People focus lifts Hut out of its rut
20 June, 2012
A shake-up of people policies including a new style of service and an innovative social media platform has led the reinvigoration of Pizza Hut. Tom Holman reports on progress
When Yum! Brands announced late last year that it was seeking a master franchisee for Pizza Hut in the UK—effectively putting the company on the block—it was widely seen as an opportunity for a fresh start. But the chain has been working hard on its own self-improvement plan for some time now, with the aim of turning round a name that regularly ranks near the top of Peach BrandTrack’s ratings but which—by its own admission—had lost its way over the last few years.
The sale process has added extra impetus to Pizza Hut’s overhaul—both to return it to the top of the casual dining tree and to get itself into the best possible shape to attract new owners. The reinvigoration has been widespread—nine ‘Alpha’ Pizza Huts, mostly in the Midlands, are leading bold revamps of menus and designs—but nowhere is change more apparent than with people.
The chain’s boldest move has been to throw out the 40 or so standards that previously dictated customer service, replacing them with a simple ‘Restaurant Handshake’—five key stages of service for staff to count on one hand. The aim has been to offer a more personal and tailored style of service rather than rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.
“We realized that the old way of training for hospitality had become very tired,” says operations director Mike Spencer. “We wanted to free our people up to express themselves, and it’s been like a breath of fresh air through the restaurants.”
Pizza Hut has not been alone in loosening up on service—Pizza Express, for instance, has rolled out a raft of initiatives to get its staff closer to customers, including training in conversational techniques—but its decision to throw out a large chunk of its rulebook is nevertheless ambitious for a chain of this size. It also points to a new era of skillful casualness in service—engaged rather than distant, informal rather than robotic, and heartfelt rather than formulaic.
The change has been backed up by fresh training for 11,000 team members and new pre-shift meetings. A tool much favoured by US guru Jim Sullivan, these team huddles update staff on new initiatives and promotions and set goals for the shift. “They really engage and excite the team,” says Spencer. “You wouldn’t see Alex Ferguson sending his team out to play without a briefing, and we don’t either.”
A shake-up of managers has meanwhile seen nearly a third move on, and the next area of focus will be better training and assessment for shift managers. Perhaps most imaginatively of all, the company has launched a new internal social networking platform called Hut Space—an in-house equivalent of Facebook that allows staff at all levels to share advice, solve problems and offer feedback.
Something like this could be seen as paying lip service to HR, but at Pizza Hut it is genuinely opening up communications from boardroom down to restaurant floor and up again. Spencer recalls management meetings at which directors have asked for thoughts on issues and received valuable feedback to inform strategies within minutes. He can also point to examples like an idea for a balloon arch over a restaurant front, copied by 120 more branches after being featured on Hut Space. “It’s a really good engagement tool, and it’s the first time that everyone can connect directly to directors. It gives everyone a voice and helps them feel valued.”
It all seems to be working. Spencer says complaints have dropped by a third, and Net Promoter scores—its new way of measuring progress—are in the 60s. The new mode of working—and a policy of allowing staff to keep all tips—is also helping Pizza Hut to attract better people, Spencer adds. “There’s been a distinct change. We’re selecting much higher calibre staff now, and we’re recruiting from other brands which we might not have done in the past.”
Pizza Hut’s eventual, over-arching goal is ambitious. “Our overall aim is to become the best [casual dining chain] at service,” Spencer says. “It’s a space that we don’t think anyone really owns at the moment.”
And getting the people right has helped the whole company feel better about itself. “Guests are coming back more often, and they’re coming back after a long time away,” says Spencer. “The brand is much more confident now. We went through years of struggling against the competition but we feel like we’re ahead of them now. Instead of getting beaten up every day, we’re back on the attack.”