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Opinion Editorials

Using Pal’s Sudden Service model can make you famous for service, staff retention

(EDITORIAL) Winner of the 2001 Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award — the first restaurant to do so — Pal’s is a fan favorite with a turnover rate a third lower than the industry average. Here’s how they do it.

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It’s no accident

Regardless of your business, its focus is on people: the people you engage as customers, served by the people that you hire. It’s not about what you make, but about who you make it for, and how well the people who represent you do that. Impassioned customer engagement and employee retention doesn’t happen accidentally. It’s earned, day after day, by a devotion to establishing and maintaining your culture with the people who are hired and trained to do so.

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We all should be looking for ways to create the best customer experience by investing our energy in those things which we can control, starting with our employees and their experiences.

As we look to companies that are renowned for their customer service, such as Walt Disney or Zappos, it’s easy to say to ourselves, “Well, if I had the money and resources that those companies do, it’d be easy for me to have a more attractive experience for my customer and employee.” But there are companies much smaller in scope who deliver an amazing customer and employee experience.

How Pal’s Sudden Service succeeds

Located on the Tennessee/Virginia border, Pal’s Sudden Service is a quick-stop restaurant (QSR) with 26 stores that’s physically similar to other such restaurants, excepting that it’s a drive-thru only. However, there are many differences. When cars approach the dual drive-thrus, customers provide their order to a Pal’s employee face-to-face, rather than through a speaker.

This is such a hallmark of Pal’s that their recent advertising campaign was titled “Face-to-Face”, highlighting the speed and accuracy that come from beginning the order process talking to a person rather than a screen, allowing customers to progress through the line faster and resume enjoying their day. Speaking of their speed and accuracy, it’s legendary.

From the time of first contact with a Pal’s employee, the customer orders and receives their order within 30 seconds. By way of comparison, the next closest competitor completes the process in two minutes, four times slower than Pal’s. Now, you might well be thinking, “Great. They’re fast, we can be fast at my business, but only being fast doesn’t guarantee customer satisfaction.” And you’d be right.

It’s about more than just speed

The story of Pal’s transcends speed. Winner of the 2001 Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award — the first restaurant to do so — Pal’s makes a mistake in a customer order only once in every 3,600 orders, reports Harvard Business Review.

In comparison, that’s ten times better than their closest competitor, and the combination of speed and accuracy has won them loyalty from their customer base, as well as being a company worthy of study by competitors and management experts alike.

How do they do it, and how can we apply their methodology to our companies? It all comes down to their approach to their employees.

Retention begins with selection

Pal’s 26 locations employ roughly 1,000 workers. 90 percent are part-time, and 40 percent are between 16 and 18 years old. Given the complexities in managing this segment of the demographic, the hiring process at Pal’s begins with an extensive psychometric screener, a 60-point check to see how well the candidate is aligned with the attitudinal characteristics of Pal’s most talented employees.

“We’re believers that birds of a feather flock together,” said CEO Thom Crosby, speaking to the Harvard Business Review. “If you start having an operation with weak crew training and not a lot of really good leadership by managers, the people who apply there are the same kinds of people. We go the opposite direction.”

Training never stops

The work’s just beginning when employees are hired. At Pal’s, training isn’t a one-time event, but an intense process designed to ensure that all employees can successfully do all of the tasks involved in operating the store, with frequent rechecks to test for proficiency.

Employees new to the company receive 120 hours of training before they are allowed to work independently.

Each of the tasks that they do is accompanied by a certification test, which must be passed as well before they can work on their own.

The training is continuous: daily, in each restaurant on each shift, the company’s training software generates the names of employees that must be recertified in one of their areas of responsibility. Think of these as a form of a surprise quiz for the employee; they complete the brief test, and if they aren’t successful, they must be retrained in that area before they can do it again independently. This occurs for every employee on average 2 to 3 times monthly.

“Human beings go out of calibration, just like equipment”, said Crosby.  “We see so many operations that have training and they’re so happy when a trainee can pass a test. Then they sign off on this person as “trained” and they usually don’t revisit that person unless there’s a really severe performance issue.”

By focusing time, energy, and money on ensuring that employees don’t have the opportunity to go out of calibration with the expected standard, or to develop bad habits, Pal’s focuses on not only quality, but also culture in the same stroke.

Staff development is not a one-off event, especially for the part-time or adult learner.

By focusing on your staff as assets to be developed, rather than employees with varying levels of performance based on infrequent or non-existent training, you meet the needs of your customer and demonstrate to your employee that they matter.

Leadership never rests

At Pal’s, leadership is a serious endeavor in coaching employees. All leaders, including the CEO, are expected to spend 10 percent of their time daily teaching a specific skill to a specific employee. “At Pal’s, every leader needs to have a coaching and training target every single day,” said Crosby to Burger Business. “As CEO, I’m not exempt: Anyone is welcome to ask me my coaching target on any day.” This hands-on approach is bolstered by their master reading list, a selection of 21 books spanning leadership classics, alongside modern tomes on quality. These books are discussed at a bi-monthly book study occurring with the CEO and selected management.

This approach is also seen in how they approach their role within the industry. After winning the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award, the company created its Business Excellence Institute (BEI) as a development arm to provide best practices to others. As a sign of their success, one of their clients, Austin’s K&N Management became the second restaurant winner of the Baldridge award in 2010.

The result of all this? The customers are unswervingly loyal, and the employees stay employed.

In an industry renowned for its turnover rates, employee turnover rate for hourly employees is one-third the industry average.

Among leaders, it’s lower still. Over more than three decades, only seven general managers have left the company voluntarily, and assistant managers have an annual turnover rate of 1.4 percent.

How do we apply this to our individual circumstances? By focusing on the customer through the lens of improving your employees, you receive dual benefit. Your employees satisfy your customer, and you’ve invested in the best walking advertisement for your company that you can: a carefully selected employee who’s been well-trained and coached to take care of your customer.

#WorkForYourWorkforce

Roger is a Staff Writer at The American Genius and holds two Master's degrees, one in Education Leadership and another in Leadership Studies. In his spare time away from researching leadership retention and communication styles, he loves to watch baseball, especially the Red Sox!

Opinion Editorials

Why robots freak us out, and what it means for the future of AI

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Robots and humans have a long way to go before the social divide disappears, but research is giving us insight on how to cross the uncanny valley.

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Close of R2D2 toy, an example of robots that we root for, but why?

We hate robots. Ok, wait, back up. We at least think they are more evil than good. Try it yourself – “are robots” in Google nets you evil before good. Megatron has higher SEO than Optimus Prime, and it’s not just because he’s so much cooler. It cuz he evil, cuz. It do be like that.

It’s not even a compliment to call someone robotic; society connotes this to emotionless preprogrammed shells of hideous nothing, empty clankbags that walk and talk and not much else. So, me at a party. Or if you’re a nerd, you’re a robot. (Me at a party once again.)

Let’s start by assuming robots as human-like bipedal machines that are designed with some amount of artificial intelligence, generally designed to fulfill a job to free up humanity from drudgery. All sounds good so far. So why do they creep us out?

There’s a litany of reasons why, best summed up with the concept of the uncanny valley, first coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori (Wow he’s still alive! The robots have not yet won) in 1970. Essentially, we know what a human is and how it looks and behaves against the greater backdrop of life and physics. When this is translated to a synthetic being, we are ok with making a robot look and act like us to a point, where we then notice all the irregularities and differences.

Most of these are minor – unnaturally smooth or rigid movements, light not scattering properly on a surface, eyes that don’t sync up quite right when they blink, and several other tiny details. Lots of theories take over at this point about why this creeps us out. But a blanket way to think about it is that our expectation doesn’t match what we are seeing; the reality we’re presented with is off just enough and this makes us uncomfortable .

Ever stream a show and the audio is a half second off? Makes you really annoyed. Magnify that feeling by a thousand and you’re smack in the middle of the uncanny valley. It’s that unnerving. One possible term for this is abjection, which is what happens the moment before we begin to fear something. Our minds – sensing incompatibility with robots – know this is something else, something other , and faced with no way to categorize this, we crash.

This is why they make good villains in movies – something we don’t understand and given free will and autonomy, potentially imbued with the bias of a creator or capable of forming terrifying conclusions all on its own (humans are a virus). But they also make good heroes, especially if they are cute or funny. Who doesn’t love C3PO? That surprise that they are good delights us. Build in enough appeal to a robot, and we root for them and feel empathy when they are faced with hardships. Do robots dream of electric sheep? Do robots have binary souls? Bits and zeros and ones?

Professor Jaime Banks (Texas Tech University’s College of Media & Communication) spends a lot of time thinking about how we perceive robots. It’s a complex and multifaceted topic that covers anthropomorphism, artificial intelligence, robot roles within society, trust, inherently measuring virtue versus evil, preconceived notions from entertainment, and numerous topics that cover human-robot interactions.

The world is approaching a future where robots may become commonplace; there are already robot bears in Japan working in the healthcare field. Dressing them up with cute faces and smiles may help, but one jerky movement later and we’ve dropped all suspension.

At some point, we have to make peace with the idea that they will be all over the place. Skynet, GLaDOS in Portal, the trope of your evil twin being a robot that your significant will have to shoot in the middle of your fight, that episode of Futurama where everything was a robot and they rose up against their human masters with wargod washing machines and killer greeting cards, the other Futurama episode where they go to a planet full of human hating murderous robots… We’ve all got some good reasons to fear robots and their coded minds.

But as technology advances, it makes sense to have robots take over menial tasks, perform duties for the needy and sick, and otherwise benefit humanity at large. And so the question we face is how to build that relationship now to help us in the future.

There’s a fine line between making them too humanlike versus too mechanical. Pixar solved the issue of unnerving humanoids in their movies by designing them stylistically – we know they are human and accept that the figure would look odd in real life. We can do the same with robots – enough familiarity to develop an appeal, but not enough to erase the divide between humanity and robot. It may just be a question of time and new generations growing up with robots becoming fixtures of everyday life. I’m down for cyborgs too.

Fearing them might not even be bad, as Banks points out: “…a certain amount of fear can be a useful thing. Fear can make us think critically and carefully and be thoughtful about our interactions, and that would likely help us productively engage a world where robots are key players.”

Also, check out Robot Carnival if you get the chance – specifically the Presence episode of the anthology.

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Opinion Editorials

BIPOC Gen Zers are using TikTok to create cultural awareness

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) TikTok has become a platform for younger generations to share their cultures, paving the way for a more inclusive society. And they’re doing it one 15 second video at a time.

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Black person's hands holding a phone loading TikTok above a wooden table.

When scrolling on TikTok, you might come across this question posed by a BIPOC creator (Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color): “How old were you when you realized you weren’t ugly, you just lived in a predominantly White space?”

Growing up in predominantly White spaces myself with immigrant parents from the Middle East, I had a warped perspective of beauty. Straight light hair, fair skin, Western features, a stick-thin figure – I internalized my physical otherness as lack.

It wasn’t until I moved to a diverse city for college that I realized this. I saw others speaking different languages, eating ethnic foods and dressing however they wanted without fear of losing their proximity to Whiteness. Exposure to others who didn’t fit “the mold” was transformative for me.

As someone in their mid-twenties, I came of age with social media like Tumblr, Facebook and, ultimately, Instagram. But I’d be lying to you if I said that I didn’t wish TikTok was around when I was a kid.

For reference, most TikTok users are between 16-24, meaning that many are still in high school. While content on TikTok is really all over the place and specifically catered to your preferences (you can feel the algorithums at work as your scroll), one facet that I find integral to the app’s essence is Gen Z proudly showcasing their cultures – aka #culturecheck.

Besides the countless ethnic food tutorials (some of my favorite content on the app!), fashion has become a main way for BIPOC or immigrant TikTokers to fully express their identities and share their culture with other users on the app, regardless of physical location.

Take the #FashionEdit challenge, where creators lip sync to a mash-up of Amine’s “Caroline” and “I Just Did a Bad Thing” by Bill Wurtz as they transform from their everyday Western clothes into that of their respective culture.

In her famous video, Milan Mathew – the creator attributed to popularizing this trend – sits down in a chair. She edits the clip in such a way that as she sits, her original outfit switches to a baby-pink lehenga and she becomes adorned with traditional Indian jewelry. Denise Osei does the same, switching into tradition Ghanaian dress. If you can think of a culture or ethnicity, chances are they are represented in this TikTok trend.

This past Indigenous People’s Day, James Jones’ videos went viral across various social media platforms, as he transformed into his traditional garments and performed tribal dances.

Though the cultures and respective attire they showcase are unique in each video, the energy is all the same: proud and beautiful. Showing off what your culture wears has become a way to gain clout on the app and inspire others to do the same.

The beautiful thing about cultural/ethnic TikTok is that it isn’t just Mexicans cheering for other Mexicans, or Arabs cheering for other Arabs – the app sustains a general solidarity across racial and ethnic lines while cultivating an appreciation of world cultures.

But just how deep does that appreciation go? Some users think (and I agree) that “liking” a video of an attractive creator in traditional dress is hardly a radical move in dismantling notions of Western beauty.

While TikTok trends might not solve these issues entirely, it’s important to note that they are moving things in the right directions – I certainly never saw anything like this when I was growing up.

For whatever reason, Millennials, Gen X and Boomers seem to have a lot of shade to throw at Gen Z. But one thing is for certain – this young generation is paving the way for a more inclusive, more respectful society, which is something we should all get behind. And they’re doing it one 15 second video at a time.

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Opinion Editorials

This website is like Pinterest for WFH desk setups

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) If you’ve been working from home at the same, unchanged desk setup, it may be time for an upgrade. My Desk Tour has the inspiration you need.

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Man browsing desk setups on My Desk Tour

Whether you’re sitting, standing, or reclining your way through the pandemic, you’re most likely doing it from home these days. You’re also probably contending with an uninspired desk configuration hastily cobbled together in March, which—while understandable—might be bringing you down. Fortunately, there’s an easy, personable solution to spark your creativity: My Desk Tour.

My Desk Tour is a small website started by Jonathan Cai. On this site, you will find pictures of unique and highly customized desk setups; these desk configurations range from being optimized for gamers to coders to audiophiles, so there’s arguably something for everyone—even if you’re just swinging by to drool for a bit.

Cai also implements a feature in which site users can tag products seen in desk photos with direct links to Amazon so you don’t have to poke around the Internet for an hour in search of an obscure mouse pad. This is something Cai initially encountered on Reddit and, after receiving guidance from various subreddits on the issue of which mouse to purchase, he found the inspiration to create My Desk Tour.

The service itself is pretty light—the landing page consists of a few desk setup photos and a rotating carousel of featured configurations—but it has great potential to grow into a desk-focused social experience of sorts.

It’s also a great place to drop in on if you’re missing the extra level of adoration for your desk space that a truly great setup invokes. Since most people who have been working from home since the spring didn’t receive a ton of advance notice, it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of folks have resigned themselves to a boring or inefficient desk configuration. With a bit of inspiration from My Desk Tour, that can change overnight.

Of course, some of the desk options featured on the site are a bit over the top. One configuration boasts dual ultra-wide monitors stacked atop each other, and another shows off a monitor flanked by additional vertical monitors—presumably for the sake of coding. If you’re scrambling to stay employed, such a setup might be egregious.

If you’re just looking for a new way to orient your workspace for the next few months, though, My Desk Tour is worth a visit.

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