Happy employees attract loyal customers. Unhappy employees can drive customers away. As a pizzeria operator, you can do all of the clever marketing in the world, but if your employees aren’t engaged, motivated and enthusiastic, the results will be unsatisfying. For this reason, you should treat your employees not as hired hands, but as internal customers, then do your very best to make sure that your internal customers are just as satisfied with your pizzeria as your external customers.

Good pay and benefits are, of course, important to your internal customers. Beyond that, however, they also want to feel appreciated. As the labor crisis continues for pizzerias and restaurants around the U.S., let’s take a look at two ways to create a rewarding experience for your internal customers that will make them eager to contribute to your pizzeria’s success every single day. After all, business is like sports—the team with the best players wins!

Ask and You Shall Receive

One surefire way to make your employees feel appreciated is to listen to them. To the degree that you become masterful at conversing, you can become a star player in your business. Show them that you value their ideas, suggestions and opinions—yes, even the “negative” ones. Consider soliciting feedback through internal customer satisfaction surveys. You should administer these surveys periodically to find out what your employees think about everything you do and how they feel about working for you. Here are some tips:

1. Ask the hard questions. Ask questions that will allow your internal customers to tell you something you may not otherwise hear from them. Be prepared for brutal honesty. How do your internal customers feel about your company as an employer? How do they feel about themselves as your employees? What do they think about your marketing efforts and your culture? What about the pay and benefits you offer? What do they really think about your food, your pricing and your atmosphere? Would they recommend your pizzeria to their friends who are looking for the best pizza in town? Would they recommend it to others as a good place to work?

2. Listen to everyone. Seek input from every employee, from the managers to the bus boys. They will always find something to complain about, and that’s OK—let them vent. You need to leave your ego at the door. Hourly employees in particular need to sense that you genuinely want their opinions and ideas about the restaurant’s strengths and weaknesses as well as potential opportunities that need to be explored. Your internal customers are your greatest marketing ambassadors. Listen to all of them with an open mind and learn.

3. Keep it anonymous and confidential. Some employees may worry they’ll get in trouble for speaking their minds, so the survey must be self-administered, anonymous and absolutely confidential. Put a staff member in charge of the process and hold a companywide meeting. Tell your employees why they’re being asked to fill out the surveys, assure them that their feedback will be taken seriously and explain that the survey will be anonymous. To ensure anonymity, you can create an online survey; companies such as SurveyMonkey even offer employee survey templates written by professional survey methodologists. If you choose to go with hard copies, have your employees drop their completed surveys into a preaddressed Federal Express box that is then sealed in their presence for shipping to an independent research company or some other objective consultant for tabulation. (A number of companies offer these services for a reasonable fee.) If possible, don’t tabulate the results yourself. This will defeat the purpose, and you may not get honest answers.

4. Be prepared for criticism. At the start of this process, you may feel nervous and think, “The staff is just going to slam me!” That’s not always the case, but if they do slam you, you might deserve it. There could be important lessons to glean from their negative comments. You may even think, “My employees aren’t really all that bright,” but you could very well discover the opposite: that they are not only bright but also caring, knowledgeable and insightful about your restaurant. They may have a lot to teach you—you just never asked them before. So be prepared for criticism, but also be prepared to learn something!

5. Treat problems as opportunities. Once the results are in, approach them with an open mind. Break the results down by category or employee activity, such as back-of-the-house, front-of-the-house and management, and consider each category carefully. Use the comments to study your business from a big-picture perspective while also considering the individual smaller pictures that make up the whole. Think of “negative” comments as opportunities to solve problems and clear up misunderstandings.

A Thunderbird Pies employee in Addison, Texas, puts the finishing touches on a pizza.

Inspiring the Front Line

Listening to your employees is a great start. Beyond that, there are some other things you can do to motivate and inspire them. Here are a few suggestions:

Set high standards. Establish high workplace standards for your internal customers. A workplace with high standards attracts workers with high standards. Even better, it repels people with low standards. Mediocre employees have the largest support group because mediocre people support each other by buying into each other’s excuses and letting one another off the hook. But those who choose higher standards discover a better support group, one that challenges them to continually strive to be better—and, thus, more successful—at what they do.

Treat them like professionals. Give every employee his own business card. Sure, the managers already have cards, but why not the person making an hourly wage? Business cards are inexpensive, and this little gesture will make your employees feel like professionals. Better yet, customize the back of the cards with a special offer. Let your employees give away, say, five cards for free one-topping pizzas every month to anyone they choose. This will build their self-esteem and make them feel integral to your operation while also bringing in new customers to your pizzeria.

Create special moments. Make your new employee’s first day on the job or that first paycheck feel special. What about treating his entire family to dinner at your pizzeria? Include an encouraging note with his first paycheck—“Thanks for doing a great job!”—and add a Payday candy bar.

Celebrate milestones. Once an employee has worked for you for 90 days or six months, celebrate by treating his family to free pizza or give him a gift. Or let the employee bring in several friends for a half-price meal after a shift. Again, these little perks help build your employees’ self-esteem and can make them heroes to their friends and family members.

Treating your employees like internal customers may require a change of culture at your restaurant. At times it may be difficult or challenging. But perseverance will pay off. Never give up. If Howard Schultz gave up after being turned down by banks 242 times, there would be no Starbucks. If J.K. Rowling gave up after being rejected by multiple publishers for years, there would be no Harry Potter. Keep going and never quit. And remember: At the end of the day, it’s your internal customers that you can count on, not strategy. Make the changes necessary to improve your employees’ overall experience, and they’ll transform your business!

This article by the late Tom Feltenstein, a renowned restaurant marketing consultant, originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine and has been slightly edited and updated.

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