It takes a certain amount of bravery to make a change, but Wendy Bartlett says all you need is trust
The contract catering sector is unique in lots of ways. The simple client-customer relationship doesn't really apply, because our services are not two-dimensional.
Instead there's a triangular decision relationship: we have the client, their customers, and us – the caterer. This additional layer of complexity can sometimes muddy the water and confuse the offer, as it's not just about ‘buyer and seller'.
We know that in this space the people are considered to be of paramount importance for clients (not to mention for caterers). Our offer in a business building can become the heart and binding glue of a culture.
There are large and small initiatives that really help to demonstrate the values of an organisation, such as offering free fruit, subsidised food, or carefully considered eating spaces.
But sometimes this can be very difficult when this desire to please and listen to the customer is lost because of other factors at play.
For example, all caterers will at some point have conversations with clients who say they want meaningful cost savings. But they often request this while not wanting to make meaningful changes to their current offer or service.
The reality is tinkering will only get you so far. If you want significant cost reductions, you need to make major variations.
If you want real change, you need real action. And change isn't bad. If thought through and designed to meet the exact needs of all parties, it can be hugely successful.
But profound change can only come with trust. You have to trust your teams to help you explore viable options. Over the years we've learned that it's important to keep listening to all sides of the triangle and be realistic. The ‘powers that be' want cost changes and those affected need to have their needs met, but maybe in a different way. As caterers, we need the freedom to do what is needed.
There will be always be a way, but we need to keep it real. Take the free fruit as an example: the ring fencing of these costs is an example of a constant irritant to caterers. While clients see free fruit as a way of saying "we care about your wellbeing", we know that after a while this benefit just becomes wallpaper and starts to lose value.
In this scenario the money for free fruit could be put to better use to make meaningful impacts and really challenge the norm, while also representing an opportunity to save money.
But for clients, it could be seen as a drastic and noticeable move, which many won't want to make. But change requires a certain amount of bravery to stand out and do something different. Yet the rewards can be huge.
So rather than just take the free fruit away, we would make the point that wellness is about so much more. We'd offer alternative choices such as periods of discounts for healthy options, free healthier breakfast choices and complimentary energy bars or drinks in the afternoon to boost productivity. The list goes on.
Removing the fruit would be a bold move and require a great deal of trust from the client. But we know that these things work. It takes a brave client to challenge the triangle's norm and it takes a brave caterer to pull them up on it. It also takes experience and courage to suggest and implement change.
So next time a conversation about team and cost savings comes up, it's important to think about what you are prepared to do to challenge the norm. It may not be immediately popular, but it could help in the long run.
If you have a relationship based on mutual trust between all parties, you'll find a working solution. As the saying goes, to be trusted is a better compliment than to be loved.
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