Customer Service as a Marketing Tool w/ Heidi Aselton and Kena Greene

Full Transcript

Dalia

Okay, I think we're officially set up, I had a couple of technical difficulties. I want to thank you guys again for agreeing to speak with me. One of my objectives with the podcast is really to share all the great things that are going on in school nutrition, and to help people out who want to improve in areas that they may not be strong in directly for people who actually work in the same field. So I wanted to talk to you guys, because you do an amazing job of marketing, you engage the entire school and making the cafeteria fun place to be, every time I come in, the kids obviously know everyone who works in the cafeteria. And they're always eager to see what you're up to next. So we also did a video in which we showcase some of the projects that they've worked on here. So if you guys didn't get a chance to see that that'll be up on YouTube, I'll leave a link in the show notes. But can you just tell us about one of the things you've accomplished here that you are most proud of In your program?

Kena  

I think the relationship with the children. I mean is it grows, it's just constantly keeps growing. It's like 500 kids here. I'm the cashier and I can I can honestly say, I probably know at least 300 names of children by name and not just face. I think Heidi has quite a bit under her belt too. It's the  relationship, because of that relationship its causing them to eat breakfast, to eat lunch, and want to come to the cafeteria and see what we can

Heidi   

We actually have to cut them off.

Dalia

When they want to hang out and talk?

Heidi

Because in the afternoon you know, I try to do paperwork and stuff and they actually try to climb through the dish pit. And they're getting in trouble. So we have to explain, look, this is not the right time. We do stop to take time to listen to them. We do try to reach them, we do try to help them, we try to encourage them. We see they're having a bad day, we hug them, we hold them, we walk them to their classrooms, whatever it takes, be that person who cares? That's, huge, right? Besides all the decorating and all that stuff, we genuinely care, and it hurts my heart to see them walking down the hall in tears. I'll be the first one to say let me take you to class, whatever it takes, you know, jump off that line. I know that may not always be practical, right. But as practical as we can make it, you try to make it a situation where we are part of the school, right not just excluded, we're not just a segment, we are a part of their lives. Because we want to be. There's not enough people. When it comes to teachers and parapros, there's still a vacancy,there's a vacancy warmth, there’s a vacancy for love, there’s a vacancy for people who care about individual children.  

Dalia  

As a district, and as a nation, we're on really tight schedules. The teachers have objectives that they're trying to hit. Sometimes we're really limited with how much time the kids have to eat with us. But like you say there is that need for warmth for the type of customer service that sometimes as adults, you know, we struggle to find businesses that treat us with that level of respect. That personalized hands on approach is sometimes reserved for really high end service experiences. So to be able to come to your cafeteria, and be a VIP there, to know that people know your name, they know your food preferences. It's a really nice experience to be able to have in the public school setting within the National School Lunch Program. I think it would be great if that could become the norm. Because like you say, it helps with everything, it helps make you part of the entire educational team. It helps with behavior when people are feeling welcome and respected and to have that calm, time of day where you can socialize with adults, but also with your friends. Because you don't really get to hang out that much during the school day. It's a really important part of growing up. For you to be so actively involved in making sure joy is a priority in the school day, I think is a really awesome thing. I know I've heard you say, before that you only get to be a child once, and as adults, we really should be trying to make this a joyful time in their lives. We know we want them to learn. But it's easier to learn when you're happy, full … 

Heidi 

and cared for. It makes the atmosphere that much better for learning. Yeah, and we may not always have the extra five minutes, but you might have a minute just to say, Look, I'm going to rush but let me give you a hug or are you going to  be okay, let me check back with you later. You know, just let them know, Hey, I care. 

Dalia 

There's an adult they can go to if they need some help. 

Heidi 

That's where the heart of everything else comes from. That's where it comes from is that genuine, you feel that bond, you feel the necessity to do something for them. That's where my wellspring comes from, as far as where everything else goes. It's just a genuine feeling of a reciprocal like once you have that bond with some of those children, you just want to do for them. You want to create whatever you could for them, like you would with your own children.

Kena

Right Heidi’s good for asking them.  Say we serve something new she’ll go out into the cafeteria and ask them how they enjoyed it. I’m the good eyes. I’ll look, like I say I’m the snitch.  I say Heidi they’re not eating that. I saw I don’t know maybe we need to do this or that. I’ll tell her I went down the aisles and maybe only two people ate this.  I’ll tell her is there something we can do to make it better. That's why we’ve been working hard on presentation, because I know for myself if it don't look right, I'm definitely I won’t even want to try it.  And that's what we've been working on hard. That's why I’m her eyes out there, because if it doesn't look right I’m going to let her know whats out here on her floor. 

Dalia  

I think that is really important to remember. People eat with their eyes. It is true that we have a lot of things we have to focus on like are portion sizes correct and did we meet the meat the meal pattern, but the USDA has put so much work into making sure that the meal pattern is healthful. It really is a shame to put something out there that would be so good for these young bodies, but then present it in such a way that they refuse to eat it. Because what good does it do you if it's really nutritious, but you won't touch it? If you drop the ball at that last step, all that other work was for nothing. So you're right, it is important to focus on presentation. And you know, when other businesses, they absolutely do or they end up going out of out of business. So we have to think of the school nutrition program as one we're part of the educational system, and then two to this is a restaurant that operates inside the school.  You wouldn't find it acceptable if you ate somewhere and they said, ‘Oh, but it tastes really good. It looks crazy. It's been sitting here really long. But trust me, we temped it, its safe. It tastes better than it looks’ You wouldn't find that acceptable. So why would we expect the kids to be any different? 

Heidi 

That's how we relay it to the staff too.  Would you want to eat that? And if this was served to you at S&S, would they not clean that up around that food item, so that It looks spotless, the food looks delicious, because there's no nasty junk all over them?

Dalia 

And it doesn't really matter if it was the customer that did it. You know, the restaurant wouldn’t just leave it there and say, ‘well, we didn't do that the customer did it.’ Well it no longer acceptable, so you really need to address it. When you think about cross contamination just as a rule, even if the customer is the one that did it.  You can’t just leave it there, that's not safe to do.  

Heidi 

Take the extra minute to remove that item. Take the time, clean those lines, do those extra steps, it makes your food look better and that's important.

Dalia 

Absolutely they are not okay with food being mixed together.

Heidi

I’m not. It took me a long time to get used to that.

Dalia

Sometimes you can have an aversion to certain textures, certain colors, and it's related to an actual medical diagnosis. So what sounds just like extreme picky eating to us may really be just a fact of their medical condition. We have to accommodate the kids who have those special diet orders. But you're right, sometimes it's hard to communicate to the staff how important it is to stick to the recipes, to think about presentation, to be cognizant about cross contamination, there are a lot of moving parts. So it's understandable that people sometimes leave the fun on the side, because they're so overwhelmed with getting everything else done. They forget to make the cafeteria a fun place to be. 

Heidi 

And thats what gives you that feeling of freedom, that liberty, that joy. You need that to be able to carry out all the other dogmatic steps. You need some liberty at some point.

Dalia   

So you think the key to keeping people happy in their jobs, is to have that focus on marketing, because it increases job satisfaction.

Heidi 

Yes mind in particular.  I know it doesn't do for everyone. I've seen it go either way with staff members. Um, but I don't focus on that. You can't focus on that.

Kena

A lot of people just don't try. You know I hear some people say its just not my thing.  This is not a thing. Its the way to do it. Its not an option.

Dalia  

Right its essential to having a successful program. 

Kena  

Right. We're a team here, and to stay a team you gotta have team players. 

Dalia

You can do something. I mean, sometimes I understand everybody has their strong points, but like for example Heidi may not be the first to run for the camera.

Heidi

You can do something.  I love to work with my hands, I love to move around. Yeah. So I have other struggles that I have to work on. So I'm not maybe so much your desk person. But I have to make myself be that person. Right. I love just getting my hands dirty and enjoying stuff and having other people enjoy what I'm doing. Feel it, to see it, smell it, taste it. I just want it to be an environment, a full cool sensory experience where you got the whole gamut,

Kena

You never know what you’ll do.  Because when the whole crew was out here nobody wanted to do the Wobble.  

Heidi

I'll do it. I said Yeah

Kena 

I said, you know what those kids don't care. They were so excited that, yeah, seven adults, seven women standing up there and doing the Wobble.  We went all down the aisles.

Heidi  

It was nothing to do with the food but everything to do with just drawing them out. It made the next group excited to come to lunch. 

Dalia   

It's interesting that you say it's unrelated to the food but at the same time, the school nutrition program is supposed to be leading everybody in the wellness initiatives. So making a physical activity fun, that's a major lesson.  If you model that for people that one eating should be fine and should be something you enjoy. And then moving should be fun, it should have something you enjoy, not something that anybody has to make you do. But it's part of life. And it is fun. And when you present it as the norm, like it feels good to move, it's fun. Look at us not, oh, we're always focused on the negative, you hear so much about the obesity epidemic. And we present it to children with those words. And we kind of add all this stress and all these negative connotations to be in a larger body, when that really doesn't help. Like if our objective is to make people like Enjoy your fruits and your vegetables, you can't turn it into like a dreaded obligation. You can't tell a kid who has higher body weight, that like it's a sign that something has gone horribly wrong with their body, we need to focus on positive habits that usually lead to better weight management, with some people it doesn’t, but you can’t focus on that. Because then that would make people think, oh, the reason to move is to lose weight or control my weight. No, that's not the only reason to move. And that's not a very motivating reason to move.it's far easier to be active if you think it's fun, and if you are in a bigger body, that doesn't mean you should give up on moving. And if you focus on exercise and vegetables and your body remains large. That doesn't necessarily mean anything's gone wrong. But you continue to do those things.

Heidi 

It's good for your heart. It's good for your lungs. It's good for all sorts of things you don't see. Yeah, and you know, it's good for the younger brother or sister at home to see you do this. Yeah, everything affects something.

Dalia 

Yes, everything's a chain. It's really nice to see you guys walking the walk with the kids. I know some of the adults, they get self conscious or they get scared. Because I know when I was up here, I don't even remember why I was here. I was here to take pictures or something and my intention was to be behind the camera. And then there was fruit vegetable related hokey pokey, I could see everybody trying to remember, how does the Hokey Pokey work again?  Since we don't spend that much at the elementary school, but it was still really fun. You do notice that the kids really don't care if you do it right or wrong. They may even assume that you've come up with some new way to do it. Yeah, their assumption is that adults, at this age anyway, they think that we know what we're doing. So if we're afraid of looking dumb in front of them, we're really wasting our time because they aren’t looking at us that way. So I'm just excited to share with everybody, some of y'alls specific project ideas. So we just finished up with National School Breakfast week, what we did in our district was we invited different managers to come in and share their ideas with us. People came, not as many people as I thought would come but Heidi was there with an enormous portfolio of ideas. 

Heidi

I was excited 

Dalia  

And I was on board with most of it, you saw I was like hemming and hawing when you had some special menu ideas, because I was just like to analyze that, but you came totally prepared with the analysis, it was already K-12 ready. I was like ohh yeah I’m on board now.  We didn't get to do it this year, just because we didn't have enough time to order things. That's absolutely something we can work into the menu next time. So one thing I can say about you guys is you come with solutions, when you have an idea. 

Heidi

Well were asked to do that 

Dalia 

Well, that is also true, but you saw how that went

Heidi 

I said huh, we can do that. You know, everything that I do. I try to make sure that we're meeting those basic needs. When I do bring things,  I make sure that it's the appropriate temperature and yeah, because it's important that we remember the mindset and remember things like that. It has to be done properly.

Dalia 

Exactly. We have to remember the regs.

Heidi

I can be a little footloose and fancy free so sometimes I have to be reeled back in.  Oh, hey, babe, tuck that hair back in. Whatever is, you know,

Dalia

I’m the bang police; but my hair is always falling out the back. So I need people to catch me to.   But that's the whole thing, when we all understand why the regulations are in place, whether it's for our own safety, or the safety of the kids we serve, we don't do it our way, because we're not bankrolling this operation. Right? So you do it as we must continue to keep our doors open. When we really look at the regs, you can see, they all make sense to me when you look at them. They're good motivations behind them. So it's not like we can't understand them and don't want to get on board. But I understand sometimes it's hard to keep all of the goals in sight when you're trying to do something creative. You guys have also started coming in with new recipe ideas. This is another way where you guys come in with solutions and with ideas. How do you even figure out what needs to be worked on? I know you said you look around for plate waste, you see what people aren't eating. You go out and actually ask the kids how they feel about things.  How have you been able to get elementary school students to give you information that you can understand and modify the recipe because sometimes they give me really vague feedback. I tell them I literally don't know where to start with “It's nasty.” 

Heidi

We ask them a lot of questions, and a lot over time. So we're with them every day, and a lot of them even offer up their opinions. Sometimes those aren’t always things you want to hear. Yeah. And so that also is good, because you can't ignore that. Yeah. And that's one of the reasons I got kind of excited about trying something different for breakfast. While yes, I totally am behind Breakfast in the Classroom and excited to do it. But I think for here, we could do it differently is serve them better. It was funny, it came in line with I was going to do a business plan and all this stuff. And then they came to me and there was an incentive that they saw online, and it was right in line with what I wanted to do. Next thing you know,

Dalia

So who presented that opportunity to you?

Heidi

I presented it to them and It turned out that they were behind me a few months, they came to me with the same ideas, but it was a grant. So it was interesting

Dalia

So what would you be adding if you got it 

Heidi 

We would be doing some different formulas as far as time, the time range when you serve breakfast would be a little different.  It'd be a going more along with the second chance breakfast, so there's a better time they see where you can get higher participation, more satisfaction, and it helps serve the children longer throughout the day, if they eat at a certain time. And it just helps everyone. We wouldn't be using our carts. This would be their breakfast delivered to their classroom daily. I said it would diminish all that congestion in the hall hthat would help us serve a lot of areas, which is what I wanted to do kind of subdue things just a little bit, get them more in the classroom. So a lot of times they're carrying so much that they can't afford to pick up a breakfast.  A lot of times they get down the hall, they can't come back up. So there's a lot of you see, there's a lot of loss there. It's a headache sometimes going to come get the breakfast. It gets really loud and the temperatures are really hard to maintain in the carts. So you have to be constantly trying to be creative, but we’ve got about as creative as we can be with the carts, but it is just there's nothing we can do unless we do it differently. 

Kena

Right, heated carts

Heidi

Now that is something the children brought to our attention.  

Dalia 

That is excellent. You're right, sometimes it isn't always what you want to hear.  Because I've been going to different schools and talking directly with their student committees, especially the older kids, at least, I will say usually the older kids are easier to guide as far as I need feedback that I can take an action on after you explain it to me. So just explaining that you don't like it is too vague.  We really need you to explain what you don't like about it. It's been awesome working with kids in a group or I should call them students because they're not little kids. They can hear how much they disagree even in a small group like 20 kids, so they can understand how hard it is to get a consensus on anything. We're never just flat out ignore you but if  something is subjective, chances are half the kids disagree with you. So maybe we did listen to someone's feedback and you just didn't win out this time because the majority didn't agree. But on things that are really clear, like it's just unacceptable, it's a mistake that needs to be corrected, like food is being served at a temperature that may be as safe but not the preferred, temperature

Heidi

Do justice to your product.

Dalia

It's a shame when you pay for maybe a better product, a premium product and then it sits in hot holding for too long. Like you said it all goes back to presentation and marketing. You really have to keep an eye on what is happening to your product. 

Heidi

You have to have people who are on board with you, that sometimes can be the hard part to be as convinced to be as concerned. And that's where sometimes it gets difficult because it's hard to get back. That I'm not talking about you personally look dry. I'm talking about that product. And yes, you are in charge of it. Right. So Brian is hard to get that to you gotta care, right care, and that it's not taking the wrong way. Right, because people are so funny about the way they cook.

Dalia

That is true. So that is a challenge. But I think you are setting the example. You're solution oriented. Because it's not to say that there hasn't ever been a recipe sent out that led to a product getting dried out. A lot of the manufacturers send directions just for one type of cooking equipment, then at the locations, maybe it isn't prepared in that same equipment, and things can go wrong there.

Heidi

Hot holding can be a disaster, hot holding can make or break a lot of your products.

Dalia 

Yes, you rarely see things written with that in mind. Batch cooking is like the assumption that I think people make, of course, we want to batch cook, but I don't think it's happening in all cases. And that is where hot holding turns into a real disaster, when people are trying to do everything in the morning. That's not a thing.

Heidi 

No, that may have been a thing but its not anymore. It can’t be if you want to serve that product in its prime. Because these products deteriorate rapidly,

Dalia

Like, when you go to a restaurant, if it's buffet style. I know before I give anybody my money I walk around and if it looks like its been there a while.  I’m like, thats a hard pass. If you don't see anybody checking on it. I'm like, Yeah, no, no, thank you. I don't want that. I'm sure it was good at some point. So you really have to remember, have respect for your customers. It doesn't matter your customers 3 or 16

Heidi 

That's the thing you’ve got to make your staff understand. This is your customer. This is not a child, you get to tell to be quiet.  This is your customer, this child pays your salary. Whether you like it or not, you need to be the very best representation of yourself. You got those tears? You got that long face? Get off my line. Thats really what you want to tell them.  

Dalia

You really have to try.  I guess it's all about empathy and understanding that this child doesn't have the same number of options we do. Because when we go out to eat and the service is subpar, we just go someplace else. But what must it feel like when you're trapped here. I guess I shouldn't say trapped but you're here for the day, because you're at school. You don't have your own wheels, because you're 5. You are very limited.  How horrible like you said, to take away from the joy that childhood should be by making them feel stuck. They should feel taken care of and not even really notice that they don't have other options, because the customer service they're getting is so good that they don't want for anything else.

Kena

Yeah.

Heidi 

That allows for a lot of sins

Dalia

Yeah, that is true. When somebody cares. They've actually documented that even in, for example like doctors offices. If you make a mistake, everybody makes mistakes. But if you make a mistake and your customer or your patient already felt like you weren't making their care priority, you're far more likely to be sued. When you make a mistake, you could make that same mistake, but if you showed that person that you cared and they will say its okay. 

Heidi 

Well, we were the same. We do that. You know, it depends how we were treated at that restaurant whether or not we let that play 

Dalia

Yeah, are you going to let it ride? Or do you care enough to tell them respectfully? ‘This isn't at the right temp, please take it back I don't like this’.  Or will you just want to never go there again. And if you create an atmosphere where your kids can't tell you then why should they come back? Your kids should feel comfortable telling you ‘something's just not right with this’. And it's not always us. It could be an issue with the product we want for them to feel free to communicate any concerns that they have. Because we do value them.

Kena

Hot things should be hot should be cold things should be cold

Heidi 

That's right. And I'll tell you one thing I've never tolerated but I've seen it done. Everywhere I go  anywhere I work everybody knows you will not holler at these babies. Number one, they're not yours. They’re borrowed for the day by us as a whole community. They're lent to us. Right? That's that's gold. You take care of that. Right? Don't ever. 

Dalia 

I can say they kids get a high quality of customer service here. Which I think is step one to  

marketing.

Kena

We take time with them. I”ll say in a minute let's walk, let me know what your issue is. You know, we get a chance to meet parents because we are the people that they come to with the extra stuff. Because the teachers are so busy, it's not that they don't care. They just got so much, you know, we take that second because we have that second to say okay, I help you with this or you know, anything.  They tell us how they are doing in the class. Do you think my mom gonna let me get ice cream on Friday? I say well you know I can let her know you had a good week in the lunchroom. Yeah, like that, they want our approval on stuff, all the time, everyday. There’s not a day that there isn’t some child coming and asking me or Heidi about something we can help them with. 

Dalia

That's awesome. I see how you guys parlay that into getting them to eat more fruits and vegetables. 

Heidi

We did juice with the kids.  They were scared on the first day because it was green. I said I’ll take the first drink and then they were like okay.  It was fun, though. We enjoyed it and the teachers enjoyed it.  

Dalia

You make it fun. And really the impact that you're having now, we know it can influence how they eat for the rest of their lives and it supports their education right now. So a lot happens in the cafeteria. I know a lot of adults who still remember who worked in their cafeteria when they were kids, because they were adults that they could go to when they needed support, who always seemed to make time for that. So really, the impact that you have on the kids can be as great or as little as you want it to be. But even just from the health of the program because we don't make any money if no meals are served. For the program to be successful, you have to invest in customer service, you have to remember that this student is the reason that we're we're here. So thank you so much for everything that you do and for taking the time to share with me, not everybody is willing to share their best practices or share their wins with other people. But I do think it is important because we hear lots of things about school nutrition that maybe don't tell our full story. And I think it's important for us to let people know what we're doing, that we are professionals, and that we're constantly adapting to meet their needs of our students. And, of course, no one is perfect, so when like you said, you hear a negative story you want for there to be like a lot of other positive interactions that they've had with the program, so they understand that we really are doing big things. 

Heidi 

Here's another thing. This is a simple marketing tool, and yet it actually is really required of us. And it's kind of sounds silly want to say it, but it's huge. And I noticed a huge It was my first year management. Actually, I realized it when I was a cashier at Howard, how huge it was because not everybody does it. Yeah, let that second identified be the fact that you say their name to them and thank them. So everytime they go through the line their like wow she knows my name, she said thank you. That's basic customer service. I’ve had to beg people, please remember to say their name, it’s them, you are acknowledging them, the person them. 

Dalia

Even at places like Starbucks, it seems like they just do it to make it easy for you to know it's time to pick up your order. But I really do think there's probably research behind that and they know that people, it sounds overly simplistic it sounds a little weird, but people love to hear their own name but we do.

Kena 

And you walk with pride when you hear it 

…….Fade out

Dalia   

I really could just talk to these ladies forever. They are just so passionate about what they do. They have made the cafeteria an incredibly fun place to be. If there is someone else in your district that you feel has worked similar magic and their cafeteria. Or if you're that person, please reach out to me. I would love to hear your story. You can reach me at dalia@schoolnutritiondietitian.com If you would like to see what projects I've got going, what courses are up, or what new designs are in the T shirt store, please check out www.schoolnutritiondietitian.com there are a lot of fun tons going on in there. Alright, I'll talk to you next week.