The key to customer retention at international franchise chain Duck Donuts is more than simply providing a delicious product. It’s about baking in extraordinary customer service with every transaction. Director of Operations and Training Marissa Heath explains how team member training leads to memorable, award-winning customer service and employee retention.
Duck Donuts recently captured the #1 spot on Newsweek’s America’s Best Customer Service 2021 list in the category of “Catering, Restaurants and Leisure - Doughnut Chains.” In this interview, Director of Operations and Training Marissa Heath shares how training supports the company’s commitment to excellent customer service.
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Susan: Hello and welcome to Powered by Learning. I'm your host Susan Chord. With me is d'Vinci Learning and Technology Strategist, Jenny Kerwin. Today, we are going to talk with Marissa Heath, Director of Training and Operations at Duck Donuts, the fastest growing donut shop in the United States about the connection between outstanding customer service and training. Welcome, Jenny and Marissa.
Jenny: Hi, Marissa.
Marissa: Hi, Jenny, hi, Susan, thanks for having me.
Susan: Marissa, thank you for joining us. For our listeners who aren't familiar with your very delicious donuts share a little bit about your company.
Marissa: Sure. Duck Donuts is a made-to-order donut concept where guests can come in and customize their donuts any way they like. They can pick their coating, topping, drizzle, as many as they like, and can watch them actually being made on site. The donuts come out fresh out of our fryers. They're topped right in front of you and served to you warm.
Jenny: Fantastic, thank you so much. I'd love to start out by hearing from you a little bit about your role as Director of Training and Operations at Duck Donuts.
Marissa: Absolutely. I've been with the company for six years. I started back in the Outer Banks when I first took the position, and that was more of the Operations Manager of our four original locations. I went down to the Outer Banks to learn the business from the ground-up. I started in the back of a house washing dishes and just took a step-by-step, so I could really just be very comfortable with everything that Duck Donuts had to offer and what we were all about.
I spent about two years in the Outer Banks and then moved to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and was brought on when our franchise business was really starting to expand and grow and dove into the training department, where we built out a training program which is called Duck Donuts University, which really focused on training our franchisees and their managers on all aspects of the business, and how to be successful. That's a five-day intensive course that we offer.
Now things have changed a little bit due to the circumstances of COVID, but normally it's five days on the ground here in Mechanicsburg, both in classroom and on-site in our Mechanicsburg location. But present day, we're doing a hybrid situation where they're here for two days-- Oh, I'm sorry, they're remote for two days and then here for three days, because hands-on training is essential.
On top of training with our operations team, it’s various projects and tasks on a day-to-day basis. We do extensive research and development on new equipment and products, distribution both domestically and now internationally, which is really exciting for the company. Just really trying to enhance all of our protocols and procedures on a daily basis to just be as effective as possible.
Jenny: That's wonderful, thank you. I want to congratulate Duck Donuts on being named on Newsweek's list of America's best customer service for 2021. What's your approach to keeping customer service a top priority for the organization?
Marissa: That award, we're so excited about, that was something that we weren't even aware of, that we were being surveyed. It was definitely an honor to receive that. Guest service is something that we focus on. There are three things for me that I always train on that, I let our franchisees know that it's a complete failsafe. If you have consistency, if you have a quality product and you have great guest service, you really can't fail.
Guest service is definitely a part of that and it's something that we focus on very strongly, but I have to hand it to our franchisees, they're the ones in the trenches, they're the ones working with their team members day-in and day-out.
In our industry, turnover is just part of the game and the nature of the business. Training, retraining, onboarding employees, our franchisees take on the bulk of that, so it's effective training and providing them a positive culture in which to work because if your employees and your staff are not happy, then that energy is going to be felt by the guests who are walking through your doors. I definitely think our franchisees have done a wonderful job with the training.
Now of course, we're doing the initial training and we give that ongoing support to them, but really the owners who are engaged and working alongside of their team, that makes all the difference. If they're inspiring their staff to do a good job, if they're incentivizing them, it makes them more happy with their position, and so they're going to try and strive to do a better job or the best job they possibly can to improve. It's really the circle of success.
If you have a happy manager or an owner, that trickles down to your staff. They are happy, your team is doing anything and everything because they respect you, they like you, they like their jobs, and that's what it's about at Duck Donuts. It's an experience, and people observe everything when they walk through the doors and it's not just about the product that's being made. It's people's body language, it's how they carry themselves. It's how they interact with everyone. If that's a positive experience, that's going to be felt and that's really what it's all about, is making people feel good.
Susan: You definitely get a good vibe when you walk into the locations, you can tell that the team members enjoy what they're doing. Not only does that translate to good customer service, as you said, but that's interesting that it also helps that grid training helps with that retention factor as well.
Marissa: Absolutely. If you go back to those three words of consistency, quality product or customer service, it's something that I debate with my trainees, “What's more important out of those three?” For me, I really feel like guest service is at the top of it, because yes, the quality product is what's going to drive people to come through our doors but if you treat them well, that just adds to it.
I always use this analogy of Grandma's recipe. You have a grandmother that has this recipe that you absolutely love, and maybe it's a secret recipe and one day, she gives you that recipe. You come home and you get all the ingredients, and you make it, but when you make it, it tastes good, but there's something missing and to me, that ingredient is love.
If you're not making food and doing what you enjoy and putting the love behind it, it's just going to taste a little different. So why not offer that product with a smile and excitement, and make people feel that energy behind it, because that donut is going to taste a lot better. Rather than just handing someone a box and saying, “Well, have a good day.” I think the feeling behind the product makes a big difference and just the flavor of it overall.
Jenny: Well, it sounds like customer service is not only important to the locations and to your customers who are coming in the door, but it sounds very much like it's important internally in what you're doing in training and operations. Just the way that you talk about, you can tell that you provide good internal customer service to the employees, the franchisees. When you're looking to train people on that customer service and creating that experience, putting the love into what you're doing, what do you find are the best techniques or ways to help people embrace those skills that maybe don't come immediately naturally to them?
Marissa: First and foremost, you have to get on people's level. If you're training and coming from a place of, “I know everything, and I'm just going to let you know what I think and this is how it's done,” it becomes rigid. You need to meet people at where they're at, and you really need to be transparent. Transparency is one of our core values as our company, of just opening people's mindset and letting them in to why we're doing what it is we're doing.
Through COVID, we've established a campaign called Sprinkle Happiness, where we're really letting people know that we're the ones who have the power and the opportunity to make someone's day, to make them smile. They're coming to us to celebrate; they're coming to us to feel better after a bad day or just to have a good donut. If we're meeting people at their level and knowing that sometimes we have to use our intuition to know where people want to take that experience, because not everyone wants the full show, right?
At 6:30 in the morning before we've had our coffee when people would be like, “Hi, welcome to Duck Donuts. How are you today, and this is what I can do for you and—“Whoa, slow down but really being intuitive to what people are looking for in the experience, I think goes a long way. Just knowing that we have the power to make them smile and to make them happy, people take that personally and hopefully can put themselves in their shoes. So, “If I'm having a bad day, how do I want to be treated or what would be important to me?” It's all about perspective I think, and just treating people equally and making sure that people are happy because they come to us for those kinds of celebrations.
Jenny: In Duck Donuts University, do you have a specific class or exercises or activities that really pull forward those mindsets and philosophies about customer service?
Marissa: Yes. When we're on the ground for on-site training with the staff leading up to opening, we have a three-hour customer service training that we go through. That's the actual first training session of the week, because it's that important that they know this is what the expectations are. Through Duck Donuts University, we go through scenarios, we walk through things that can happen. Nothing earth-shattering can really happen within our donut shops that are really going to just make it an awful experience, but even the little things we want to fix before that guest walks out the door, they're enjoying their experience and we have the opportunity to fix something.
We're not perfect, things happen, but the way that we're set up in our operation and the tools we give our staff really have given them the opportunity to fix things and empower them to do things on their own, where you're not just looking for a manager to fix it for you. It could be as simple as an extra donut or a cup for a hot coffee if the guest's wait time is a little bit too long. One thing we always do is present the donuts, prior to them leaving the store.
That way they can look at their donuts, know that they're exactly the way they want and if there is a discrepancy, we can fix it right there, instead of just handing them a lidded box, and they go back to wherever they're coming from and open the box and realize, “Oh, my order is wrong.” We have implemented different tools and techniques to avoid any of those negative situations from happening.
Jenny: You talked earlier about how you had to adjust some training for COVID, and how important the hands-on training is. Can you share with us, what challenges that you've experienced with training and what techniques you've used to get around those challenges and really continue to deliver the training that's needed?
Marissa: Sure. Everything that we can do virtually which is all of our classroom, we obviously handle in the first two days of training. Even though it's better to be in-person for those, because being on a computer for hours at a time can get a little bit much. There was one training that I can remember that had to be full virtual. There was no traveling, it was a complete lockdown, and we really couldn't get around it. We pivoted and we accommodated and did everything via Zoom, so we're in the store, showing them how to make donuts and showing them how to top them, even though it was all visual training. It's what we had to do to at least enlighten them to the operation.
That also involved us once they got to the point of opening, getting on the ground earlier, so we could really work with them individually prior to their staff training so they felt as comfortable as possible. You want your staff to look at you as someone who knows what they're doing, and that is professed in all the skills that are needed to run your location. Really, I have to say, with our concept, the hands-on training is essential. I could talk to you until I was blue in the face about how to make a donut, and it might seem like, “Well, it's a donut. It's a ring of sugar that you fry. How hard can it be?”
There are so many variables that go into making those, and we really strive to make the perfect donut every time. There's a lot you need to keep your eye on and unless you're actually doing it and hands-on, it can be pretty intimidating. It's really important that people do get hands-on at some point.
Jenny: With the hands-on training, how much time would you say is spent just really giving people the opportunity to practice that art of making the right donut and building that consistency?
Marissa: Are you referring more to during the training program or just in general when you're onboarding a new team member, how long you take?
Jenny: I think when you're onboarding a new team member.
Marissa: I would say that it just takes a couple of days. You're not spending a month on the art of making a donut, but I would say just about three shifts probably, where you can be introduced to the concept or the procedure, and then you can watch it, and then you do it yourself. We do something called Train the Trainer, where you're then training the person who trained you and walking them through the steps, so that you can be very clear and educated on everything that's involved with that process.
Jenny: That probably prepares them to train the next person who comes along as well.
Marissa: Exactly. That's why keeping your staff happy is really important, because the lower the turnover, the less amount of time you have to spend training new people. There's less opportunity for error, because you have seasoned employees who get more professed in the skills that they bring to the different positions in the operation. So, they're going to become experts and really know what's expected of them and know the right way to do it, and therefore they can train those around them on how to do it the way that they were originally taught.
Jenny: Do you find that when those individuals who are learning, when they're doing that Train the Trainer experience, after they've had their initial practice and they've learned and now they're teaching their teacher. Do you find that that is a big confidence booster for how they're able to go forth in performing their job? Is it a good way to build confidence from someone being a brand-new employee to being part of a team?
Marissa: Absolutely, and we talk about that as even a position for team members. You always want to incentivize and give opportunity for growth, so even just having that onboarding or trainer title where owners see someone who do really well on each position of the store, they get along with their team and name them the team trainer and take on that just little extra responsibility, they get empowered through that.
It's so fun to watch them train because even the little nuances or the way you say things or the way you explain things, they then use those in training. It's really just fun to see that people really take it seriously and they realize that there's an art to the craft of making donuts and they want to train others on how to do it right.
Susan: It sounds like you instill a sense of pride in the team members too, that through the training and connecting it back to the company's goals that, that training becomes more relevant and then they become more empowered to do their jobs and really deliver that great customer service.
Marissa: Yes, learning is everything. If you're not learning, you're not growing. Making sure that the team knows that there's something to be learned every day, because if there's not people get bored, and they can become complacent in their position. Always looking for areas to improve and to do well and pointing out what they're succeeding in and pointing out where they could do better. People thrive off of direction and setting expectations, so I think that's really vital for the health of your team, in general.
Jenny: Well, Marissa, I was just about to ask, what part has learning played in Duck Donuts growth and success, but you really answered it in that last statement. Another thing that I wanted to talk with you about is the perception from the franchisees. I watched a video, it's on the Duck Donuts site, and franchisees talk about the amazing support and training that they receive. You talked about Duck Donuts University, what are the other ways that you continue to provide that consistency after that initial training that they receive, because they do definitely feel supported 100%?
Marissa: Well, even before training, they are supported from day one, back to our discovery days or when they're just learning about the opportunity to invest or to open a location. And that goes through every step of the way, from their sign agreement to working with our construction and design team, to working with our onboarding team who spent a lot of time with them really getting them ready to get to that point of training and opening their location. We're with them along the way, working hand-in-hand with each of our departments.
After their stores open, we have a position, we call them FBCs. They’re our franchise business consultants, who are really their liaison to knowing and answering any questions that they might have that come up, or if they're not the appropriate person, connecting them with the person in the company that can help. Lucky for us, we're small enough where I think our owners at that point know who they should be contacting to get help in a certain circumstance, but, yes, we always are offering continual support, doing check-ins and the communication is also key. We're sending out weekly newsletters, constant contact, always letting franchisees know as much as we can, and educating them on everything that's happening with the company.
Jenny: It sounds like the training and education and communication continues, passes initial just a training event and as an ongoing mindset that's really embraced by Duck Donuts as a whole.
Marissa: Absolutely, and we like to get our franchisees involved as well. We have a committee called the FAC committee or Franchisee Advisory Council, who we've involved in the bigger decisions that we're making as a company, “What do they think about this, that, the third?” So that we get their feedback because we can make all the decisions in the world, but again, we're not the ones in the trenches, we're not the ones that are in the stores on a day-to-day basis. What do they think about certain things and how is that going to work for them, because just as we want to make our guests happy, we want to make our franchisees happy as well.
Susan: Marissa, what's next then, for Duck Donuts and training? What do you see in the future?
Marissa: Oh my, well, we are figuring out the international piece, so that's really exciting. What that looks like, it's not as easy as jumping on a plane or getting in your car to drive a couple of hours to a location that's either on the East Coast or anywhere in the US, there's a little bit more involved there. It's just logistics of how long we should be spending on the ground with that location, to make sure that they're up and running and have everything that they need because their support looks a little bit different from being domestic rather than International. That's really exciting. We're looking more into that.
My hope is to start some program where there's easy access information. Whether it's an LMS program, or just creating YouTube videos for people that they can visually learn things outside of that initial training at Duck Donuts University, or when we're on the ground prior to opening. I think training is essential for the success of our locations, and ongoing training. Training doesn't start and stop with a five-day intensive course; it has to be continuous. Trying to figure out what tools will work best for us, so we can make that process for our franchisees and the team members as cohesive and effective as possible.
Jenny: Marissa, your overall approach to customer service and training and development, and how the two go hand-in-hand is really impressive and amazing. It's no wonder that you get such great feedback from the people who receive that training.
Marissa: During training, I always ask people what the definition of customer service is, and most times they respond and say, “It's meeting the expectations of your guests or your customers and making them happy.” For us, you need to set the bar and not just meet but exceed. I think that's where the difference is. I feel that if we're not going above and beyond, then we're not making an impact and that's not what people are going to talk about.
When it comes to attracting new guests and bringing people through the door, they need to be inspired and that comes through word-of-mouth, and that comes through the reviews and people are so addicted to social nowadays. If we have an opportunity to wow somebody and that gives them the inspiration to talk to someone else about it or to post that somewhere, that's really where we can make the difference.
Jenny: Thank you so much for everything that you shared with us today. Susan, did you have anything else that we wanted to wrap up with?
Susan: Just that, that was very inspirational Marissa and I think Jenny and I are now going to go out and get some Duck Donuts because we are very hungry after listening to all of this.
Marissa: Please do.
Susan: Thank you so much, Marissa, and good luck to you and Duck Donuts.
Marissa: All right.
Susan: Well, Jenny, it was so great to talk with her. She really understands the importance and the connection between training and customer service and just how that relates to the company's goals. What are some of the takeaways that you think or some of the key points that Marissa made today?
Jenny: Well, the things that I recognize most strongly is that Marissa lives and breathes not only training and development in the operations, but also that guest services. Directly, not only to the people who come into the building, not only for the people who are buying the donuts, but to each of the people who work there, each of the people who are involved in the franchises from the time that they get involved to the time that they go through training, and then ongoing. There's always that layer of customers, who are training and learning that are blended together so well.
Big takeaway that I heard from Marissa was the idea of consistency, quality, and guest service, and how those are the key components to be able to move forward and succeed. I think not only in serving donuts or any quality product, I think that really goes into training and development as well. If we keep in mind as training and development professionals, consistency, quality, and guest service, we can really create some amazing learning experiences for the learners that we come in contact with.
Susan: I love too her point about transparency and explaining the reason for the training, and how that really translates into empowering the learner and ultimately leading toward employee retention.
Jenny: Right, and then I think that was connected all into what she called the circle of success. Again, what you put in at the beginning, coming back around and continuing on, really fantastic perspective on training and development and customer service.
Susan: I agree. Well, thank you very much Jenny, and many thanks to Marissa Heath, Director of Training and Operations at Duck Donuts for joining us today. If you have any questions about what we talked about, you can reach out to us on
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Speaker: Powered by learning is brought to you by d’Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d’Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at dvinci.com.