Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Getting it Right: Pret A Manger

If the key to success in property investment is, ‘location, location, location’, then Pret would tell us the key to a happy and productive work force is, ‘recruitment, recruitment, recruitment’.

Head of Communications, Jay Chapman, is passionate about employee engagement and is frequently asked for the key to Pret’s success. She tells me she’d love to have a scary sounding formula to impress people with, but in her mind it’s all pretty simple stuff;

“If you treat your employees well and involve them in the decisions that will affect them, they’re much more likely to be engaged in carrying out the effects of those decisions.”

RECRUITMENT

Top of her list, (and the point she keeps coming back to) is good recruitment. “Pret probably have the world’s most over qualified sandwich makers. They are largely made up of those who have come to London for a couple of years to improve their English, but who when they return to their own countries, are set to become architects, lawyers and journalists”. Pret aren’t necessarily just on the look out for people with degrees; however there is one quality which is an absolute must if you want to join the team – happiness. “You can’t hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be happy,” says Jay, “So we hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches”.

Pret invest a lot in their very ‘on-brand’ recruitment process to make sure that their business is filled with “Pret people” from top to bottom. Handled badly it could be oppressive, but in this case I don’t think it is. From the first interview until far beyond, Pret actively encourage employees to bring their own personalities to work. Part of the score card which Pret gives to their mystery shoppers (the results of which affect employee bonuses) includes a reward for personality shining through. This is the antithesis of the old attitude of slapping a “Happy to Help” badge on someone and telling them to smile - you’ll find no clones here.


Jay believes this investment pays off one hundredfold. 60% of staff at Pret’s head office began life on the shop floor – and they know the business inside out. Incidentally, ‘head office’ is just an easy way of describing what Pret people refer to only as, ‘Hudsons Place’. This isn’t just a nicety either; the people at Hudsons Place truly don’t believe they are any more important than the people on the shop floor – they’re just fulfilling a different function. This attitude of respect, treating everyone the same and as you find them, seems to run throughout Pret. It colours my entire interview with Jay and I suspect it comes from the top.

Jay talks frequently about one of the founders, Julian Metcalfe, the man who co-founded Pret in 1986. She describes him as both brilliant and exasperating, damning in censure and generous in praise. I am reminded that engagement at work isn’t the same thing as having an easy job (I get the impression that there are occasions when one could cheerfully strangle Mr Metcalfe) but about loving what you do, and knowing why you do it.

PEOPLE AND PRODUCT

The staff at Hudson’s Place are very clear on Pret’s values, and on what the business needs them to do. Jay tells a great story about a new delivery trolley that was being trialled, the prototype of which had been hanging around the office for a couple of weeks. When it came to be needed for a meeting, no-one could find it anywhere although it had been seen earlier that morning. Eventually someone found Julian on the top floor where he had taken the trolley to try it out. He was wheeling it round and around trying to take sharp corners with it, furious to find that it was difficult to manoeuvre. “Our people will be using these all day every day! We have to get them stuff that works!” That prototype was quickly re-designed.

Passionate about his business and the values that underpin it, the founder’s influence permeates the whole company culture. “Julian believes that you should invest in your product and your people,” Jay tells me, “that’s about 90% of your business: if you do that well, the other 10% will take care of itself”. This ethos probably explains the fact that, to this day, only 0.4% of Pret’s revenue goes towards marketing. There isn’t even a marketing department, with the function being looked after by the communications team. Jay is hugely frustrated by the large companies who spend many millions on advertising, and relatively little on their staff and services. It seems to her to be a short term view, which results in neither engaged employees nor happy customers.

Pret’s customers though, are very happy. On average, 60% of feedback received by the Pret a Manger customer service department is either positive or neutral.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Most people only ever bother to get in touch with a company if they’re really aggravated by something. For 60% of contacts to be neutral, (like a suggestion for a new recipe) or full of praise, suggests that Pret have not only succeeded in engaging their employees but their clients as well. And why not? Happy, engaged staff = Happy, engaged customers; it’s not a big surprise. But what else are Pret doing to create such universal engagement?

EMPOWERMENT

It’s at shop level that Pret’s most differentiating behaviours come in to play. Firstly, and in my book most importantly, each team member is empowered from their first day at work to make their own decisions. If I go to the till at my local Pret and complain that I didn’t like my coffee, it is up to the team member I speak to, to decide how to resolve that. If I’m spotted struggling with bags and a pram, team members are welcome to leave their post and go and help. It’s a question of using the common sense and respect that Pret looks for when it hires people. Jay tells me, “It’s not uncommon to find that if you’ve been in to Pret for your lunch every day for a week, the guy behind the till will recognise you and decide to give you Friday for free. The manager keeps an eye on things, but overall the team members are empowered to make their own decisions”.

Empowerment doesn’t stop there though – we’re back to Pret’s recruitment process. Before their formal interviews, all candidates (for any position within Pret) are sent to work on the shop floor for a day. If the candidate is applying for a position in a shop, then the team who works there gets a say on whether said candidate will fit in with the team there. If the answer is no, the candidate isn’t hired. (All unsuccessful candidates that have worked in one of the shops get £30 cash for their trouble and a chocolate brownie!).

All successful candidates for Hudson’s Place roles do the same – visiting a shop close to them – and the shop team get a say on whether they would like the person to work for Pret. In this way the shop teams make decisions on who is the next Purchasing Manager, the next Customer Service Advisor and the next Property Director. On top of that, all new recruits spend a week or two working in the shop at the start of their induction.

THE RIGHT INCENTIVES

This culture of respect extends to salary. Having done her 2 week stint on the shop floor, Jay assures me that it’s a tough job and accordingly, Pret pay their staff well. They also use incentives generously and wisely, they know their audience and know what works. “If someone’s only going to be in England for 2 years, then telling them about the 3 year business plan isn’t going to excite them very much” says Jay smiling, “they need cash – and the odd party doesn’t go amiss either”. In fact there are all sorts of bonuses readily available for team members if they want them. I was astonished by Pret’s commitment to their mystery shopper scheme. A mystery shopper visits every single shop, once a week. Bonuses from the results of the report are available per person and per team – if someone gets mentioned by name they are sent a silver star, made especially for Pret by Tiffany&Co. The team bonus can add up to £40 per week, per person, and Pret love the idea of paying it to everyone, every week, because it means a job well done.

***

Before I leave Hudsons Place, Jay takes me on a very proud tour of the building. It looks like an inspiring place to work, both functional and full of character. Most impressive is the amazing café space on the 3rd floor which houses every kind of furniture used in the Pret shops, and gives employees a chance to try them all out and give their feedback.

On my way out, I look again at the comfortable space I was whisked through on entry. Like the rest of the building, the colourful reception is a study in internal branding and a brilliant channel for engagement. A video plays on the wall, showing not a slick brand piece, but a collection of photos and videos of employee awards and achievements, pictures of parties and a rather unglamorous video tour round a soup kitchen. There is a note board hidden behind hundreds of congratulatory customer emails and on the front desk, “Britain’s Top Employers 2008” (Guardian Books) with a bookmark in at Pret’s entry. It’s a bit like being in someone’s lounge and seeing everything that they’re most proud of. Replace the note board for a fridge door, and the plasma screen for a mantelpiece covered in photo frames, and then you realise… you’re in the family home.

***

The differentiators: Pret’s recipe for success

Re-invest revenue in people and product

Empower your staff

Know your audience and incentivise them appropriately

Promote from within

Recruitment, Recruitment, Recruitment


17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Parts of the company philosophy reminds me of UPS (United Parcel Service) and how managers/supervisors are brought up through the ranks and are initially trained. I love the idea of hiring happy people but what do you do when many long-term employees are not happy at work or in life and probably never will be no matter how ones tries to involve them in decision making and acceptance of some responsibility?

Sam said...

UPS? Interesting, I'll be sure to find out their story.

You are of course right, hiring happy people is only a part of the solution. If an employee is unhappy, and its affecting their work, ask them what's up (gently).

It might be that there's something you can do, or it might be that there's nothing. However my oft repeated mantra is that everyone has a story, and knowing what that story is is key to their motivation.

If it turns out that you're doing everything right as an employer and there's nothing you can do in the short term, a conversation will still have been of benefit.

Your employee will feel noticed and listened to, and will realise that their work is important enough for it to matter if its not up to scratch. You will have a better understanding of your employee, why they might do the things they do and how to maage them in future.

Elegantly handled, its win/win.

Anonymous said...

I'm an ex-Pret employee so have direct experience of this engagement. I can vouch for the truth in Sam's comments. The happy people philosophy was one I always adopted when recruiting new people and it made a difference to the way that we worked.

I remember being so engaged and excited when I first started that I read and learnt everything I needed to (and there was a lot) cover to cover within my first few days. I've never come across a company that instilled such enthusiasm in its people.

The one thing that did frustrate me and ultimately caused me to leave was the way it dealt with the enthusiasm troughs. In fairness to Pret, I left 8 years ago; so this may have improved since but in my experience the company was not good at dealing with people's frustrations. There was a strong message for people who were frustrated with something and couldn't get it resolved - leave! I saw a number of people become shunned and passed over if they had feedback which wasn't entirely positive. Often people left disgruntled having started out as the desirable happy employees. I suppose in someways it was a useful self selection process - when I became frustrated with a few things and felt threatened that my feedback would fall on highly judgemental ears I knew it was time to leave - leaving the happy people behind me.

I learn't a lot of great stuff from working at Pret and I've used much of it in my latter career and I am still very proud that I had the opportunity to work there.

Anonymous said...

Must be a restaurant company motto. SIR Corp in Canada (who owns Jack Astor's, Fazooli's, red, Far Niente, Canyon Creek) also has a motto: FIFO or Fit In or Fu*k Off. Nice company, that SIR Corp. It's all about the people. Or the robots.

But it's interesting since I always got the impression that Pret was actually a free-thinking company...but perhaps they are becoming too large too and need to do the conforming thing.

Dave B. (current SIR employeee)

Paul said...

Hi Sam, I was in Cyprus recently and told one of my clients about Pret's recruitment practice which I heard about many years ago. I promised to find a write-up to share with him. A long search on Google and up popped your excellent blog. I have referred to Pret's one-day trial recruitment for many years in my seminars, and now I have a source to back up my apocryphal story. Thank you, Paul.

Anonymous said...

DISCRIMINATION of PRET A MANGER!!!!!!!!!!?
I talked in my last question about my friend who worked in PRET A MANGER because of a Columbian classmate who pulled strings and who called his friend who works in the recruitment center in Victoria station here in LONDON to book an interview for my friend and that’s exactly what happened while other people come by thousands to apply for positions
I now wonder where they put all these applications do they dash them in the bin straight away after they close???? What’s the point of having a recruitment center if some people would work by other ways and by other people pulling strings???
the recruitment and selection process should go by the norms of actual recruitment and selection
but unfortunately it does not appear to be so
why would not people have equal opportunities
I have another friend who is looking for a job and who applied for PRET over than 6 times although they say in their applications that if not selected one need to re-apply after 6 months
he also applied for MacDonald’s Costa and Satrbucks but all these effort are in vain
my explanation of this situation where for instance a MacDonald manager who is lets say from Algeria would be happy to employ Algerian students for part-time position and that’s apparent discrimination to the people who apply by the norms and who write a CV and a Cover letter and who come to the outlet and ask for the manager and submit their CV
but I know where that CV goes can anybody guess?? did u said to the bin well you are right
to the bin actually
well I will say that these people would always recruit people from their original country
conducting business is all about ethics and being ethical in practicing all the aspects of business
and managers who discriminates against certain people, nationalities, or religions are not to be in such position
managers who judge people from their faces however well presented they are should not be managers cause they don’t have an sense of responsibility or feeling towards others
when u walk to MacDonald’s KFC COSTA Starbucks u see a lot of Indian people and if u go to their websites and see what are the nationalities that work most for these companies u will see Indians taking over and at the top of the list
well the reason for this is that most of the managerial positions in these companies are held by Indian people who obviously and unquestionably would recruit people from their origin countries and not against these people or hate them but my intention is just to reflect reality as it is

Anonymous said...

Well, unfortunately my post about the harsh treatment at Pret has been removed minutes after appearing here.

Censorship.

Will find another way to post on the web.

Anonymous said...

I agree with some criticism here, about "robots" rather than humans. I am an "insider", too, working for Pret for a few years now.
Although I have come to terms with much of the harsh treatment in the shops and learned to deal with it by relaxing more and leaving work outside of my private life (meaning, not caring as much any more). Pret is the only company I ever worked for that seems to treat their employees (in the shops) rather harsh and like machines. Surely there are exceptions, but that is my experience after several years now.
Yet, the human touch is missing in so many areas. The slogans are there. The money is better than in the competition. Advertisement is in place. It looks colourful and “nice”. Pret went to great length psychologically, to figure out what motivates people.
But how are people really treated? What is the true motivating factor? It's like being in a religious group where you have to pretend to be happy and “passionate” or else.
Over the years I have come to feel treated like a robot, a machine. Like swim or drown.
I have asked for several transfers to other shops due to management. Either a manager was extremely “lazy”, un-supportive, but gave the team a hard time when things didn't go well, or another manager was like a tyrant, constantly threatening the team & individuals with & giving file notes for the smallest things. Ops Managers either aren't aware of it, mostly being concerned with mystery shopper results for their own bonuses or not bothering about how the team is “motivated”.
I still ask myself after all those years where the problem lies. Is there a big gap between head office and the shops where head office doesn't realize what's going on? Or is HO putting too much unnecessary pressure on their managers? What is it? I still don't know.
I started as an enthusiastic employee, happy, smiley, cheery, self-motivated. After being treated like a child & as if we as the team is incapable, I am at times a wrack & depressed.
Just now after many years have I found a shop that seems to be “normal”. Where the manager is working hard, saying “please” and “thank you,” treating people decent. Yet, my guard is up for good against the slogans and pretentious smiley faces that sting you when you make the slightest mistake.
Maybe one day I will communicate this with Pret, but as someone here pointed out, if you speak up, even though Pret encourages to speak up about the “good, the bad, and the ugly”, reality is different. The same way my comments are deleted here after posting my criticism.

Anonymous said...

Maybe my comment got deleted due to length? This one seems to be short enough to remain.

nym@london.com

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments. My husband now works for pret and is being treated so badly by his area manager. I am astounded that they can get away with it. It seemed like such a nice place to work but it's like some kind of sect...

Anonymous said...

Pret doesn't care about workers. The most important is business, profits. That's why they cut working hours and made you work harder.

Anonymous said...

Further to my previous comment about my husband having problems with his area manager. They stitched him up good and proper and fired him...this was done in such a way that they found a couple of things to hang him on which wouldn't normally result in him being sacked. They clearly did all of this because he was going to put in a grievance against his area manager for bullying (he was talked out of this and thought it had all smoothed over) and then wham! The company disgusts me - how they could treat an employee with a wife and 2 small children like that I don't know. The management of this company are pure evil.

Anonymous said...

Wow, sorry about your husband. I have been skimming through this, as I have just started out working for pret(2 months now), and already i can feel that; like all businesses they are just out for profits at the end of the day.

As for the hiring process, some managers that were around on the day just said yeah i'll suit the role, and offered me a job at the end of the day. As like all jobs you have to look enthusiastic on the trial day.

Regarding the area manager, yeah they just sit on their fat bums all day, and email on their phones or look at stupid graphs. End of the day its about increasing sales, meeting targets and reducing labour. They will always cover there own backs first, to watch there bonuses, and not care about the workers.

Alot of managers i have met, are complete arrogant snobs, that know nothing about even running a store, yet alone trying to explain things to you, they sit on there high throne, and blah blah blah things.

Don't get me wrong im thankful of even having a job. but even after 2 months, this job is boring me to death, with the self righteous idiotic customers, and the cheery go happy clown faces that you have to have when your working, makes me want to bang my head with the fridge door every minute of the day.

A Sect is a good way of describing this company, but so are all the others out there.

Hopefully i'll have other things on the horizon soon, but ill still be checking in on this page for your comments

Regards
anonymous bear.

Anonymous said...

hi

I'm doing a qualitative project for grad school about PRET and its leadership style and need some insights :)

I was wondering of some of you can share some insights of those issue mentioned below:

how is there atmosphere amongst employees? Does your manager help you during busy hours? How do they communicate with you? Do you feel that they are happy, smiling and friendly as they require their team members to be?

Anonymous said...

Funny, I've come across this and as far as i've seen in my 6 months with Pret, I've experienced the same thing. I'm a full time employee of 35 hours, but due to constantly trying to stick to targets, numbers, etc I often work far more than this without the necessary breaks due to feeling obligated and pressured into it due to the shop's own shortcomings more than choice and find I have very little time for a life outside of work due to being so exhausted.

The moral is terrible and we regularly loose mystery shopper on service if it isn't for the loss of selection or FO because of being overworked.

I also work in the regions, where even a TM* can't be paid over £7 but most of the publicity and our own materials is so London-centric so this isn't known and we are often left isolated with no Pret parties, Friday night drinks and generally are left to our own devices and mismanagement with little effort into proper team building.

The idea of proper training is also rediculous - Most people are taken in under promises (including being a front of house or kitchen person but then dumped where they are needed and not where they were promised) but find that often by day 2 or 3 are thrown on a bench on their own in the kitchen and nagged at due to not being fast enough and expected to reach TM* productivity levels within the first few weeks with hardly any proper training.

I love the concept of TMs being able to grow up to GMs, but I find the biggest problem is the inexperience and lack of ability at management level.

We too are often treated and berated like children despite working as hard as we can and we have lost many very good and previously happy employees over this.

Perhaps the saddest part of all of this is when regular customers, who see things as they really are, make comments to staff on how we can cope with the managers treating us this way and even refer to them with nicknames about their bad styles so accurately that the TM knows who they mean without names being used. To me, their opinion is far more telling than any Mystery Shopper report could give.

Anonymous said...

I am an ex GM (10 years service)
I walked out last year as I couldn't take the way we had to treat TMs to achieve ever increasing demands for profit and efficiencies.
I loved Pret and was so happy to work for them when I started but the company has changed beyond recognition since being bought by a certain venture capitalist firm. It used to be about the people, now it's about making as much money as possible for the shareholders. Area managers don't care as of course they are all shareholders too.
So sad

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