A million years ago, I worked my first W-2 job at my local McDonald’s. And sure, it wasn’t my most glamorous role, but I did learn a lot in my time flipping burgers that I still think about today.
At the time, the “cool” job was getting to work the grill. That’s probably counterintuitive—the main perks were that you got sweaty and reeked of onion. But it did just barely beat out asking people if they wanted fries with that, so it was a coveted role.
While working the grill, we’d get into busy periods where we’d all compete to see who could cook the fastest. Most of it was on a timer (don’t worry, we weren’t serving raw meat), but there were tricks like pre-measuring condiments and laying things out that could shave a few seconds off of our times. But assembling the sandwiches was where the magic happened.
A Big Mac is actually a lot more than just a patty and a couple buns. There’s a specific way that things have to be set up on the sandwich to give that classic Big Mac experience—put the pickles in the wrong spot or get sloppy with the sauce, and it’s still perfectly edible, but it’s not a Big Mac.
Well, suffice to say that the finer points of Big Mac integrity were lost on me at the time. We made them by the dozen, and if you really nailed it, you could toast the bread on a tray and flip them all over at once, saving precious seconds. While these kinds of shortcuts were fun for the people in the back and made the time go by faster, they didn’t really translate to a better burger.
In fact, the faster we went, the sloppier we got. The lettuce wouldn’t be spread right, pickles would be in the wrong spot, and just generally, it would be a close approximation to a Big Mac, but not quite there. And hey, if 11 of the 12 Big Macs looked right, what did the teenager working grill care if one was a little sad?
But really, it wasn’t just one Big Mac out of twelve. It wasn’t a minor mistake or a statistical anomaly—it was someone’s meal. And to the customer who got that one sad Big Mac, they might not have complained, but they were certainly less likely to enjoy it and order it the next time they wanted a quick bite.
Forgive me for waxing poetic about a sandwich, but part of McDonald’s universal appeal is that you can stop in, more or less anywhere in the world, and get the same thing at any location. A Big Mac is a sandwich, yes, but it’s also a promise that you’re going to get what you’re expecting with no deviation. And when we were goofing around in the back, trimming seconds off our times, we were breaking that promise.
Unfortunately, it’s not just stupid teenage boys who are guilty of this. Plenty of brands promise a certain standard and then fail to deliver. And I think it’s in your interest to take stock and make sure you and your people are delivering on what you promise to your customers.
My first piece of advice is to examine your products for consistency. When I laid out those dozen Big Macs, you could tell the difference between “good” and “fine” pretty easily. That’s harder in some businesses, like digital content or service providers that work outside of earshot, but you should still be tracking hard, quantitative data that you can review to make sure that your customers are getting what they’re expecting.
And what are they expecting? Whether you intended to or not, I’d bet that your marketing and sales materials make some big promises to customers. Whether it’s immediacy or pretty packaging or high quality, you need to check and make sure that’s what you’re delivering every time.
The good news is that you don’t need to do all this in a day. Inspect your highest yield product or service, then look for times where you fail to deliver. Is the cause a single person or area of the business? If so, fixing it shouldn’t be too hard.
It’ll be more challenging if the issue is inconsistent across your channels, but you can still run it down. Ask your staff what they think they’re expected to deliver. Identify a work group that performs well and have them explain the standards and their approach to the work. Define product expectation, and make sure everyone’s in the same place with it.
Repeat. Sooner or later, you’ll start changing your delivery or your promises, and either one is perfectly fine. What matters is that you’re giving your customers a real idea of what they can expect when they spend their money with you. You don’t need to be all things to all people, but you do need to follow through on the promises made to your customers.
If you’ve made it this far in the pandemic, the good news is that business is probably solid, at least in comparison to last year. Getting here took a lot of creativity: remixing products, adapting to digital tools, constantly updating for market trends, etc. And I wish I could say that as a reward for all that hard work, it’s smooth sailing from here on in.
Unfortunately, I cannot.
I know that most of us are tired of the “wait and see” approach. We had a lot of it last year, when none of us were sure how long COVID disruptions were going to last. Then with vaccines, we were finally on the way out—until the development of the Delta variant and a resurgence in vaccine skepticism. So now, like it or not, we’re still on that roller coaster, which means accounting for the new problems we’re facing, like the Great Resignation.
If you’re feeling the strain of more than 18 months of a pandemic, you’re not alone. The overwhelming message I’m getting from my business contacts is “I’m tired.” Nobody likes to feel like they’re trying to build a foundation on sand. But the good news is there are still positive steps that you can take, and there’s (hopefully) space to catch your breath along the way.
Last year, I shared my experience with two partners who owned a very successful fitness studio together. Before the pandemic, they’d just opened a second location to accommodate the demand. Then in March of 2020, everything stopped dead in its tracks, and they had to pivot in some significant ways. That probably sounds familiar, so I wanted to share where they’re at now and what the immediate future looks like for them.
Like anyone else, they’ve been riding the waves. The release of the COVID vaccines meant a huge boost in memberships, and the Delta variant meant an equally substantial slow down. At the worst of it, their membership was down by over 50 percent. And like a media company, there’s a certain threshold where you go from “getting by” to “considerable profit,” and they were living well below that line.
But they’re still hanging in there. Generously, they estimate that their membership is now at about 70 percent of what it was before. And that’s not an accident—that’s after exhausting forays into marketing, advertising, new offerings, and every other strategy and trick that they could get their hands on. But they’re burnt out. It’s a debilitating amount of work, and they just aren’t making enough to justify all the extra hassle.
And yet, like all of us, they have to soldier on. Things are improving, even if not by as much as they’d like, and the only thing to do is to keep up the good fight.
To that end, I’d like to take a departure from my usual musings about strategy and efficiency and instead implore you to please, if it’s at all possible, take a break. And to the corporate overlords reading this, please look the other way, because honest to God, your operators need a breather.
Hard work has always been tiring, but do you know what drains a person even more than effort? Panic. And since March of 2020, panic has been at least as present as COVID itself. Even now, as airlines surge back and forth between overstaffed with no flights to cancelling flights due to staff shortages, there’s not a lot of certainty to be found around us.
So my advice is to tell yourself and your team that it’s okay to let off the gas a little, even just for a little while. I don’t know what that means for you—maybe it’s an afternoon off, maybe it’s taking a partner or friend to the spa for a weekend (assuming you can find one with staff), or maybe it’s just turning off the news and taking a long weekend.
The “how” is unimportant; what matters is that you remember to come up for air. And if you’re a leader, it means giving your people permission to do the same. A lot of people have very compelling reasons not to return to work (COVID concerns, caregiving responsibilities, etc.), so the best way to circumvent the next crisis may be to give them a reason to like working for you.
Whatever’s coming next, I think it’s a safe bet that you’ll need to be on your toes for it. So give your team and yourself some space, and hope that the next bend in the coaster is a gentle one.