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Building a Winning Service Culture

As you can see from the breadth of subjects focusing on club dining and food and beverage within this issue of Club Trends, a lot goes into putting together a great food program. Purchasing, menu planning, preparation and cooking, facility design and scheduling are just some of the many challenges. One of the most significant is assembling your service staff and training them to deliver. They are the face of the operation and their demeanor and performance can make or break the whole experience.

The makeup of the service staff at clubs has fundamentally changed over the past decade. In prior times, they were typically comprised of professional servers who would stay with the club for a long time. That generation of employees has moved on and today’s team is comprised of youthful, inexperienced staff for which the job is a placeholder as they work toward other career goals. There is more turnover and greater margin for error. This lack of staying power can undercut one of a club’s chief competitive advantages—name recognition and personal service.  

By all indications, this challenge is not going away anytime soon. The tightening labor market is making an already difficult situation worse. Reviews of hospitality trade journals indicate CEOs of successful restaurant operators like Buffalo Wild Wings and Chipotle rank the availability of service staff as their top challenge over the next five years. If these fast-paced and formulaic operators can’t find the people they need, how will we find staff in the unique and differentiated environment of a private club?

Based on interviews with executives at two of the clubs with the highest service reputation in our industry, it is clear that you are going to have to construct a winning service culture out of the raw materials that will come your way. Actually, they won’t come your way at all; you need to go out and find them and then motivate them to perform at the highest level. This will entail putting in place an effective training and compensation plan, but above all else, it starts with defining your culture and honoring it every day.

Charlotte Country Club (CCC) is the place where everyone knows your name. No, really, everyone knows your name. That’s because they work at it and use modern tools like Google and Facebook to improve their recognition skills. On a recent McMahon visit to CCC, four staffers called McMahon staff by name between passing through the front door and arriving at the meeting room on the other side of the clubhouse. It’s one of the signs of how management has overcome a contemporary problem.

Damon D’Orio’s world view is infectious. It is evident in his receptionist’s pleasant and helpful voice when you call to talk with him and in his booming request at the end of the call that you “Have a wonderful day!” That might be a rote closing for many, but in his case, you know he means it. After talking with D’Orio about staff hiring, training and development, you will hang up thinking maybe you should go apply for a job at Charlotte Country Club. He makes it sound that good. You also wonder if you’d be able to cut it, because you need to be on your toes and dedicated to a 360 degree view of service: work for the greater good of the organization, know and respect your teammates and above all else, provide warm and effective service. It’s evident that the renowned service at Charlotte Country Club starts with the man at the top. He cares deeply about it and conducts himself in a way that elevates everyone’s performance.

The Southern Hills Experience

Southern Hills Country Club’s (SHCC’s) vision is “to strive to be one of the premier country clubs in the world.” This may strike some as a bit bold and brash for a country club in Tulsa, Okla. For General Manager Nick Sidorakis, it’s what drives him. And while the club has invested some $20 million in facilities over the past decade, Sidorakis believes the differentiator that puts the club on the path to reach its aspiration is service.

About halfway into what has been a 20-year tenure at the helm, Sidorakis saw a big change taking place in his staff. The veteran servers who had been with the club for a long time began to retire and there was no pool of people to replace them. The members were becoming unsettled by all the new faces. They didn’t know what was driving the turnover, but they knew they didn’t like it. Sidorakis saw it and recognized that he was going to have to find and work with young, raw talent and give them the training they would need to meet the membership’s high expectations.

First and foremost in the SHCC service code is to “hire for attitude.” You can teach someone how to wait on a table and make a drink, but you can’t change their personality. The hiring process at Southern Hills doesn’t rely on tests to unearth personality traits, just the observant and experienced eye and, more importantly, ears of the managers that do the hiring. Effective service is based on two-way communication, so they give the applicant lots of time to talk and communicate in interviews so they can begin to understand how they might engage with members.

Here are some of the top takeaways we learned in speaking with these masters:

Establish a Winning Culture. Can you sum up your work environment in a declarative sentence? Management at Charlotte Country Club can. They are dedicated to providing a safe, positive and enjoyable work culture with polite and respectful management. Who doesn’t want that? More importantly, they know who does, and it’s the Millennials that make up today’s workforce. The culture at Southern Hills flows from the Southern Hills University recruitment and training program, which is based on eight specific core values. The staff is imbued with these principles and applies them daily.

Adjust your plan to the reality of the workforce, not what you hope it would be. Sidorakis saw first-hand that the career servers that made up the traditional country club staff were going away so he built a system that would make the next generation of young people successful. He brought in human resource leadership that would identify the talent and built a training program to make this group successful. D’Orio is fascinated by Millennials and what motivates them to work. When he read in a University of Texas survey that 72 percent of the today’s young people couldn’t imagine working for an employer for five years or more, he took it as a personal challenge to beat those odds. He’s not quite there yet, but with average staff retention currently at 4.7 years, he far exceeds the industry norm.

Hire for attitude, train for success. Before anyone starts interacting with members at these clubs, employees spend upwards of triple the amount of time in training as service personnel at other clubs we interviewed. Southern Hills puts people in situations that can be difficult so they can see how they’ll react and guide them on how to overcome challenges to make for memorable moments. At Charlotte Country Club, servers meet and work alongside staff in other departments as part of their training. Both organizations make sure servers understand where they fit in the overall scheme of things. They understand that an error on their end could have a negative impact on how accounting or other departments can perform their duties. The fact they know and care about the staff in the other areas encourages them to hold up their end of the deal.

Provide incentives. Southern Hills uses a compensation plan that includes direct tipping from members to servers. Coming from his Steak and Ale background, Sidorakis was dismayed by all the standing around he saw when he first came onto the club scene. He figured if tipping motivates people in all the other restaurants, it could work at clubs. There are some differences in his plan and commercial restaurants, but there is a direct tie between hard work, excellent service and compensation.

CCC uses a more traditional club compensation plan, but they make sure they report total compensation to each staff member and they champion the benefits of working in the club environment, such as better hours, medical benefits and, of course, the special setting. They also complete a couple of evaluations early in the employee’s tenure to give and collect feedback and provide compensation increases. The club also offers intern programs in all departments, so a server who wants to stay and grow in the industry can find a path forward.

Get feedback, keep score and communicate success. Both clubs make use of employee surveys to understand how they are doing and eliminate roadblocks to effective service. SHCC uses data throughout its operation, from building zero-based budgets to clocking cook times. There is a tremendous amount of communication in the CCC culture. The servers can pull off a personalized experience because there is a database on every member’s preferences. They use flashcards for name recognition and technology to recognize guests.

Perhaps the most impressive thing in all this is the adaptability displayed by these veteran leaders. They’ve both been in the club business a long time, but they’ve developed solutions that work with the realities of the new labor market. The talent pool is thinner and different than what it was in the past, but by identifying those with the right attitude and giving them the support, guidance and incentive they need to be successful, they’ve built winning service cultures.  

Club Trends Fall 2015