In retail, it's common knowledge that front-line employees understand the customer experience far better than managers sitting in remote corporate offices.
So why don’t companies pay more attention to their front-line staff? Of course corporate culture plays a role, but a lot has to do with the difficulty of providing employees with a way to be heard.
One company that has overcome both these roadblocks and is now reaping the benefits is the restaurant chain Red Robin. With over 20,000 employees working in 355 restaurants in 42 states, Red Robin has embraced enterprise social networking to give front-line employees a voice—and it’s paying off.
In 2010, the company’s new management team was looking for ways to improve corporate performance. A decision was made to invest in the company’s employees, in part to reduce the high cost of employee turnover that is endemic in the restaurant business.
Newly hired senior VP of business transformation and CIO Chris Laping surveyed the employee landscape. Laping believed that the franchise's "purpose-driven generation of workers" (87% of employees are millennials) were searching for meaning. So engaging with these workers in a meaningful way might just create the purpose that would garner employee loyalty.
When Red Robin discovered the private social network Yammer, Laping decided to give it a try. Yammer, essentially a "Facebook for business," provides a social channel for employees, partners, and customers to communicate and exchange information, within a private, controlled environment. The free version of Yammer was initially rolled out as a social experiment, to see if employees would engage.
A few employees were invited to join and when they were urged to invite colleagues, membership spread quickly. Eventually, two Yammer networks emerged at Red Robin, "Yummer"—a network for restaurant managers, regional managers, and corporate office members to exchange information and answer questions from field staff, and "Yummversity"—a network for training employees.
Yummer is particularly remarkable because it gave a voice to the "silent" front-line workers at Red Robin. Prior to Yammer, these employees would pass information up the company management chain, but they rarely received feedback about what was done with the information.
In a recent interview, Laping provided two powerful examples where Yammer is impacting Red Robin’s business.
In 2012, Red Robin introduced a new menu item, the Tavern Double burger. Like many companies, Red Robin expected to receive feedback on its new offering via Facebook, but this didn’t materialize. Yammer (and Yummer), on the other hand, delivered. Restaurant servers and regional managers posted what they were hearing from customers on Yummer. Managers at headquarters monitored the discussion, and immediately understood that they needed to tweak the burger recipe.
The company was able to respond with an updated menu within four weeks. According to Laping, this feedback loop used to take six to 12 months and involved running expensive focus groups and surveys, hiring outside consultants, scheduling review sessions, and generating reports. With Yammer, results were achieved in four weeks without all the overhead. Although the company did not do a detailed cost analysis, it is clear that the new business captured by the menu changes was significant.
A second Yummer’s success emerged from the company’s "Blueprint Project," a CEO-led initiative to uncover the best employee idea for saving expenses without negatively impacting the customer experience. A $1,000 prize was announced and thousands of employees contributed ideas. The winning entry was awarded to a Seattle location manager who proposed replacing disposable kid beverage cups with re-usable ones. According to Laping, this ostensibly minor change yielded "a six figure savings for the organization."
The ability to provide entry-level employees with a voice is an untapped resource that companies can no longer afford to ignore. As employees embrace social tools at home, they will increasingly expect similar tools at work. Smart companies will connect their employees’ desire to contribute and interact with peers, with their own need to get timely feedback from the trenches.
Based on Red Robin’s experience, here are six recommendations to realize business value from enterprise social networking:
1. Make sure management is listening.
If decision makers are not tuned in to the chatter, change can’t happen.
2. Provide feedback and make it visible.
Employee participation is largely driven by the desire to be recognized by peers and managers; provide the feedback and make it public.
3. Brand the social network.
Employees want to feel the company is solidly behind the initiative. At Red Robin, the Yummer name connected employees to the brand.
4.Identify "agents of change" to get the ball rolling.
Start with those employees most eager to participate, especially millenials who are looking for recognition and searching for purpose.
5. Introduce contests and games to get people involved.
Experience shows that people are more likely to engage when they are having fun.
6. Make the rules of engagement simple.
Don’t over-engineer the social network, make it easy to enroll and participate.