The fast food industry has a reputation for customer service that is unremarkable at best, sullen at worst. Most fast food cashiers and service staff often seem tired, distracted, indifferent, impatient or even a bit rude – but customers usually don’t mind, because they aren’t there for five-star service, they’re there for a quick, low-cost meal.

According to a recent article in the New York Times (“Would you like a smile with that?”), the Britain-based fast food chain Pret a Manger (French for “ready to eat”) is bringing a fresh approach to fast food, where the competitive advantages are based on customer service, employee training, and the overall company culture just as much as speed, flavor and portions.

Pret a Manger is a small presence in the U.S. fast food market, with 34 stores in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., but it’s growing fast, with profitability and employee retention numbers that are the envy of the industry. U.S. sales are up 40% from a year ago, the company’s overall profits grew by 37% in 2010, and annual workforce turnover is only 60%, compared to fast food industry averages of 300-400% (that is not a typo – most fast food restaurants are constantly churning through workers, with all the attendant retraining costs).

What are the secrets of Pret a Manger’s success, and how can your business learn from their example?

  • Hire the right people and make sure they know how to be relevant to customers: Pret a Manger hires new people using a unique team-oriented approach: new hires are sent for six hours of work, after which the rest of the team gets to vote on whether or not the new hire is a good fit. If not enough existing team members vote to keep the hire, they are sent home with a day’s pay, but are not allowed to return. The reason? Pret a Manger bases its compensation and bonuses on overall team performance, not individual performance. This gives team members a personal stake in making the right hiring decisions – a bad hire can cause the rest of the team to lose money. Whole Foods, America’s highly regarded chain of organic grocery stores, also has a similar “team vote” process to decide whether new hires can join the team.

Most fast food is delivered with a snarl, not a smile.  Pret a Manager delivers fresh food made daily with speed and a cheerful transaction while unsold food at the end of the day is donated to charity. The “right employees’ know how to be cheerful while ensuring no line is longer than four or five people.  They have figured out today’s relevance and that’s why profits are something to brag about.

  • Train them in a unique culture: Most fast food training focuses on how to prepare the food, which buttons to push on the cash register, or how to clean the grease vat. These technical details are important, but Pret a Manger has an even stronger focus on how to transmit and incorporate the values of its company culture. Employees are encouraged to let their personalities shine, to build friendly relationships with customers, to keep busy moving throughout the dining area (never “standing around looking bored”) and to reward regular customers with free cakes and coffee.
  • Make sure compensation is based on delivering what customers want. Most employers focus on an “annual review” process to determine pay raises and promotions. The disadvantage of this annual process is that it can be cumbersome, and lose track of many of the daily and weekly improvements (and opportunities to improve) that occur throughout the year. Pret a Manger has a complex array of training and promotional opportunities for employees at all levels, giving people even at the lowest pay grade many chances to improve their skills, earn more money, and make bigger contributions to the company. The employees who deliver the company culture of speed and smiles get the most compensation.
  • Spread the rewards. When Pret a Manger employees get rewarded for completing some training or achieving a promotion, they receive a “Shooting Star” award: £50 ($82) worth of gift cards and vouchers. But the catch is, the employee doesn’t get to spend the award themselves – they have to choose to give the reward to other employees who helped them earn it. In this way, Pret a Manger recognizes individuals for their achievements, while reminding them that all successes are ultimately owned by the larger team.

Any business that is looking for ways to create a more enduring company culture, where employees feel valued and truly “buy in” to the company’s larger goals, should look to Pret a Manger for inspiration. They are proving that even with a lower-paid, lower-skilled workforce that is often transient and hard to engage, it is possible to find ways to help people feel valued and highly motivated. The employees are keenly aware that they must be “relevant” every day in delivering the company’s values.

Know what the market place desires, create relevance internally and externally.  Relevance in compensation and training ensures customers will get what they want.   Profits are the barometer for how well your company succeeds at relevance.

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