The power of the front line: Good first impressions ensure your customers will return


I recently had a conversation with a hotel manager who happened to be at the desk when I checked out. He wanted to know how my stay was and I told him it was great because of his staff. The entire staff, from check-in to restaurant to bell desk, was really courteous and professional. We talked about the importance of the staff to a hotel experience and to the consumer experience in general.

When I attended the NAC conference in Houston in July, this was fresh on my mind as I sat through the educational seminars. Proper staffing and training were recurring themes that came up in several different sessions. The bottom line was that the employee staff, particularly at the concession stand, is a driver of profitability, often through indirect but very powerful ways.

The primary function of the staff the moment the customer gets to the theatre is to perform their jobs correctly. Sell the right ticket, count the change correctly, and do so with respect, setting the tone for the customer experience. Sounds simple enough, but it doesn’t happen 100% of the time. Setting the tone and starting the customer out on the right foot is important in getting them to the concession stand, especially that customer who has not yet committed to a concession purchase. The box office is the first line of customer interaction and the concession stand or café is the second. What happens when the customer steps up to the concession stand is crucial to the financial success of the theatre operation.

I just stated that, above all else, the employee needs to deliver a correct transaction. Getting it right is highly underrated these days. It’s a very simple concept and delivers more results than anything else the employee can do. Get it right. Enter the right order, pour the correct soda, grab the right candy, and give the correct change. This requires the employee to be net present while on the job, and it is something that training can encourage. Having correct cash registers and correct inventories are measurable achievements that can be rewarded in both financial gain and peer recognition.

Both of these are matters of policy that operators should develop and incorporate to train and retain employees that are productive to the operation’s goals. Giving a customer a negative experience not only impacts that one interaction but affects that customer’s perception in future transactions and is probably communicated to ten more people. Training employees to serve with enthusiasm that encourages purchasing will make your front line indirectly responsible for driving sales. They do not choose the menu items, they do not set pricing, and they do not make decisions on marketing promotions, all of which together create per-capita sales. But they do make the sale, they do determine how many patrons will be served in a 15-minute time frame, and they do affect the customer’s decision-making with a positive or negative tone of respect and interaction.

The overall goal of any employee training program should be to deliver a positive experience to the customer. This starts with getting the transaction right and ends with delivering the transaction with respect for the customer. There are many types of programs that can be purchased which deliver full employee training, complete with incentives and punitive development actions. There are also creative incentives that companies develop individually to get the most out of their front line.

Are your employees cleaning the concession stand when things slow down? Are they merchandising the products the way they have been asked? Are they keeping the customers moving as fast as possible when the peak times are in full motion, to not let a single customer walk away because “the line is too long”? All of these things are set in policy by the corporate office but carried out by the employee. It doesn’t matter whether you have great merchandising concepts at the corporate office if the front line at your theatre only has it staged that way for the first 15 minutes of the night, only to fall into chaos after that.

I could probably break this topic into several articles with all the different touch points I have mentioned. But what they all mean together is that the staffing at the theatre is a critical component to delivering a positive experience to the customer. Yes, we typically work with a young staff that turns over frequently. Yes, it feels like the glass of water is constantly being spilled and having to be refilled. But placing great emphasis on your employee programs and their delivery of your sales goals at the concession stand is key to delivering high rates of return on investment into your concession stand. Producing high per-capita sales will not happen without programs that allow your employees to be great. The front line of your theatre, before we sit in the comfy seats, see the film or marvel at the surround sound, is the staff that transacts our ticket and our snack. This front line holds a lot of power, and can make or break a customer’s overall experience at your theatre. Deliver greatness and your customers will reward you with both their money and a return visit.

Please send comments to Anita Watts at