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Don’t Be Whelming

My wife, April, and I recently went out to dinner and the word we both used to describe our experience was “whelming.” It wasn’t a bad dinner, but there was nothing that stood out or impressed us. The service was fine, the food was good, and the pricing for what we received was fair, but we both felt like there was no reason to go back to that restaurant. 

In the comedy movie 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Chastity Church asks, “I know you can be underwhelmed, and you can be overwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?” Although historically from Middle English “whelm” and “overwhelm” were used interchangeably and both meant “to overturn” or “to overpower in thought or feeling,” it wasn’t until people started using a third word, “underwhelmed” for “unimpressed,” that “whelmed” started being used to describe something as average or mediocre.

When demand is high and there is ample business at your door, it can be easy to default into a mode of mediocre.

We can gravitate to a new normal where impressing every customer and exceeding expectations is not necessary to win or stay in business. However, this is where companies differentiate themselves. When things turn and business becomes scarce, the reputation of the “awesome” service providing companies distance themselves from the “average” service providers. Having built a loyal following, they continue to stay relevant and find ways to thrive in a wide variety of economic conditions. Often when this occurs, it’s too late for those average service providers to simply improve their offerings, so they begin to lower prices to win business, which leads to additional stress of shrinking margins, creating a downward spiral within their organization.

How do companies avoid the trap of providing “whelming” experiences for their customers? I find the problem is often rooted in an internal company culture. Too many companies spend most of their time and energy focusing on how to serve the guests and not enough time focusing on how they can serve their own team. It has been proven that when people love their jobs, they are more productive and successful. They learn faster, make fewer mistakes, and make better business decisions. They take pride in what they do and are inclined to provide higher levels of service. In other words, by prioritizing your team first, they will then in turn serve the clients and guests. 

Stand out

To create a culture that isn’t “whelming,” start by understanding what makes your company unique. What differentiates the employee experience in your organization compared to that of others? If nothing comes to mind, you might have some work to do. Sometimes we resist the temptation to be different for fear of not fitting in and we resort to “what everyone else does:” the standard holiday party or picnic, the basic benefits package, and managing to do the minimum of what is mandated in terms of employment laws. Companies that attract top talent tend to have an edge and are willing to push the limits on what has been done with culture. At Footers Catering, our annual lip sync battle, five-year anniversary trips, and our Thanksgiving thankful tradition are examples of things that get a lot of attention for their uniqueness. 

Show the love

How can you expect an employee to go above and beyond for a customer when they don’t feel respected at work or appreciated for the work they do? Leaders should be spending time each week praising the efforts of team members, writing notes of gratitude, and asking questions to get to know the people they work with. These things cost little to no money but require an investment of your time—and that investment in your time is what shows your team that you care about them. When team members feel loved, cared for, and supported, they are much more willing to go above and beyond for the company. They also build stronger relationships with their coworkers and are less likely to leave the organization.

Continuous improvement

Companies that are known for wowing customers continuously push themselves to “make it better every day” or MIBE (Editor’s Note: MIBE is the name of Footers’ sister company). They don’t settle for the status quo or how things have always been. They encourage everyone in the organization to look for ways to improve efficiencies, the services they provide, and the employee experience. They celebrate small incremental improvements, not just the major breakthroughs. This energy becomes contagious and team members are inspired to put in extra effort as opposed to looking for the path of least resistance. Companies that achieve a culture of continuous improvement make communication a priority throughout all levels of the organization. They are intentional about discussing mission, values, and purpose. They help employees understand the big picture and how their individual work contributes to the efforts of the team. They put meaning behind the work that team members do and provide a path for them to make significant contributions to the company.

When companies don’t take their team members for granted, their team members don’t take customers or business that comes in the door for granted. This becomes even more critical in industries like ours that mimic a live performance. My father used to stress: “We’re only as good as our last party. There’s no do-overs in catering, so every event needs to be perfect.” Hospitality is booming right now. I continue to hear about caterers across the country not being able to find enough staff for the business in front of them. Despite all the headlines highlighting layoffs in the tech industry, unemployment is at a 53-year low and largely being driven by the rebound in our industry. Consumer spending on leisure and entertainment continues to reach peak levels. It is precisely at these times that we must resist the pull to “just get the job done” and push through to create awesome employee experiences so our teams can create guest experiences that are overwhelmingly awesome!

Anthony Lambatos

Owner/CEO, Footers Catering, Denver, CO

Anthony Lambatos grew up in the catering business working for his father and founder of Footers Catering in Denver, Colorado.  Anthony and his wife, April, purchased the business in 2010 and have successfully made the transition to a second-generation family business.  They recently moved Footers Catering into a new facility that will also house their newest venture – an event center called Social Capitol.  Anthony is passionate about helping other companies create great places to work and inspiring people with heart leadership and does that through his sister company MIBE (acronym for make it better...