The Italian casual dining chain Pizza Express made quite a stir recently when it admitted to encouraging waiting staff to flirt with diners, as part of its new, trial staff training programme.
But despite the furore, HR director Julie MacDonald explains that the unconventional technique is simply used as a mechanism to give diners a more personalised service.
“Flirting is just about being you,” she said. “It’s about being open and engaging. It’s caring about people and making them feel special - making them feel that you can deliver anything they want. Everybody likes to feel special, no matter what age they are.”
Down at the ‘living lab’
This new training programme is currently being tested at Pizza Express’ ‘living lab’ restaurant in Richmond, at which the group also recently unveiled its new, radical design template.
Based around a concept known as dialogue training, which focuses on using conversation to bring out the personality of staff members, the technique is thought to help staff engage with their customers more confidently.
“Personality is all about making great conversation, and that’s about engaging people, about describing things, about how you listen and how you question,” claims McDonald.
Results from the first month of operation at Pizza Express’ test branch in Richmond have been so positive that the group knows it has “hit on a winner”. There have been fewer complaints than ever before, McDonald says, and profits are “well into double digit growth”.
How is it done?
The first step in the new approach was to recruit staff for the revamped branch according to their personality rather than experience.
They were then taken on a trip to Naples to “inspire” them with true Italian cuisine – a costly approach, but one that MacDonald says would work on a larger scale because of the returns it later brings in business.
Once inspired, all staff – both front and back-of-house – were asked to generate ideas about what constitutes great service. As well as bringing good ideas to the table, this was particularly valuable as it created a sense of ownership, pride and loyalty in the team.
At this point Pizza Express brought in dialogue expert Karl James, a classically trained actor and founder of specialist school The Dialogue Project, who works to help people use conversation to improve their interaction with colleagues and customers.
Each member of the team was already deemed to be naturally good at conversation – a specific trait that staff were especially recruited for. But James divided up the notion of conversation into ten key points, working with each member of the team to help them understand what their individual qualities were and how they could use them to improve their service manner.
The ‘ten steps of dialogue’ included, for example, descriptiveness, inquisitiveness, and openness.
“Above all, we wanted to avoid training people by giving them a list of ‘how-tos’, because the moment you tell people what to do they stop thinking and lose a lot of their personality,” explains MacDonald.
“We’re just trying to free people up and get them to be themselves rather than make them tick the boxes. And by helping them find out what their natural qualities were, we helped them be even more of themselves.”
Understanding the diner
Above all, this is what helped staff to better understand their customers and engage with them, she said.
“Pizza Express is quite central in communities, and we have a lot of regulars. It’s all about being naturally inquisitive with people and finding out more about who they are and what they like,” says MacDonald
“It’s about making the whole thing an experience for the customer, not just a transaction. And our approach to that has been to throw out the rule book, which can be an incredibly scary thing, but has had a huge impact for us.
“The Richmond restaurant is a ‘living lab’ for us. We know that some things will work and some things won’t. It’s all about testing.”
By March next year, Pizza Express will launch the training approach in four additional branches, with a national roll-out expected over the next three years.
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