Sympathy For The Devil

A recent bout with some difficult but necessary business decisions may have changed my perspective on some former bosses (slightly).

Image by Jack Chick

For years I would sit in meeting after meeting with some hot shot in a sharp suit telling me that the company is strapped for money and needs to make some sacrifices. However, the only people that ever seemed to be making sacrifices were those of us in the trenches. How could these wealthy moguls possibly understand the impact their decisions would have on us when clearly they’d still be living large? We’d stare hard at them hoping they’d feel our disgust. We’d walk out in a cloud of silence hoping they’d sense our anger.

In the end though, for those lucky enough to still have jobs, life would resume it’s normal routine and our resentment of management would be reduced to a slow simmer. Of course it would inevitably boil over from time to time when we’d be hit with more cuts coupled with the news that our bosses were getting higher bonuses for a job well done.

After a while, the need to end that cycle was why I left the big bad corporate world to buy a small sandwich shop in Hoboken and try to make it on my own. Oh, I just knew that I’d do things differently. I’d never stand in front of a room filled with my employees glaring at me in anger, making a speech about difficult financial times and the need to make cutbacks. That is until a few weeks ago when reality smacked that fantasy right out of my head.

I had spent much the first eight months as owner of D’s Soul Full Cafe observing my new crew. Learning about their strengths and — more importantly — weaknesses. Although the business had tripled in those months thanks to new, more aggressive marketing programs, we were still losing money and struggling to maintain a positive image with our customers. No one complained about the food. Rather it was the service that irked them.

This was all new to me. All my life I had worked producing things that suffered little or no negative recourse from things like lack of courtesy or inefficiency or any of the other human frailties of business. If anything every broke or went awry, fixing it was a simple matter of punching a few keystrokes. So the thought of having to fix errors made by the bad habits of living, breathing humans was completely foreign to me.

The constant fear of losing business due to the human factor and not our actual product scared me in a way I was not used to. I started to wonder. Had I made a mistake? Should I have stayed on the course of my comfortable existence in the glamorous world of internet publishing? At least in that world, all of the uncertainties were beyond me. I was a drone, a worker bee. My routine was set and the course was clear then. Now, days of flop sweat and sleepless nights and twisted guts and nausea became my new routine.

In the end, I knew that I was not going to throw away this new business so quickly and that things could and would get better. But this would only come after some drastic changes to the way things were working here.

It was after this revelation that my relationship with my employees changed dramatically. That’s because most of the areas that needed changing would directly impact them in ways that would at first glance seem unfair and unpleasant. However I knew that these were things that needed to be done if we were to save this company.

As I stood before them, advising them of the new programs, I could feel them staring at me in disgust the way I used to do to my old bosses. I could sense that familiar cloud of silent anger. A strange sympathy for some former bosses washed over me and left me feeling ill. Physically and emotionally ill. It felt as if I had somehow crossed over to the dark side of corporate life that I had been trying to escape. Was I now no better than those sharp-dressed corporate slicksters that I used to resent?

The days after the meeting were pretty awkward. No one would speak to me other than for business purposes. I was now the bad guy. It truly hurt me, but I knew I was right. And while I now could sympathize to a certain extend with decisions that needed to be made in those big corporations, I understood my place in this world. Of course I was not crossing over to the dark side. My business to far too small for me to be that detached or for me to live large in any real way. Besides, it’s not in my nature to be that sinister and my intention for buying a business was not to get rich. It was to be happy.

There is a happy ending to this tale. Below are the programs I initiated. At first, each one of them was met with disdain by my crew. However, at the end of the very first day that these went into effect, their tones all changed completely. That’s because they learned that, with a little team work and understanding, they could actually come out making a little more money and feeling a lot less stressed.

Accountability Program
All employees would be penalized for any incorrect orders that resulted in lost sales, not just the employee who made the mistake. Penalties would range from $1 to $5 per mistake depending on the situation and would be deducted from their pay. This was meant to teach them that we are a team and we should all look out for each other.

Since this program went into effect, our rate of mistakes that went out the door dropped from an average of six per week to one. Not only that, employees were now stepping up to take responsibility for their errors rather than letting the whole team take the hit.

Zero Distractions
One of our biggest complaints from customers was that our employees were too distracted. So now no iPods or phones would be allowed while on duty. No personal calls or texting. No headphones. No sitting or messing around in the work area. There would now be a stricter set of break times given out to reduce the number of times customers would come in and not get served quick enough, which would result in lost sales.

The idea was that, with less distractions, less mistakes would be made. While it worked, it has been the hardest one to enforce. Oh, did I forget to mention that our employees are all teenagers? Being distracted simply comes with that package.

Order Redundancy
One area where many mistakes were being made was when it came to our online ordering systems. We use several different vendors who take orders online, then fax them to us. Each place has their own way of formatting these orders. Because of this, things would either go unnoticed or items would be placed in the wrong bags.

The new system would require that all faxes were scrutinized and any special instructions highlighted. In cases where different stations would be required to prepare the food (wraps, bagels, etc), the entire order would be re-written to cover all bases. At first this seemed like a lot of unnecessary duplication of work, but the results were far less order errors.

Employee Discount
Employees could now buy food from the shop at an extremely generous discount. This replaced an older program in which a certain percentage of their pay was allotted to cover the cost of their food for the day. The problem was they were eating, drinking, or just plain wasting up to four times that allotment each month.

I got a lot of resistance on this one. However, after the first day it went into effect, everyone understood the potential to make more money. This was because now they got their full pay rate and were only paying for the food or drinks that they actually consumed. The result was they were more responsible and actually did make a few extra dollars each week. Plus, the shop wasted less food and therefore lost less money.

So far these new programs have helped improve productivity and save money for the shop. Plus they’ve taught the kids how to work better and be more responsible. A huge success all around, I think. I’m still struggling with the fact that I am a boss now, but I can certainly try to be the best boss I can. After all, I don’t mind sympathizing with the devil, as long as I don’t become one. And that will keep me free from the dark side of corporate life.

Oh, and my employees are talking to me again.

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