Training: Greene King's Groundforce training teams

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Greene King's Groundforce training teams are on the road to get staff to 'think as retailers'. By Phil Mellows.What makes people keep coming back to...

Greene King's Groundforce training teams are on the road to get staff to 'think as retailers'. By Phil Mellows.

What makes people keep coming back to your pub? Your dashing personality perhaps? The new curtains? Cheap beer?

In fact, research shows that two-thirds of customers who desert a pub do so because of the service they receive.

A figure this high suggests that you don't only lose a customer because of positively bad service. It happens mostly when you don't do that little bit extra to give them a reason to return.

Armed with this insight, plenty of felt pens, some big sheets of paper, a cassette player fuelled by a dodgy selection of seventies music and a camcorder, Greene King Pub Company's Groundforce team has been on the road this past year, looking to do something about it.

The George in Huntingdon was one of the latest to get the treatment. A sign went up in the window one Tuesday morning telling customers the pub was closed till six for training.

The staff, plus manager Julie Lloyd and area manager Ted Olszak, gathered in the bar at 10am and Tracey Warren, Claire Coy and Kate Thornton, who form one of two Groundforce squads which have been hitting pubs at the rate of three or four a week, set to work.

In the Groundforce philosophy customer service has an intimate relationship with the act of selling.

Oddly enough, the more people spend, the better time they feel they have had. They like being sold to.

The ultimate goal of the day, explained Tracey, was to get the staff to "think as retailers". "You are all here to actively sell a product, and we're going to bring out the sales role of everyone," she added.

First, the staff established what was special about the George and who their customers were.

The pub was famous, they said, for its two Algerian chefs, its "voluptuous barmaids", its daily fish specials, its service and atmosphere.

"If you know your market, you can direct products at them," said Claire.

After a treasure hunt around the pub, "to wake people up", Claire turned to the art of upselling.

The staff took on the roles of barstaff, waiting staff and their customers and competed to sell the most, offering snacks to drinkers, side dishes to diners and so on.

All in an appropriate way - as Claire pointed out, "you don't want to be asking people whether they want vegetables with their pint of lager".

"Upselling adds to the customer's experience," she said. "It will keep them coming back."

One of the distinctive things about Groundforce is that it has a direct effect on the way staff behave in their normal working day.

New standards of service are set and they are given targets to hit. The George's team has now set itself the goal of each getting an extra £10-worth of sales each shift through upselling.

Next on the agenda was complaint handling. Staff were given a simple five-point model for dealing with complaints which, as well as making the customer happy, enables staff to stay in control of the situation.

Then Kate turned to the visual side of selling. "The bar is your shop window," she said. "If you can make it easy for people to shop they will spend more.

"It's easier to shop in a supermarket than it is in a corner shop, for instance, because supermarkets have techniques for grouping similar products."

Another supermarket technique which can be imported into the pub trade is the identification of hot spots where you might position your most profitable products.

"A good back-bar display can increase your sales by 23 per cent," said Kate.

After running through the basic principles of merchandising, the George's staff put them straight into practice by rebuilding their own back-bar.

This was going to be one training session where the customers should notice the difference. The final session of the day was on drinks, focusing on quality, consistency and the staff's product knowledge.

It's important that barstaff are able to spot a bad product before it reaches the customer - apparently 75 per cent of the time they won't complain, they might just not come back.

Claire demonstrated a new way of serving mixed spirits - in 12-ounce glasses full up with ice with a wedge of lime rather than a slice of lemon.

"It keeps the drink cold for longer, dilutes it less and it looks like you are getting more," Claire said.

The George team agreed to adopt the new service standard and moved on to the final exercise - making a video ad for the pub.

The best of a year's worth of these ads from different pubs will win a prize in July.

Getting in at ground level

For area manager Ted Olszak, Groundforce is a great opportunity for him to join a pub's team for a day and get to know the people who work there.

"Staff are apprehensive to start with but they quickly get into it and start to see the value of it," he said.

"Merchandising, for instance, has enhanced our business, but staff often don't realise just how important it is. What was just a bar becomes a selling tool.

"It's good that staff have the chance to rebuild the back-bar themselves. Because they have done it they take ownership of it, they keep to it and continue to work to the standards they have set.

"It also pushes through the importance of upselling. If each member of staff sells £20 extra on their shift that adds up to £50,000 a year for us.

"Groundforce has a lasting effect. People remember the day and you keep making use of it. It brings home the importance of their role in the organisation, makes them more aware of problems and more proactive about dealing with them. It's certainly helped me and I've been in this business for 25 years," he added.

Groundforce won

Since introducing the Groundforce initiative last year, targeted pubs on the Greene King estate have between them achieved a like-for-like sales increase of 1.5 per cent in a declining market.

To get a true idea of whether it works only pubs that have not had a recent investment have been selected. The success of the scheme means it will now be rolled out across the whole estate.

"Groundforce has been more successful for us than traditional customer care courses," said human resources director Julian Bradwell. "The reason for that, I think, is that it is done in-house and we can make it relevant to that pub.

"We take the view that all training must have an impact on the business but we didn't really expect it to have such a positive effect on team spirit. As well as increasing sales, feedback from staff shows that they enjoy Groundforce, it brings teams together and they learn something they can bring into their day-to-day roles.

"It gives us an opportunity to train pub staff in selling a broad range of products rather than focusing on one brand, which is what this kind of training has focused on in the past. So it broadens their skills.

"Some companies would be reluctant to shut the pub for a day to do this," he continued. "But we think that it shows our commitment to staff and to improving sales for our suppliers too."

The two three-strong Groundforce teams, headed by Greene King training manager Phil Bowe, have marketing backgrounds but they have all worked in pubs. "They have brought youth and vitality to the organisation," said Julian. "And one of them has already been promoted to join our quality standards team."

Groundforce objectives

  • increase sales
  • develop skills and knowledge
  • set new standards
  • train staff to think as retailers
  • have fun.

Complaint handling in five steps

  • listen calmly to the complaint
  • a

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