Last night I witnessed a death in process; the last throws of a dying business, and it was sad and disturbing. We set out to celebrate some accomplishments of the kids and in our family that often means getting ice cream. My youngest wanted to go to a place we had not been in a few years, a place I’ll call IceCreamStore. I remember IceCreamStore fondly from several years ago when they opened in our community. The hallmarks of the store were fun, excitement and high energy, along with tasty ice cream concoctions. People are happy when they get ice cream. This particular store once was staffed with smiling people who welcomed guests, prepared the customer’s ice cream treats with delight and even sang jingles, in harmony, as you left the store. The store had fun-colored walls, an enticing display of ice cream and treats, and the product was very good, as ice cream has a tendency to be.
But thriving in the service business requires quality, engaged people. Despite the fact that they sell a product, ice cream is a service business. All ice cream is good, and, at the end of the day, the product is normally not a differentiator. We tend to select primarily based on service factors such as the experience and the execution, as well as location. Experience and execution are in turn, all about the people. Virtually always, service businesses are all about the people.
Last night at IceCreamStore, the experience was sub-par, driven by exceptionally bad execution. Our greeting at the counter was three people involved in personal conversations we appeared to be interrupting. There were no smiling faces, little energy. While our order was being taken, the phone rang and one of the workers had a short conversation. At its conclusion, she relayed to the others that it had been their manager calling to make sure the store had not been damaged by a storm which had blown through earlier. The second worker replied, with us right there within earshot, “I wish it had destroyed this place.” Finally, they completed our orders. The napkin dispenser, right in front of the cash register, was empty. The first table we stopped at was not clean so we moved to the next. We then realized that only one of five tables was clean. My daughter went back to ask for water, which required a wait until they could complete another personal conversation. In the course of our thirty-minute visit, only two other people entered the store. The business is on its way out, and I guess it is just as well.
It’s disturbing to see a business dying. When we think of dying businesses, we often think of ones where technology or regulation disrupted them right out of business – the travel agent, the book store, the long-distance phone company. Those are all understandable and rational. The ones which really disturb me are when the dying occurs due to the people – their lack of engagement, lack of fire, lack of urgency, lack of caring. In reality, that is all too often the case.
As you build your strategies and plan for your future success, I implore you to pay attention to the people side of the equation. The people in your business can and will make all the difference – for better or worse. It is true in ice cream stores – and in healthcare, restaurants, golf courses, insurance companies and most other businesses. An engaged, committed, hungry, people-smart team can overcome just about any business obstacle. It’s the people, stupid!