High-Touch Interface

As the industry gathers in Orlando for its annual meeting at the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) Seminar and Expo, we are reminded that in this very high-tech world, where each of us walks around with a Dick Tracy-like device that lets us FaceTime or Skype anywhere at any time, human beings place enormous value on the high-touch interface of the personal meeting. How else to explain that thousands of people get on airplanes, stay in hotels and choose to confab in the shadow of the Mouse?

It’s a metaphor of sorts against which to measure our actions in all areas of business. We love our technology. People can be so frustratingly human… they are unpredictable, they get sick, their preferences change quickly, they have divided loyalties, sometimes they turn against us, and sometimes they die. It is logical and proper to devote great attention to mechanization and to finding technological solutions to problems in every area of business, from procurement and payment systems to in-store kiosks and self-checkout. Yet, in the end, the more we automate, the more we employ technology, the more important people are to our operations.

The folks in Bentonville have long struggled with the question of whether Wal-Mart Supercenters should feature a service deli. In many ways, the logical answer, in its price-driven, self-service format, is no. Yet, in the end, there are so few times when Wal-Mart personnel come into contact with consumers during their shopping experience that the chain’s executives have always come down on the side of maintaining this touch point with customers in the store.

Of course, just having people isn’t enough; people do leave an impression – for good or for ill. Many executives are finding that it is becoming more and more difficult to find entry-level staff with the right customer-focused attitude. They blame the profusion of technologies that have young people texting, tweeting, putting status updates on Facebook, indeed doing everything except talking face to face. This is a not insignificant challenge; training programs are good ways of imparting product knowledge and technological fluency, but we all know that some people are “natural salespeople” or “people-persons” and our training programs are limited in their abilities to change personality types.

The demise of the “Company Man” of the 1950’s and early 1960’s has led to an almost schizophrenic attitude toward training at all levels of an organization. In some sense, everyone recognizes the priority of training; after all, what is the alternative? Hire people and don’t train them? But without a conviction that people are likely to stick around, who can deny the hesitancy to invest in people, especially the kinds of investment in executive development that does not have any obvious immediate pay off, but is part and parcel of developing the skill-sets that enable people to take on greater responsibilities within an organization.

One reason British retailing is often a model is because the dedicated supply chain those stores utilize is willing to invest because they have the certainty of business that justifies the investment. American practices are different and thus investment patterns are different. The same applies to people. There was a day when great chains such as Kings in New Jersey had extensive training programs, not built to meet immediate needs but built to develop a deep bench, a cadre of well-trained and experienced executives who could help the company grow and prosper. Such programs were never common, but are even rarer today as the exigencies of finance demand immediate returns and the reality pervade that with workforce mobility, one is often training one’s future competitors.

This edition of DELI BUSINESS is always instructive and inspirational, for it honors and recognizes people in the industry who have made a difference. Role models are crucial and in our cover story, we provide them aplenty.

One of the tragedies of our time is that true mentoring has become rarer as concerns over harassment claims of various sorts have become more common. Our personal lives are the result of habits that define us. Those same habits will make success in one’s career more or less likely. One can’t be a truly great mentor unless one feels OK about helping one’s mentee not just work better but live a constructive life. Today that intrusion is a recipe for getting in trouble, so most executives limit their commitment. That keeps them safe but means the next generation isn’t getting all the help it could use.