A Happy Place to Work? – Compare American Airlines to Pret a Manger

“We hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches.”
Pret a Manger summarizes its personnel policies (from Demand, Adrian Slywotzky)


So American Airlines has filed for bankruptcy (Chapter 11 – the kind that lets them keep flying).  Is anyone surprised?  The clues were always staring us in the face – at least,  in my experience.  The main clue?  When I flew American, the employees for American Airlines practically never looked happy.  Not the ticket agents.  Not the flight attendants. It’s not that they were rude, or unpleasant.  They just looked…unhappy.  And when work is an unhappy place, not a fun place, then you’ve got a morale problem.  And when morale is bad, things begin slipping badly.

Now, I’m not an expert on American Airlines, and I am sure there are big, economic problems that brought them to this step. And maybe you’ve not sensed the “unhappiness” that I always seemed to sense on an American Airlines flight.  But I think their morale has been low for quite a while.  (I really hope they bounce back – for their employees, and for our flight schedules out of DFW).

But I am becoming somewhat obsessed with this morale idea.  I think we’ve got a lot of places that are not much “fun” to work at these days.  And I think an unhappy place is a place that will slip badly in the customer service arena.  And once customer service slips…  well, you know the problems…

In the book Demand:  Creating What People Love Before They Know They Want It by Adrian J. Slywotzky, we learn about the restaurant Pret a Manger (Pret a Manger, from the French, “ready to eat”).  One particular location had been slipping.  There had been noticeable slippage in the delivery on the restaurant’s promises – it wasn’t as clean, the food wasn’t quite up to par, and customer service slipped.  And, the location was not making money.  The manager of that location noticed dust on a chandelier – this was his signal to get to work.  And he went to work on morale issues.

Employee morale suffered, and the perpetually cheery service for which Pret stores are famous became inconsistent. Sales declined further. Downward spirals start small, but they tend to keep going. After a while, they are very hard to reverse.
…entropy—the gradual dissipation of energy and loss of order that is the natural tendency of any system that is not constantly reinvigorated from outside.

He did turn it around.  With a lot of hard work, and some latitude from headquarters (along with a little money), the restaurant looked better, the food looked better, the people got better, and then the location started making money – pretty soon, lots of money.

And here’s the hiring philosophy of Pret a Manger in a sentence:  “We hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches.”

Start with happy people; teach them the skill set needed for this particular job; keep them happy.  And then the customers will come.

I don’t know how to turn around the morale for a company like American Airlines.  I suspect they are in for some tough days.  But I certainly hope they can turn it around.

And, take a look at your place, your company, your folks.  Are they happy, glad to be at work?  If not, you’ve got some morale work to do.


2 footnotes:

#1 – Demand is a really good book.  I am presenting it Friday at the First Friday Book Synopsis.  It is worth a careful read.  (Bob  Morris told me it was good.  He was right!)

#2 – The Pret a Manger story reminded me of my friend Cecil Eager.  He owns the Gruene Mansion Inn Bed & Breakfast in New Braunfels, TX, and he put it simply (and this is brilliant):  “You can teach someone how to check someone in; you can teach someone how to make a reservation – but you can’t teach friendly.”

One thought on “A Happy Place to Work? – Compare American Airlines to Pret a Manger

  1. Biuro Rachunkowe Gdańsk

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