Small business owners, do you overlook employee training?

Have you ever watched “Restaurant Stakeout,” on the Food Network? If not, you might want to check it out (Wednesdays at 9 pm Eastern) because the show provides a great primer on how NOT to run a small business.

In the show, a restaurant owner whose bottom line is in trouble calls in show host Willie Degel, who runs a successful chain of steakhouses in New York. He puts hidden cameras and microphones throughout the failing restaurant and spends several days monitoring everything that goes on when the owner is not there. Willie also sends in plants, sometimes to work as new hires in the restaurant and sometimes to act as patrons.

Willie and the owner watch the footage from a remote location, with Willie diagnosing the major problems. Willie and the owner then meet with the restaurant staff and tell them how things are going to change. Willie also meets with some staff members separately and then comes back in a couple months to judge progress. While some staff members get fired, often others get promoted, so it’s not always bad news for the staff.

I have been surprised that one problem crops up constantly because it seems so elementary that you’d think the business owners would have figured it out themselves. I suspect that this problem crops up in other types of small businesses, hopefully not yours. This issue is a complete lack of employee training in key areas, including, quite frequently, customer service.

Lack of product knowledge

For example, often the wait staff has not been trained about the menu. So when customers ask questions, they don’t know how to respond. This is such a basic thing that it’s hard to believe that it apparently is overlooked by many, many restaurant owners. But it crops up as a problem on “Restaurant Stakeout” time after time. So I’m wondering if how good a job other business owners do in training employees about their products. Are you guilty of this?

Another problem that shows up frequently is bartenders who haven’t been trained in bar tending! I know…the first time I saw this on the show I thought, “Well, that owner is just an idiot…everyone knows bartenders have to be trained.” Well, apparently everyone does not know this. After having watched the show for a couple seasons, I realize that this is a very common problem.

Here’s how this problem played out on a recent show. The owner had hired a friend to tend bar based on his outgoing personality. The guy had never tended bar before, but the owner gave him absolutely no training. So when one of Willie’s plants came in and started asking if she could “sample” various wines, this ever-so-friendly bartender poured her about three ounces of wine to sample, instead of the tiny amount he should have poured to give her a sip. Each time, the woman took a sip and then rejected the wine and the excess was poured down the sink. This happened three times! No wonder the bar wasn’t making money; the profits were being poured down the drain! (Willie later schooled the bartender on the appropriate way to pour a wine sample.)

Family and friends

One theme I’ve noticed time and again in this show when it comes to the lack-of-training issue is that owners often hire family and friends and just assume they know how to perform their jobs and that they understand the type of atmosphere the owner seeks to create.

What we’re talking about here is not the type of training where you have to pay big bucks for a person to go take a three-month course, although that certainly would help with the bartending. For the most part, the training that these restaurant owners haven’t done is simple stuff, like having tastings for the wait staff so they become familiar with the entire menu and with the specials of the day.  But somehow these owners just haven’t thought about training as being the solution to their bottom-line woes. Could that be the case with you, too?

Many of the owners shown on this show are first-timers; they opened a restaurant without prior experience. They love food and owning a restaurant has always been their dream. I’m sure this is true of numerous owners in other types of businesses. But if you’re not training your staff in the basics of product knowledge and customer service, your days in your dream business will be numbered.

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