Turning around the underperformers by Ann Elliott

How do you turn around underperforming sites? It’s a question often asked of us – more so now than ever before. What used to be a great site a few months ago can suddenly find sales lagging behind budget, covers falling and spend per head off the pace. It hasn’t become a poor site overnight – the team haven’t started to ignore customers for no reason and the whole of the customer base hasn’t gone on holiday. So why isn’t this site doing so well?

Our first job is to find out exactly what isn’t going well – and usually the answer is footfall. Topline sales and bottom-line profitability spring from that one dynamic. It could, of course, be something else and we need to know what. Our second job is to find out why.

This is the hard part and begins with a deep understanding of the operation and the team in place. Has the manager suddenly started to underperform? If so, why? Great managers don’t become lousy managers overnight. Could it be something has happened in their personal life? Has anything changed with their relationship with their ops manager? If the ops manager and the manager are as good as ever, then have the team dynamics changed at all? Is that affecting their relationships with their customers?

If all the operational team check out as unchanged and doing a consistently great job then what else has changed? Has anything happened in terms of the site, for example scaffolding, building works, traffic flow changes and/or external appearance to make it less appealing to the target market? Have competitors opened up and taken footfall? What other external factors need exploring?

Or has the offer changed recently? Has anything changed in terms of product, price, value for money, quality, presentation, service or ambience that may have had a negative impact on customer appeal? Even the most marginal of changes can have significant impact on customer behaviour. Personally, I always want to begin this work (post the operational piece) with some quick, dirty and cost-effective customer insight – usually qualitative and quantitative. Speaking with a customer voice rather than your own is very powerful. Without this, it all comes down to personal opinion, which is dangerous.

Once we know the reasons behind the change in performance we can start pulling a plan together that fits with the brand’s USP, values, positioning and offer and is targeted at its core target market. This plan is crucial. Quite often it’s easy to put hard-hitting promotions in place and just hit Facebook or Twitter in an attempt to drive covers. This is not the right thing to do – at all.

If the issues are around personnel, site or offer then these need to be addressed. There is no point blindly driving traffic to a site in a one-off hit only to see it fail to return because the fundamental issues driving the downturn in performance have not been addressed. This will do untold damage to the brand and the business. If the issues are at the heart of what’s happening, they need to addressed before any form of customer communication is put in place.

If the issues are around awareness and trial then careful but dynamic and speedy attention has to be paid to activity, message and medium – and over a longer period of time than a few weeks. It’s easy to think in terms of getting social media numbers up but the most important thing is to get the content and story right in the first place. Social media is simply a route to market. It’s not an end in itself, it’s just part of the marketing mix along with email, PR, local activation, community involvement etc.

The plan then needs to be clearly communicated to the team because their involvement and buy-in is vital. Then it needs to be implemented with focus and clarity. Underperforming sites can be turned around – the key to me is this has to be a long-term change not a short-term win.