By Kelsey Casselbury 2017-09-28 19:57:20
Earn 1 CEU in the designated Key area and Key Topic Code noted above » Eight ways you might unintentionally sabotage your efforts to please student customers. To hear Sarah White, retired director of the School Nutrition program at the Tennessee Department of Education, speak about customer service in school cafeterias, you might think you were attending a stand-up comedy show. The self-proclaimed storyteller, who worked in education for more than 43 years, starts out with a side-splitting anecdote that she simply calls, “The Plastic Cheese.” It goes a little something like this: “I was in a school system in Tennessee, participating in a review. I needed to go to the bathroom, and the supervisor said, ‘Be real careful, there’s a mouse trap in there. It’s been two years, and we haven’t caught the mouse, but be real cautious about it.’ So I go in there, thinking, ‘That’s kind of strange.’ I’m washing my hands, and I turn around and do see that mousetrap...but it looks unusual to me. I bend down, and I see that it has plastic cheese on it. You haven’t caught the mouse in two years? These are the great-grandchildren of that mouse! These mice are thinking, ‘Those people think we’re so stupid that we’ll eat plastic cheese!’ “If something hasn’t worked for you in two years, you need to change what you’re doing! If you’re trying to achieve something, and you’re not getting good results, when are you going to decide that it’s not a good approach? Plastic cheese is not real—and people know when we’re not real.” Ahh, there it is—the lessons to be learned from the Sarah White Comedy Hour. There are two of them in this story: First, when you know a practice, strategy ot tactic isn’t working, it’s time to figure out a new approach, set goals and make it work. Second, be real. As a consultant and a speaker, White travels the country to share best practices in school nutrition operations, including in customer service. At SNA’s Annual National Conference in July 2017 in Atlanta, she presented an education session, “Avoiding Customer Service Traps,” which focused on how poor customer service can utterly disrupt and destroy a school nutrition operation. Keep in mind, customer service is not only about how you treat the customers, but also how you protect and promote a positive perception of the school meals program within a district or a community. So, why bother focusing on customer service in a school setting where the audience is practically captive? Because students still have the choice of deciding whether to take a meal, bring one from home or go without. “If you can’t get a hungry child to eat a meal in your school cafeteria, you’re not doing something right,” White insists. So, unless the program is capturing each and every student who is eligible for free/reduced-price meals—not to mention those who have even greater economic choice to participate—then join SN as we explore eight of White’s insightful (and often amusing) customer service traps and learn how to sidestep them. TRAP #1 Not Identifying All of Your Customers Oh, this one should be easy, right? Your customers are the students, and their opinions are the most important. Not so quick, says White. The students are your primary customers, yes—but so are teachers, parents, grandparents and members of the school and district administration. Ever the storyteller, White has an anecdote to back up just why treating all customers with respect is of utmost importance. “When I was first teaching school, I got a piece of paper that told me that I was going to eat lunch at 10:38 a.m. (Who eats lunch at 10:38 a.m.? But, okay…) I finished things up and went down to eat [just a few minutes later] at 10:45—and the lady in the cafeteria screamed at me! She asked if I could read. And then she made an enemy for life.” Even if annoyed by White’s late arrival, that cafeteria employee should not have berated her. The customer is always right and there are dozens of better ways the employee could have addressed her concerns with White’s failure to be prompt. To practice good customer service skills, White recommends meeting with new teachers at the beginning of the year and introducing them to the cafeteria operation, explaining key points such as federal nutrition standards and portion sizes, meal pattern requirements, time to eat and so on. (After all, newbies on staff probably don’t know any more about school meals than the general public.) “Offer them a free breakfast,” she suggests. “Talk to them, and make them allies.” It’s also good practice to make sure that everyone in the school can easily recognize the individuals who work in the lunchroom by posting labeled pictures of each staff member in a prominent place near the serving area. Although most staff likely have badges to wear, “people have to get in your bosom to see your badges!” White exclaims. “Just put up pictures of the managers and staff so that teachers and students can easily identify you by name.” TRAP #2 Poor Communication You need to pay attention to two primary areas of communication: Exchanges with those whom you see daily, such as students, and periodic, professional communications with various stakeholders to ensure that any misconceptions about the program are quickly cleared up or avoided entirely. Take this example of a total miscommunication that White once experienced in her own family: Her grandson claimed that the school was being shut down the next day, and it had something to do with the cafeteria. White couldn’t really believe that, so she pressed the boy for details. “I asked, ‘Why would that be?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, but there’s a million suits going around sticking thermometers in food,’” she recounts. Given her position at the Department of Education, White was unalarmed and called the supervisor at the school to confirm her suspicion: Had the site been given a health inspection that day? “Yes!” exclaimed the supervisor, who was rightly proud that they scored a 98.9. This was a positive activity with a positive result. But the misperception of the students caused a false alarm—and probably with more than a few families. White’s advice: If you have a health inspection scheduled, go straight to the principal to inform him or her when it will take place and what will be involved. When there are positive results to share, don’t delay—get the word out as soon as possible to counter any rumors. TRAP #3 Lack of Goals In White’s view, goals are another essential element of ensuring good customer service—and they go hand-in-hand with the importance of providing frequent, timely and informative communication to all customers. How do you share the positive aspects of the program when you don’t have any goals established to 1) improve the program and 2) relay those improvements? Goals that relate to customer service and marketing might include: » How many new teachers or administrators did I meet this month or this year? » How did I communicate to the community what achievements we’ve had this week or this month in the cafeteria? » Have I published our menus for the community to access? » How often do I ask students about their reactions to different menu items or to identify their favorites? » Do we have a suggestion box or a student advisory group? Goals like these help to keep the team’s mind focused on goals beyond participation, food safety or kitchen efficiency. It reminds everyone of the numerous ways they can and should connect with customers. TRAP #4 Accepting the Ordinary Are you OK with being ordinary, or do you strive to being seen as extraordinary? In White’s home state of Tennessee, she regularly visits two major grocery store chains. She has noticed that one store provides significantly better customer service. Which one do you think is her top shopping destination? Now, ask yourself and your team members: “What do we do that shows how we go the extra mile in providing customer service?” These don’t have to be expensive, time-consuming or even especially creative. It’s really about having the right mindset. “Extraordinary means you can make simple changes that make everything better for everyone,” White explains. “Ask yourself: ‘Am I trying to become extraordinary? Or am I stuck at ordinary?’” TRAP #5 Trying to Unring a Bell Let’s face it: If you’ve made a mistake, it’s already been made and probably can’t be changed. “A good example: If I’m supposed to serve green beans, but I put out cauliflower, the cauliflower is there,” White notes. “I can’t unring that bell.” What about mistakes made in customer service? It’s equally impossible to take back words that have already come out of your mouth. If you’re rude to a student or a coworker, the words have been heard—even if you follow up with an apology. Better, she says, to be “constantly vigilant about not saying the wrong thing.” Take a breath. Pause. Think before you speak—especially if you’re feeling frustrated, frazzled, angry or impatient. Of course, you’re only human so you probably will say something you regret every now and then. Acknowledge that you can’t unring the bell, but be sure you do offer a sincere apology. TRAP #6 Starting the Year-End Countdown When the school year starts, everyone is gung-ho and raring to go. There’s an abundance of new ideas and everyone has great enthusiasm for seeing the students again. But by the time the long, winter holiday break arrives, something changes. “We go home in December, come back in January, and it’s like the employees have been possessed with something,” White observes. “All of a sudden, they are posting these big countdown cards—110 days until school is out!” Why is this a problem? After all, most students are excited at the prospect of summer vacation, too. But White sees it differently. “To me, that’s the most negative thing you can ever communicate to a student,” she insists. “Essentially we’re saying we can’t wait to get rid of them.” This is especially hurtful to students who live with food insecurity at home and don’t necessarily look forward to breaks. “Rip down those calendars!” advises White. You can, of course, share your enthusiasm for upcoming vacations with the students in positive ways—although you should wait until the school year is almost over. You can ask about plans—and share your own. The point is to engage, bonding over mutual enthusiasm for lesson-free days without making it seem that you can’t wait to spend two or three months out of their sight. TRAP #7 Employing Energy Vampires Admit it, you’ve worked with them—people who seem to suck all the life and energy out of the room. White refers to these folks as “energy vampires,” readily admitting that she stole the phrase from football coach Mark White. Negative people spread negativity wherever they go, infecting coworkers and customers alike. They can do real damage to a school nutrition operation, giving it a bad rap throughout the school community. “I would get rid of them if I could,” White says flippantly. But what if you don’t have the authority to hire and fire? If you’re a manager, you may be able to reassign a Negative Nancy to tasks where she has reduced contact with customers. “If people don’t have smiles on their faces, put them in the dishroom for a while,” advises White. And if you’re a coworker, make an extra effort to resist that negativity and instead be positive and upbeat. TRAP #8 Staying in a Recipe Rut Cycle menus are important tools to manage inventory, promote efficiency and drive participation by marketing customer favorites. But you can and should work within the constraints of a cycle menu to ensure it doesn’t get stale. Sure, every Thursday is Pizza Day—but perhaps once or twice a month Pizza Day means offering a new topping or pairing it with a different vegetable side dish. You want to respond to students’ desire for routines, without letting them—or you—get in a rut. You don’t want to miss opportunities to provide nutrition education, offer a fun promotional activity and expand their culinary horizons. Research new recipes or menu items that are successful in neighboring districts or available from vendors. Offer a class with the best standardized test scores or participation at breakfast the chance to select the menu on a specific day. Schedule more taste-testing events. Engage customers in ways that let them know that their influence and opinions matter, within the constraints of budget, labor/prep limitations and nutrition requirements, of course! TRANSLATING THE MESSAGE Here’s a question: How do supervisors or managers help front-line workers understand the traps of poor customer service? “I tell everyone that if you don’t love the students and you don’t love the job, you don’t need to be working here,” White claims. (It backfired once—White gave that advice to a team at one school site, and, according to the supervisor, two people quit immediately afterward, leaving the site short-handed.) You can’t change someone’s personality, of course, but you can train the staff to reflect on how their personal behaviors send subtle messages. Help them to build self-awareness and to set goals for improvement. Remember, if the kids ain’t happy, no one is happy. ADVICE I tell everyone that if you don’t love the students and you don’t love the job, you don’t need to be working here. Kelsey Casselbury is a contributing editor for School Nutrition and its former managing editor. She’s based in Odenton, Md.
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