How to Save Money By Observing Employees and Customers

In 2014, activist investor Starboard Value identified a cost savings opportunity of $216 million at Darden Restaurants. The restaurant operator owns such iconic brands as The Capital Grille, Yard House, and Olive Garden. Starboard's management felt Darden was underperforming. 

One of the more interesting conclusions in Starboard's analysis was that Olive Garden wasted $5 million annually on breadsticks.

Olive Garden is famous for giving customers free, unlimited breadsticks. It had a procedure to keep the breadsticks fresh, since they taste best within the first seven minutes of being served. Servers were supposed to bring one breadstick per customer, plus one additional breadstick per table. Customers could always request more.

What Starboard discovered was servers did not follow the procedure 57 percent of the time. They would instead give guests a large basket of breadsticks.

This resulted in a few problems. Breadsticks were wasted. Guests became full on breadsticks, so they bought less food. And servers had less guest contact since they needed to refill breadsticks less often.

All of this came from simple observation. Here's how you can save money and improve service by observing your employees and customers.

 Image courtesy of Olive Garden

Image courtesy of Olive Garden

Observing Employees

One of the best ways to fix a problem is to first verify existing procedures are followed. 

Starboard's solution to the $5 million breadstick problem at Olive Garden was to get employees to follow the current procedure more consistently.

A contact center leader I know reduced calls directed to a more expensive outsourcer by 50 percent. He did this by spending time with his employees and observing that many were not using the phone system properly. Agents would inadvertently mark themselves as unavailable to take calls, which caused calls the agent otherwise could have handled to get routed to the outsourcer.

Sometimes, employees are following the existing procedure, but that procedure is not sufficient to solve the problem. Observing your employees can still reveal solutions.

I once worked with a contact center that responded to customer questions about the company's products and tried to convert those inquiries into sales orders. A short time spent observing employees revealed that many would rush through calls when there was a large queue of customers waiting on hold.

The problem was the contact center's schedule didn't match call volume. When the schedule was re-aligned to better match demand (without adding staff), the team improved its sales closing rate by 36 percent.

If you want to save money and improve service, invest some time in observing your employees.

Observing Customers

You can often improve customer service and reduce waste by observing your customers.

I first learned this lesson when I worked in a retail clothing store in high school. My manager explained that paying attention to every customer yielded two benefits. The first was customers were likely to buy more if I was there to help them. The second benefit was being observant reduced theft.

One day, a coworker wandered away from her department and left it unstaffed. Within just a few minutes, a team of shoplifters stole approximately $5,000 worth of clothing.

Restaurants like Olive Garden can save money by observing what customers eat, and don't eat.

My wife, Sally, and I recently saw an example while dining out. Sally ordered a taco plate that came with two heaping scoops of guacamole. She ate about 25 percent of the guacamole, meaning the rest of it went to waste. A quick look around the restaurant revealed Sally wasn't the only one who left a mountain of guacamole behind on their plate.

An observant restaurant manager would notice the large number of plates coming back to the kitchen with a mound of guacamole still left. Guacamole is expensive, so the restaurant could easily save money by serving less and bringing more to the occasional customer who requests it.

Here's another simple example.

The next time you visit Starbucks or another coffee shop or fast food location at a busy time, observe how customers react when they enter and see the line. People entering the store will turn around and walk out when the line gets to a certain length, costing the company revenue.

Take Action

There are aspects of the customer and employee experience you probably won't capture in a survey. That's why it's important to observe and listen.

Here's a summary of what to look for:

  • Verify employees are following procedures. 

  • If employees are not following procedures, find out why.

  • Look for obvious obstacles that get in the way of service.

  • Watch customers to see how they naturally behave.

  • Investigate when you see signs of waste.