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Secrets to Great Service

Secrets to Great Service

ALL IN THE WRIST: Servers at Fatz Cafès will be connected to their guests and the kitchen by a wireless system.

QUICK BITES: Red Robin handles orders and checks efficiently to save time for guests.

PERKS WORK: Teamwork pays off at Sticky Fingers.

HELP ME: When polled, guests at FlatTop Grill asked for assistance assembling good-tasting stir-fry dishes.

People may visit a restaurant once if they hear the food is good,but most won't return if the servers are clueless,insulting or indifferent. Sadly, at far too many restaurants, the quality of service lags far behind the quality of food.

In the last Zagat Survey, service ratings ranked behind food by an average of nearly two points. Some 72 percent of complaints by diners responding to the survey were service-related.

"Year after year, our surveys show that service is the weak link in the restaurant industry," observes Tim Zagat,CEO of the company. The explosion of culinary programs and a more demanding public have helped raised the bar on food quality; now it's up to the service side to catch up.

For operators, the idea of improving service should be a no-brainer. In the most recent J.D. Power and Associates restaurant satisfaction survey, service ran a close second to food as a deciding factor in respondents' happiness with a restaurant experience. Better service translates into happier customers, more repeat business and referrals, healthier sales, beefier tips, lower turnover and other positive outcomes.

So what are the major complaints about service and the hurdles to making it better?

Mike Albert, founder and chief of service for Satisfaction Services, a mystery shopping company, contends that a basic problem is misguided priorities. Too many chains and operators pay more attention to promotion, trying to get seats filled, than they do to making sure the customers occupying those seats have a positive experience. "Companies spend thousands of dollars on marketing and advertising to get you to come to their places of business, but very little time and money understanding what they do to you when they get you there," he observes.

"If you can give me a good experience, you don't have to run an ad every morning to try to get me to go there for lunch," Albert adds.

Recruiting: A First Step
Recruiting adept servers is always a challenge. "The first problem about service that comes to my mind is that there are people performing it who don't want to be," says John Fischer, assistant professor of table service at the Culinary Institute of America and author of a recent book, At Your Service: A Hands-On Guide to the Professional Dining Room. Managing restaurants in New York City for 12 years, when he encountered waiters and waitresses who told him they really wanted to be actors, he would quip, "Can you act like a waiter for a couple of hours?"

But seriously, Fischer says many servers only wait tables because they are biding their time or looking for a quick buck. The stars, he contends, are people who have a strong drive to please others. During an interview, he suggests figuring out ways to uncover whether the candidate is someone who wants to take care of others. One technique he has used: Tell a bad joke and see how they react.

The generation gap is a major issue. The bulk of those who can afford to eat out most are part of an age group with certain service expectations. Those in service positions are part of Gen X or Y, and a lack of basic social skills is not considered a liability. "(Younger people) just don't know what good service is, and they don't know about common courtesy—the fundamental stuff that 10 or 20 years ago was common knowledge," Albert says. But that doesn't mean they can't learn those basics.

One way to do so is by appealing to the greed factor. A booklet Coca-Cola produced for its foodservice clients, "Tips for Better Tips," outlines in a compelling style why servers would be crazy to not want to hone their skills. Professional servers know that creating an enjoyable and relaxing occasion, understanding what they are selling and intelligently using suggestive selling techniques are the three most effective ways to bring more money to their own bottom line, not just their employer's. The booklet suggests the practice, followed by savvy operators, of training servers to look at their stations as small businesses and manage them accordingly.

Changing the Mindset
Many restaurants use incentives to improve attitude and spur better service. The key is to use meaningful incentives.

Sticky Fingers Ribhouse , a casual dining chain with 15 locations in the Southeast, last fall hired a full-time "rewards director" who is tasked with distributing personalized rewards for hard-working team members. Employees have earned ski vacations in Aspen, long weekends in New York, airfare and game tickets to see the Green Bay Packers in a playoff game, concert tickets and more. The whole staff at one Sticky Fingers took a bus to a local amusement park for the day; another unit rented a theatre for a staff meeting and private movie screening; last fall, all the restaurants competed against each other in a midnight paintball tournament.

The company claims that a long-standing policy of unusual rewards has helped it keep turnover among its 1,000 employeesat around 60 percent, well below the industry average. It has also encouraged a culture where employees bend over backward to please guests. They will make a quick run to the store to pick up items a guest has requested that aren't on the menu, and on rainy days they have been known to greet guests in the parking lot with an umbrella ready.

Cash, of course, is always the right size and color as an incentive. Outback Steakhouse's Sharing in the Action, Responsibility and Success (STARS) program uses cash awards based on sales results to spur better service and repeat business. The program also increases peer pressure for the whole team to work harder.

Listen and Watch
Some say it's an innate ability, others say it can be taught, but the skill of "reading" a table, something finedining restaurants seem to appreciate, is an art that their more casual counterparts would do well to study. The ideal server is one who:

  • can determine, through body language and other cues, whether a table is involved in a celebration and is looking for leisurely service or extras like dessert (are there gifts on the table? is champagne ordered?) or whether the diners are just looking for a quick bite and the check (the menu is closed almost immediately)
  • understands how dishes are prepared and can answer questions and recommend choices for those who are on special diets
  • asks the guest's permission before automatically reciting specials or desserts ("Would you like to hear about our specials?").

The idea is to allow the guest to feel he or she is in control. In essence, "it's training people to not be obnoxious," says Russ Fletcher, senior channel marketing manager for foodservice at the Coca-Cola Company.

Another way to help guests feel in control is to ask for their input and act on their suggestions. FlatTop Grill , a nine-unit create-your-own stir-fry concept based out of Chicago, sends e-mails to about 40,000 guests offering them a $5-off meal coupon for their response to an annual survey about everything from restaurant design to site selection to food. Typically the $5 coupon induces about half of those guests to respond. In past surveys, respondents provided feedback about the space between tables, the noise levels and the food. Top management compiles the comments and decides what issues to tackle; respondents get an e-mail describing the plan of action. The top comment in one survey, says Keene Addington, CEO, was "we need help" with putting together tasty stir-fry combinations. So FlatTop changed the process, providing more recipes for guests to follow and making sure the chooseyourown-ingredients line was properly staffed with "coaches" to help them put their meals together.

McAlister's Deli has used automated telephone customer surveys to keep tabs on how its franchisees are doing and to tweak operations. The responses are posted on a website, where corporate management and unit managers can see scores. By listening to what guests were telling them, the chain was able to increase the percentage of highly satisfied customers—the group most likely to return.

"So often you fill surveys out and never get anything back," says FlatTop Grill's Addington. "Our guests appreciate this because they get a response. We think it keeps us close to our guests and makes us better."

Timing Is Everything
Many operators don't seem to understand how toolong waiting lists, and how those waits are handled, affect the customer's perception and can set the tone for a good or a bad experience. A much-publicized study from Cornell's School of Hotel and Restaurant Administration offers evidence to support specific policies for crowd control. Most guests seem to think that seating should be on a first-come, first-served basis; most restaurant managers want to maximize revenues by seating parties based on their size and table availability. VIP seating was seen as a distinct turnoff in the study. Customers were also more accepting of policies such as call-ahead seating if those policies were made clear.

Yet another Cornell study describes how important it is to pace a meal properly. Too rushed and the guest may feel pressure or lack of hospitality; too slow, and the server may be considered inattentive. Clearly, there is a fine line, which can be clarified by honing the ability to "read" tables and, possibly, through technology (see box, p. 40).

Red Robin understands that its guests are generally looking for a quick bite, and service is paced accordingly at its 300-plus locations. Servers are trained to take drink orders within 60 seconds of a guest's seating, and checks are left at the table with dessert menus to give them the opportunity for a quick exit as needed. When one of your target audiences is harried mothers with kids in tow, shaving a few minutes off the wait for the check is just short of genius.

Albert says the bottom line, regardless of the type of restaurant or its style of service, is this: "People gravitate to where they do because of the experience they are having. They want to feel good about spending their money somewhere."

Shelly Fireman, founder and CEO of the Fireman Hospitality Group and operator of a group of New York City restaurants known for in-your-face but knowledgeable service, gets it. "We're obsessive about hospitality," he told "Our aim is not simply to please our guests, but to make them so happy that, when they leave, they say to themselves, 'I can't wait to come back.'" How does he do that? He'll never tell.

Better Living Through Technology

Technology can't replace the human touch, especially in foodservice, but it can help expedite the service process pretty painlessly.

Fatz Cafè, a casual-dining operation with 29 units in the Southeast, is in the process of introducing a wireless system that will allow guests to alert servers when they need something—more bread, the check, another bottle of wine—as well as alert servers when they have new customers in their area. Made by ESP Systems, it equips each server with a watch-like devise that provides information from guests, the kitchen, the bar and each other. The system includes a timer that tells servers, among other things, how long a party has been seated and how long it's been since their order was taken, both important cues.

"We've always identified natural gaps in the service chain and we saw an opportunity with this product to reduce or eliminate some of those gaps," says Steve Bruce, Fatz Cafè president and CEO. One problem was how long guests waited to receive menus after they were seated; tests of the product showed it help cut that time by 75 percent. Fatz Cafè also sliced the time between when a check was presented and when it was picked up.

These may seem like small improvements, but Bruce says restaurants can reap additional benefits from giving the guest more efficient service. Trim a few minutes off the typical service time, multiply tha by 40 tables and three turns in an evening, and it adds up.

Starwich, a small New York-based group of salad and sandwich shops, issues "smart cards" to its customers that store data about their preferences and can be used as stored value cards by request. By saving the user's three favorite combinations and tracking recent orders, the cards streamline the ordering process. It's a smart way to simplify a menu offering more than 100 ingredients that can be combined into salads and sandwiches. It's also a natural extension of the wired vibe at Starwich, where guests have access to free wi-fi connections, cell phone chargers, fax machines and copier machines.

No Joke: Tips for Better Tips

Despite the running gag in the cult movie, Office Space, and countless other jabs at seemingly inappropriate server behavior, servers who wear "flair," touch guests lightly and introduce themselves to the table are likely to score better tips, according to no less an authority than Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. Without going into the complex psychology behind them, here are recommendations for servers by W. Michael Lynn, Ph.D., a psychologist and associate professor of consumer behavior and marketing at the school who has researched tipping behaviors:

  • Introduce yourself by name.
  • Squat down next to the table when introducing yourself.
  • Wear a big, open-mouthed smile.
  • Wear unusual ornaments or items of clothing.
  • Entertain customers with jokes or puzzles.
  • Practice suggestive selling.
  • Repeat customers' orders back to them.
  • Touch customers briefly on the arm or shoulder.
  • Forecast good weather.
  • Write "thank you" on the check.
  • Draw pictures on the check.
  • Use tip trays embossed with credit card logos.
  • Call customers by name.
  • Distribute after-dinner candies.

Of course, much of this would horrify guests in a formal dining setting. But for a casual operation, experiments showed that these actions increased tips by an average of 20 percent, with some steps (smiling, repeating the order) more than doubling the tip amount.