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8 Ideas To Raise The Service Bar

What defines good service? It depends.

Today, more than ever, service matters. And a recent survey suggests that the average restaurant is offering less-than stellar service. Staff cutbacks, subpar training, bad design and other factors are undermining the experience, and your customers are taking note. According to Empathica, a customer experience consultancy, the majority (55.2%) of Americans think customer service in restaurants is getting worse.

“With less discretionary spending, people aren't going out as frequently, and when they do, they have heightened expectations,” says Gary Edwards, executive v.p. with Empathica. “Even if service levels aren't truly declining, restaurants may be evaluated more harshly. There is simply more of a negative sentiment among consumers.”

Need more proof that competent service is crucial? An American Express study determined that quality customer service is more important to consumers in today's economic environment (61% agreed), and that they are willing to spend an average of 9% more with a business that provides superior service. And they are far more likely to give a company repeat business after a good service experience than they are never to patronize a firm again after a poor visit (81% vs. 52%).

“Customers want and expect superior service,” says Jim Bush, executive v.p. for American Express World Service. “Especially in this tight economic environment, consumers are focused on getting good value for their money….It's important to see customer service as an investment, not a cost.”

AVE STEPS: The less time servers spend fetching supplies, the more time they can devote to hospitality.

LOOK, LISTEN: Taking cues from guests is an art worth mastering.

What exactly defines good or bad service? Like art, you know it when you see it. But guests, owners and waitstaffs all see things through a different set of eyes when it comes to the elements. The trick is to balance it all.

  1. Remember why your guests are here.

    Whether your niche is white tablecloth ritz or coffee shop kitsch, people who walk through your door are there for a reason. They might want to socialize and unwind, they might be in a rush to get back to work, they might want to impress an important client. Your servers need to understand exactly why someone has chosen your restaurant and what expectations they have. Alex Brennan-Martin, who runs Brennan's of Houston and several other restaurants in the city, penned a book about this idea called The Simple Truth About Your Business. “Our customers, especially in fine dining, are not coming to us necessarily to get fed, they're not even coming to get pampered or for the beautiful ambiance. There's something more. They want a memorable experience. Creating great memories for our guests is what we do.”

    Brennan-Martin says that understanding why your guests are present should guide the style of service — leisurely, unobtrusive and attentive versus efficient and friendly, for example — but it should also help an operator prioritize and devote less energy to “things that customers don't care about,” such as payroll, or ordering supplies. “We want managers to try to help servers understand why what they're doing is important,” he explains. “We do a lot of one-to-one mentoring and counseling. What does memory making mean to us? We walk them through the process.”

  2. Know thy menu.

    Few things are more irritating and baffling than asking a server about an ingredient or preparation technique and being told “I don't know.” That phrase should not be part of any server's vocabulary. “You should know every ingredient,” says Steve Dublanica, former waiter and author of Waiter Rant and the soon-to-be published Keep the Change, books about working in restaurants and the politics of tipping. “You should be aware of anything that contains nuts, milk, etc. If someone is lactose intolerant, it's better to have something ready to recommend rather than asking the chef. If someone asks whether the salmon is organic, you need to be able to say that it's farm raised. You have to respond with patience to your customers' requests.”

    Susie Ross, owner of a company called Waiter Training that helps owners educate their staffs, agrees. “If you don't know the menu, you can't sell it,” she observes. “It's really in your interest to be an ambassador for that menu: know it, like it, sell it.” And knowledge isn't just an element of good service, she adds. It's a way to increase the check average and, by association, the gratuity. Familiarity with the menu helps supply the confidence to suggest extras like cheese on a burger or a complimentary side.

    And these days, when diners are more curious about the source of their meal, food knowledge has taken on a new dimension. Good restaurants explain new menu additions at staff meetings and tastings. Some go a step further, resorting to quizzes to make sure everyone knows which artisan made the cheese and where the salad greens were grown. And if the ingredients aren't local, a server may be put on the spot to explain why that's so.

  3. Keep it clean.

    Good hygiene should be a given, but it isn't. Dublanica recalls more than once fielding complaints from customers about fellow servers with a body odor problem; he advises “get a haircut, trim your nails and keep your facial hair groomed. And girls shouldn't have hair all over the place. You should have a clean uniform; you are the first person a guest will see.” Hygiene is important with anything guests will be using to eat or drink as well. How servers handle glasses, wine bottles, plates — germophobes are probably not the only ones who will notice.

  4. Make it easy for servers to do their job.

    Waiters like to moan and groan about all the little indignities (see box, p. 30) that they suffer as part of their jobs, but one common and easily remedied complaint is the workstation setup. Ross, who is often hired to help prop up sagging sales, says a poor service ethic can sometimes be the cause, but often it's poor design. “If your restaurant is designed solely for appearance and the service areas aren't sufficient, you are hindering the ability of your staff to do their jobs efficiently,” she observes. “They will spend too much time running around, or they might not have the appropriate tools or equipment to do their jobs.” Unless you are working with architects or designers who specialize in foodservice, she says you should talk to the staff about how they use the space.

    Susan Salgado, managing director of Hospitality Quotient, a consulting division of Union Square Hospitality Group, agrees that making sure the mundane details are covered — that flatware, folded napkins, garnishes and other server-provided items are available — leaves the servers time to do their jobs well. “If we can deliver on the technical aspects of service, then servers are free to engage in hospitality — the thoughtful things that emotionally attach you to a place. It takes a well-run restaurant to create that atmosphere.”

  5. What you say/don't say matters.

    Should a server introduce himself/herself? Or is that so cliché? How do you find out whether the meal is satisfactory? What's the correct reaction to a cleared plate that is largely untouched? Should servers recommend personal favorites? These are all grey areas, but any restaurant worth its salt will set up guidelines for handling these aspects of service.

    Guidelines should reflect the style of the restaurant and the target clientele, but should also include a measure of common sense. Rule #31 from Bruce Buschel, an operator who posted a list of 100 rules for servers on the New York Times website, is “Never remove a plate full of food without asking what went wrong. Obviously, something went wrong.” But there's a fine line between asking if there was a problem with the meal and intruding. Maybe the patron is not feeling well, is stressed out or has an eating disorder. Figuring out the right way to approach the situation is an art.

    Slang has a place, but not in most restaurants. Many people don't like it. Similarly, Buschel isn't fond of “no problem.” He thinks “it has a tone of insincerity or sarcasm,” and prefers to hear “my pleasure” or “you're welcome” instead. And don't point fingers when things do go wrong. Just fix it.

  6. Boundaries are key.

    Whether to touch or not touch the guest seems open to debate. Some studies suggest that lightly touching the guest (along with other habits, such as bending down to table level or drawing a smiley face on the check) is a subtle a way to push the tip up, but many people — servers and guests alike — seem horrified at the idea.

    “Be polite, smile — and know your boundaries,” advises Dublanica. A server needs to strike a delicate balance between disappearing and hovering.

  7. Take cues from the guests.

    Buschel's Rule #56 — “Do not ignore a table because it is not your table. Stop, look, listen, lend a hand.” — is shrewd because it fosters a sense of camaraderie among the servers and makes the guests feel taken care of, which is the point — right? Most servers understand not to clear plates until the entire party is finished eating. Not everyone knows that the check is only to be produced on request, preferably presented to the person requesting it.

    When someone is unhappy, it's important to figure out what will turn the situation around. “Give them options,” Salgado says. “Look for ways to give them control of the situation.” And she believes in the “3 A's” to handle mistakes or genuine problems: Acknowledge, Apologize and Act. “I understand we cooked your steak incorrectly. I'm sorry that this happened. Let me take it back to the kitchen.” Don't argue or hedge, just make it right.

  8. Smile, and have fun!

    Brennan-Martin, who knows good service when he sees it, admits that a genuine smile and a welcoming attitude — and happy employees — draw him to even the most pedestrian restaurant. Salgado says nice servers who are also competent form a special bond with their guests. “If the service is mediocre but the servers are really nice, you'll probably get those customers back again. If the service is absolutely fabulous but the service staffers are cold, customers may come back, but they won't choose you for very important occasions if they don't think you will be warm and caring. That's the winning combination.” And it's not just the server's attitude that matters — it starts at the front door with the hostess and continues through every touch point in the meal service.

    Mel Kleiman, a recruiting and hiring consultant, says the job interview is the time to determine whether someone is a natural smiler. “You can't teach smiling. People either want to do it or don't.”

Good Owner, Bad Owner: A Waiter's Rant

Like any typical employee, servers like to share their nightmare stories about former bosses. Steve Dublanica, who sold a lot of copies of his memoir Waiter Rant, which skewers both owners and guests, is always ready with a tales of bad behavior — and good. We asked him to talk about the most common sins.

  • Proper staffing levels are crucial. Too many servers means the pie is cut into tiny pieces, too few, and the service suffers.

  • You know there is a problem if pornography is lying around the office. Sexual harassment is a real and prevalent problem.

  • Yelling and screaming are not cool. “I worked for a guy who would insult people's sexual orientation, heritage, religion and so on,” Dublanica says. “Many owners are psychologically unqualified to be restaurant owners. They think it will be fun; they don't realize what a mental meat grinder it will be.”

  • Don't be petty. Some owners charge for all breakage (even though that practice may be against the law), staff meals that may or not be served, aprons and so on. Dublanica once worked in a place that used $90 designer plates and says “they were idiots to use that kind of china.” Dipping into the tip pool is another huge source of animosity toward management.

  • To score points and loyalty, learn from some of the best. Danny Meyer and Thomas Keller treat their staff like professionals, make sure they have a fair shot at making money and are even-handed. They even provide niceties like paid vacations and health insurance.