part of the establishment.”

For example, “I belong here because I am employed here,” or because “I go to school here,” or “I am a patient here.” Consumers with this sense of belonging expect foodservices to be provided for them “as family,” not as third-party customers.

Rightly or wrongly, the customer's sense of belonging leads to a sense of entitlement. And while many of us think about managing expectations, not many of us think about managing a sense of entitlement.

These end users have a high regard for technical and production skills demonstrated by staff. This is well illustrated by the penchant customers have for display cooking, made-to-order assembly and food styling. Since we in turn are seen as professional providers, there is a constant expectation for variety, quality and that we be on the leading edge of the latest trends.

Finally, the expression of their expectations to you and your staff will be both individualistic and diverse. One will complain that the soup is too salty or not salted enough. Another will ask why you never feature the foods of Poland. Still another will offer that when you serve Indian food it has too much of a Northern taste and that the foods of Southern India are much more flavorful. And once such opinions are expressed, consumers expect them to be addressed — often immediately and without regard for the contradictory opinions that may be voiced by the next person in line!

In the second ring

Now, let's look let's look over at the next ring and view some of the expectations of the “client customer.” (And despite my use of the term client, these issues apply equally to self-operated and contracted services).

The client has a high expectation that the foodservices provided will meet their annual budget. The client also expects the facility and its fixed assets will be used in a way that minimizes maintenance costs and that will assure they reach the full term of their depreciation schedules.

When it comes time for a facility re-design or equipment replacement, you as the professional are expected to be knowledgeable about the latest design features and technology advances.

The client liaison or administrative head will expect to make a case to the larger organization that he or she has arranged for, managed and provided the best foodservices possible given institutional and business constraints. At the same time, he or she will often tend to evaluate the quality of services by feedback from the end users without as much concern for the constraints that are put on you the provider.

Who among us has never made the statement “If only my client (or my administration) would let me do (you name the practice). If we could, our service would be much better and our customers would be much happier.”

These are just some of the many contradictory expectations that as foodservice providers we much find a way to manage.

In contrast, the client cares very much about such factors and directly or indirectly places constraints on your operations as a result, whether they are hours of operation, pricing requirements, etc.,

And in the third ring…

Now let's glance over to the third ring where yet another set of contradictions exists.

The service side of our industry requires lots of “right brain thinking” from staff: personalities that interact positively with customers; demonstrations of merchandising creativity; intuitive efforts to satisfy unexpressed (but very real) customer wants.

At the same time, the manufacturing aspect of the business requires that we quickly be able to shift gears into “left brain thinking” to efficiently manage the manufacturing process: logical, methodical and often repetitive activities to control product flow, production and assembly processes.

Today, staff training needs to address both dimensions. It is not enough to say to a service employee “be nice to the customer,” and then say to a kitchen production worker, “Here is the recipe — just follow it.” Staff can benefit from training in both skill sets. Consider the worker chosen to staff a display cooking station. Isn't adding “flair” to what is essentially an assembly line technique yet another contradiction that must be managed?

What I am suggesting is that one of the most important aspects of management in our business is the need to view our industry in a multi-dimensional way. If we do not, we as managers are severely limiting our potential.

The accomplished ringmaster must look across the landscape of the entire Big Top tent, at the multiple requirements of customer service, manufacturing production and client expectations. He or she needs to clearly see the contradictions that exist between what goes on in one ring and that of another and be able to apply different management skills to satisfy and deal with the different expectations of the players in each of them.

Which is not to say that the job is easy, and those looking for a simple answer to the challenge will not find it here. Instead, I will end with a quote from my father, who repeatedly coached my work life: “Hard work ain't easy. But it sure is a lot of fun when done right.” Make sure you have some fun as you manage your own three-ring circus.

George Maciag is the former chief operating officer of Guckenheimer Enterprises and has spent his career in the managed foodservice industry, including many years with the Saga Corporation. He presently consults from his offices in Los Altos Hills, CA.

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