Empower Your People

In my previous job, I went to lunch at a variety of restaurants with several colleagues. When ordering, my usual question was, “Can I get a cup of soup and a half sandwich?” (This option was normally not on the menu.) I asked this question for two reasons:

  1. That’s what I wanted
  2. I wanted to see if the waitress was empowered to satisfy me, the customer.

Unfortunately, the answer I usually received was something like, “Oh, no, that’s not on the menu,” or “I’ll give you a half of a sandwich, but I’ll have to charge you for a whole sandwich,” or “I’d have to check with the manager, but I don’t think he’ll allow it.”

Currently I teach “Principles of Management” at Springfield Technical Community College. This semester I asked students to conduct their own little experiments to determine if front line workers are empowered. Here are some of their reports:

  • I went to breakfast at a restaurant that has great homemade whole wheat toast. I asked the waitress if I could buy four slices of whole wheat bread to take with me. She said “No, we only sell toast!”
  • I asked for a Big Mac with a non-sesame seed top and a half a slice of cheese. I received a quizzical look from the teenage girl taking my order. She punched in my order and gave me my total. She turned around and explained my “special-order” to the employees in the grill area. They acknowledged her and made my sandwich just as I had ordered it.
  • I went to a fast food restaurant and asked for a medium soda made up of ½ Sprite and ½ Pepsi with two ice cubes. The person waiting on me said “I’ll have to charge you for two sodas.” I said, “No way I’m only ordering one soda. The clerk simply repeated, “I have to charge you for two sodas.”
  • I went to a grocery store that sells homemade cookies by the dozen – chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, etc. I asked if I could get a package made up of five chocolate chip, four oatmeal raisin, and three double chocolate. The clerk said, “Sure.”
  • I saw a sign for Sierra Mist that said “2 for $2.00.” I brought one bottle of soda to the cash register and the clerk said “That will be “$1.19.” I asked if he could get the soda for the sale price of $1.00. “For you, sure,” he proclaimed. “I take care of my good customers.”
  • I went to a restaurant chain and ordered a dinner for $12.00. I asked if they could substitute onion rings for the fries. They said, “No substitutions and no exceptions.”

What do these informal, unscientific results indicate? Of the 16 students who participated in this project, 8 (or 50%) found the front line person they dealt with was empowered. They received exactly what they wanted and walked away a happy, satisfied customer. However, half of my students didn’t get what they wanted. Some were frustrated and annoyed that their “reasonable request” was flatly denied.

If managers really did “empower their people,” they would be able to make “on-the-spot decisions” to satisfy customers. Should managers give their employees unlimited power and authority? No, of course not. Should mangers give employees the power to make small exceptions like the ones I have discussed? Yes, absolutely.


Customers have lots of choices. If I don’t get what I want or like the way I was treated at one restaurant or store, I simply don’t return. I find the restaurant that will happily give me a half sandwich. And I keep going back to that store/restaurant because I know they’ll take care of me!