Don't Train in Vain

Foodservice and Hospitality, September 2002. David Lipton

Almost everyone agrees that training restaurant staff is important. After all, how is somebody supposed to learn to swim if they're not taught? But restaurant owners often become disillusioned with training, assuming that they're “simply throwing money away. It's true that if not done properly, 60 per cent of what is taught during a training seminar is forgotten when the trainee leaves the room, and an additional 30 per cent is lost within the next seven days. That means only 10 percent of what the company spends thousands of dollars trying to teach their workers is retained, making training seem like a waste of time and money.

But training should be considered an investment, not a cost. And while 10 percent doesn't seem like much, it doesn't have to be that way. If done correctly, with well-planned training initiatives co-coordinated with company objectives and customer satisfaction in mind, money spent on training will bring a return on investment. Remember too that inadequate training can lead to higher turnover, a negative workplace environment and unhappy guests. A restaurant loses 68 per cent of its customers because of an employee with an indifferent attitude. That indifference is often the mark of an ill-equipped, dissatisfied worker who lacks the motivation and skills to do their job well. But simply sending an employee off to be trained isn't enough. Ensuring that employees retain what they're taught requires briefing, debriefing, monitoring and reinforcement by the operator.

Employees scheduled for training courses should be briefed beforehand so they understand why the training is necessary and what they will be expected to do differently afterward. Determining what needs to be taught varies from job to job, from front of the house to back of the house, and from restaurant to restaurant. In fact, what may seem crucial for an employee to learn from the owner's perspective may be entirely different from that of the customer's viewpoint.

For this reason it's crucial that restaurant owners first determine their customers' needs and determine whether they're being satisfied. Conducting various customer-service surveys will help uncover these needs, how well they're being met, what areas are lacking and how they can be improved. That information should be kept in mind when planning training sessions, and should of course be passed on to trainees.

Immediately following the training session, employees should be debriefed to ensure they learned what they were supposed to. Debriefing also helps reinforce the reasons why new skills and behaviors are necessary. Most owners will spend thousands of dollars on training programs, but only a fraction of that amount- if anything at all- on monitoring and reinforcement. It's important to remember that it takes six months to replace an old behavior with a new one, and the only way that can happen is through constant monitoring and reinforcement.

Training is as important at the top of an organization as it is at the bottom, and all levels should be participating in new training programs equally. Senior managers may not feel they need to be taught certain skills, but going back to basics is a good opportunity for them to brush up on things they may have forgotten. It will also enable them to effectively follow up and reinforce those behaviors and skills in their subordinates. At the same time, staff will look to their managers to see if they're practicing the required attitudes, skills, and habits. If upper management doesn't practice what it preaches, the effectiveness of any training is diminished, as staff lose confidence in their leaders and become increasingly frustrated.

Customers also act as reinforcements. If employees recognize that customers are more satisfied than they were before the training, they will be more likely to make the extra effort to maintain that level of satisfaction. Sometimes the smile on a customer's face is enough, but occasionally it will be necessary to conduct customer-service surveys either verbally or through comment cards. All this customer information should be passed on to employees as well so that they know the learned behaviors and skills have made a difference.

Mystery shopping is another great way to monitor and reinforce the effects if training. To employees, mystery shoppers are merely customers, and as such these unbiased, third-party inspectors should feel free to give staff on-the-spot feedback. For example, agreeing to order a dessert upon a server's suggestion encourages and reinforces for upselling. Mystery shoppers could also tell the server they really appreciated the friendly and honest suggestions that he or she made before ordering. Instantly knowing they did a good job reinforces the learned behavior and helps retain the training. Reports generated by mystery shoppers provide even more feedback, and will help management develop the next training session based on areas that still need improvement.

Properly trained staff and management truly are assets to any operation. For this reason, well-planned training programs and proper monitoring and reinforcement save time, costs, and customers- a far better alternative than the sink-or-swim approach.

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