WASHINGTON, DC - Keenly aware of the impact of the changing workplace on Aramark Refreshment Services' business, the company's executives set out to revise its approach to employee training from the ground up, in order to maintain its position as a leading provider of vending and office coffee service.
In response to new demands from an evolving client base, Aramark Refreshment Services designed and launched the "Service Stars" program to train its field personnel with an emphasis less centered on operations and more focused on service.
Richard Wyckoff, president, Aramark Refreshment Services and Tony Petrucci, vice-president human resources, described the "Service Stars" training approach at a seminar entitled "Delivering World Class Service" during the National Automatic Merchandising Association National Expo.
"It's a challenging time in our industry; it's a leaner time with manufacturing and service sector jobs moving out of the country, resulting in job loss in these sectors," Wyckoff noted. "It's our strategy to recognize the emerging trends and respond with service offerings that meet the emerging trends."
Companies today are looking at every line item and weighing the cost/benefit equation more carefully than in more robust financial times. The workplace is changing, with 90% of offices staffed by fewer than 500 professionals who spend an average of 36 minutes for lunch, and consume more frequent "mini meals" throughout the day. And expectations of refreshment service providers change as the market changes.
Much of the job growth that has taken place is in smaller companies, many of which have accommodated this growth with multiple satellite offices networked to one another, rather than the traditional large headquarters facility.
"Workers today do more with less. The three-martini lunch days are gone," Wyckoff remarked. "People are not even taking a sit-down lunch break; they're grabbing and going. Providing an onsite dining location is not justified for an employee population under 500 people unless it's subsidized, so who's feeding them? As we target this vast market, we look for people who recognize the value we give their employees."
The image of coffee has permanently changed for the better, thanks to Starbucks paving the way for the widespread demand for, and consequent availability of, specialty coffee, the speaker noted. And with the emergence of new state-of-the-art single-cup and portion-pack systems, consumers are seeing the value of specialty coffee in the workplace, and recognizing that this value justifies a higher price point. Greatly to the benefit of OCS, the wide range of specialty coffee beverages on the market provide an indulgence that consumers enjoy throughout the day.
Another emergent trend is illustrated by the fact that snack food is one of the fastest-growing categories in the grocery channel, according to Wyckoff. "We're a generation of multi-taskers, and we eat while we do everything," noted the speaker. "If you're an employer and you want to design your place of business to improve productivity, you should fill your kitchen with snacks. And the same logic goes for your customers, if you're a business that serves the public , feed them and you'll keep them longer. Your customers recognize the value , so why are we still selling on the basis of commodity and competing only on price? That's my least favorite way to compete."
By conveying to their clients how their services drive the productivity of the workforce, operators can sell on the basis of value rather than price. And in doing so, workplace refreshment providers can often educate decision-makers to purchase extra value-added services at existing accounts, thus finding new ways to drive throughput.
Aramark's new, carefully-planned approach to serving today's market is to invest more resources in training and less in client commissions. "When we put the money towards training, clients win, because they get better service quality and they have more satisfied employees, who are more productive," Wyckoff pointed out. "We continue to invest in our most valuable resource, our people, and everyone wins."
Petrucci noted that while Aramark Refreshment Services has more than 3,000 team members throughout North America, many with extensive operational experience, the company determined that to thrive it must initiate a strategic shift from a sales and operating culture to one that is service-centered.
Accordingly, Aramark invested in a training program for its front-line staff, reinforced heavily by rewards and recognition. The program, "Service Stars," was developed by 10 of Aramark's front-line leaders and its skilled training team, who crafted a strategy to shift the company's culture in the desired direction.
"With this program, we took people who already were good at performing their daily activities, and helped them learn how to help customers with more, to give them different services," explained Petrucci. "We certified people as 'Service Stars Heroes,' which gave them ownership and accountability and this approach has helped us grow our business."
It took 18 months for Aramark to develop its training program, which participants complete in nine to 15 months. And it has worked, the speakers reported. Aramark has improved its customer retention, bringing the level to an all-time record high in a notably price-sensitive market.
"Because of our 'Service Stars' program, the majority of our customers are focused on value versus commodity, Wyckoff observed. Aramark's own employee turnover rate has been reduced because of the greater emphasis placed on the value of their contributions to overall success. "Many of them become 'Heroes,' which is a big win for them. We've been recognized by world-class organizations for excellence in customer service, and our employees are proud to be part of that."
According to Wyckoff, Aramark's "Service Stars" training program has made it easier for the company to place a deliberate focus on certain attributes when seeking to recruit employees with a desired, service-oriented profile.
The "Service Stars" training program is made up of 15 modules. Each focuses on an area that includes different elements of service and sales, and each uses a "coaching" (versus "training") approach.
"The coach is also the trainee's supervisor, so the student learns the module and then hears it reinforced by the coach on the job every day," Petrucci explained. "The modules had to be interactive and ongoing. Each session is just 30 or 45 minutes, so the students can go out and service customers."
The learning cycle begins with pre-session planning, during which Aramark training professionals lay the foundation by bringing each team of coaches together for group coaching exercises and role-playing activities, as well as orientation in skills to practice with trainees on the job.
Aramark provides managers with easy-to-read notes, developed by service professionals on the front lines, to help them prepare for their session in less than 30 minutes.
One module, the speaker instanced, teaches "active listening." The concept of each module is reinforced by posters and handouts that serve as reminders.After trainees complete 15 modules, they receive certificates specifying that they are "Service Star"-certified.
An operator attending the seminar asked whether such a program could succeed in an environment staffed by union employees.
"Yes. They're not going to fight an investment in their people. It's not much of an issue when they see it's for them. Sit down and communicate to the union officials the rewards and recognition associated with it," advised the speaker.
Another vending operator asked how Aramark has measured "Service Stars'" success since its implementation.
Petrucci reiterated that account and personnel retention are at an all-time record high, which directly correlates to the implementation of "Service Stars."
Wyckoff added that the program began as an internal initiative that Aramark did not discuss with its clients. "We were very quiet about it for quite a while, until we were sure that it worked; but customers noticed the change on their own," he said. "We began to give service personnel 'Service Stars' pins to wear on their hats, and it evolved from there and became something we publicized. Companies want to do business with companies that will be around, and who therefore invest in their employees to ensure service quality."
"Was it hard to get people who had been with you a long time to adapt to a new program?" asked another participant.
Wyckoff replied that not only did turnover decrease as a result of "Service Stars," "but we kept more of the people we wanted, longer." He added that many employees have shared personal accounts of how they used the techniques they learned through "Service Star" to change not only their professional skills, but their personal lives as well, by practicing "active listening" and problem-solving skills taught by the program.
"We have to make sure our people realize why we're doing what we do, and we'll easily bring along those who want to come along," he noted.
Another participant asked whether the assumption that service , not product variety , that's the key to satisfying today's demanding customer, and expressed concern that variety available to vending is limited in certain categories, such as "healthier" options and ethnic specialties.
"It's both service and variety. It's not just about getting it there, but what you put there," commented Wyckoff. "When you go to NAMA shows, you see all the new package formats and equipment and you see that the supply chain is recognizing our role in reaching the workplace market. The product variety we have is growing and keeping up with the times. Years ago, it took three years to get from the supermarket to vending. Now they roll out new products together for both markets."
When asked what kind of reward techniques Aramark finds most successful in motivating staff members, Petrucci replied that "thank you" letters, plaques and cash incentives have all proven to be extremely valuable incentives.
An audience member asked how an operator with eight or nine routes could employ a program like "Service Stars.""The principles apply whether you have 10 or 3,000 people. The basic skills still apply; it's just the logistics of training that might be different," concluded Petrucci.