Ask anyone who runs a restaurant and you’ll find there is a hell of a lot to do. As managers get promoted it becomes easy to take on the many responsibilities of the business…
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Meet Keith Mrotek, a bartender from the Norseman Distillery in Minneapolis. He’s making a Martini from a recipe that dates back to 1903. The recipe he’s using details 30ml of Dry Vermouth, 60ml of Gin, Orange Bitters and a Lemon Coin. Three ingredients and a garnish. Pretty precise, right? As he skilfully prepares this classic cocktail, you can hear him say “there’s no such thing as the perfect Martini. But there is a perfect Martini for each guest”. The amount of ice you use, the length of time you stir the drink (Keith likes his stirred for 45 seconds), the amount of orange bitters you use. These all add subtle changes that can be tailored to suit each guest. The cocktail is still their unique recipe, it’s uses their own Gin and Vermouth but there’s flexibility in their approach that delivers something specific to each individual. For me that’s real modern bartending.
That also happens to be the exact approach we have to delivering great service. The U.S. has always been way ahead of us when it comes to customer service, and there’s no doubt we’re catching up. But I also think we’ve picked up some of their bad habits too. As big brands realised the importance of customer service, they developed rules and regulations to create ‘consistency’ throughout the company. Scripted “Good Morning Sir” and “You have a great day Miss” seemed to be the basis of great customer care. The problem is, we’ve got so used to these hollow please and thank-yous that we see straight through them. Robotic and scripted jargon like this is embarrassing for all involved. Airlines are a classic example. Whenever you depart from a flight and the three or four crew say, "thank you" for flying with them, sometimes not even looking at you and repeating the same words in the same tone in between conversations with themselves. Why do they do it? Because the training manual tells them they must. The whole exercise becomes pointless. Sadly that generic, robotic and soul destroying “good” customer service practice has found its way over here.
I’m not saying rules and points of service are a bad thing. They’re not. You couldn’t make this Martini without Gin and Vermouth - but we have to have flexibility. We have to trust front line employees to make their own choices and decide exactly how they think it is best to thank a customer. Our barman Keith takes pride in knowing exactly how to tailor his cocktails to suit his guests. And if you give your employees the right skills to tailor their service to suit each guest, they too will feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. It takes no skill to mindlessly repeat “thank you” a hundred times. But it takes a great deal of skill to make each individual guest feel valued, welcomed and appreciated. These are skills that can be taught and honed and are incredibly satisfying to use.
Service without the freedom to go off script is tired, out-dated, dishonest, and your guests will see straight through it. Give your team a bit of freedom and trust, and see what they can achieve.
Right, now I’m off for a Martini… Keith?
The Secret to Great Customer Service.
If there’s one secret to delivering excellent customer service it’s empathy. Human beings are a pretty complicated bunch and trying to make all of them happy can be a pretty exhausting experience.
I find it fascinating that most businesses, for whom customer service is a key factor to their success, do virtually no training on Emotional Intelligence. We should embrace the fact that human beings are complex, and what makes one person happy, may not work for another. That’s ok, in fact, it’s a good thing. If the same thing worked for everyone customer, service would be pretty easy, but it would also be pretty dull.
I see so many employees who get frustrated when their usual customer service dialogue doesn’t get the response they want. For example, a guest walks into a restaurant, the host gives them the warmest welcome and the biggest smile, and the guest does not smile back and simply states “A table for one, I’m in a rush”. The host is now resentful of this guest and his rude attitude.
But is it rude? Perhaps, perhaps not. In fact the answer is immaterial. The host is upset because the guest hasn't behaved in the way the host anticipated. How is the rest of the night is going to go for the host do we think?
If we expect someone to react a certain way and they don’t it causes us distress, and that becomes tiring over time - that’s why working with the general public can be so draining.
We need to teach employees in the customer service industry that people are different and that’s ok. Some people won’t smile back at you. Embrace that. Understand that for some people it’s just not in their nature to be open and friendly, and you must adjust your style and expectations to suit their needs.
The more we can empathise with the emotional state of our guests, the more resistance we have to their behaviour. Instead of forcing everyone into the way we would like them to behave we start to change our behaviour to suit them. Instead of working with resistance we are working with fluidity and purpose. It’s way more rewarding and way less stressful, not to mention more genuine.
If you’ve never experienced a chaotic Pinchos bar before, it can be a pretty confusing and intimidating experience. Imagine a packed bar, counter covered with plates of amazing tapas, beautifully displayed, people reaching over you, grabbing things, wine being poured, money flying over your head, and not a queue in sight! Everyone seems to understand how the chaotic system works apart from you, and a few other bewildered tourists desperately trying not to make a social faux pas.
Finally, you get to front of the bar. Nervous, you muster your best Spanish and ask for two glasses of wine and ask tentatively for a plate, hoping that’s the right thing to do. The barman looks at you with the warmest smile, mocks your Spanish accent with his perfect English, completely disarms you of all tension, and tells you about the specials they have in the kitchen. The encounter only lasts a minute, but you now feel like a Pinchos Jedi - and you have a buddy behind the bar. The bar is packed, but in that minute he gave you his full attention and changed your mood entirely. Five minutes later you're even get a mini check-back. There are three barman working in this bar with over a hundred people wanting service, and you still get great service. The atmosphere is bustling, exciting and fun.
All but one of the Pinchos bars we went in we’re like this, bustling, full of energy and great service to boot. Ironically, the Pinchos bar which had the best food was also the one with the worst atmosphere. We get there as it opens, excited. As soon as you walk in you can feel the tension, the bar is packed but eerily quiet. We get to the front, the barman is distracted, stressed, his manager talking to him whilst he’s taking our order. No real eye contact. The food arrives - it’s amazing - though one of our dishes is wrong. More shouting behind the bar as we eat. I turn and I accidentally bump into the American lady sitting next to us - she looks like she’s going to punch me. We leave as soon as we can.
What I find amazing about the former bar is how only three barman can completely control the mood of over 100 guests. That’s pretty impressive. Even if you run a counter-service company, the relationship of the people behind that counter sets the mood for everyone who comes in.
It’s a Tuesday evening in central London, the sun is slowly sinking behind the horizon, and I fancy going for dinner. Where should I go?
Let’s be honest, I have an overwhelming amount of options. The first step is working out what food I fancy...? OK got it. But that still leaves me quite a few places to choose from. The next, and defining step, is all about my memories of places. Think about a restaurant you’ve been to recently. Got one? Ok good. What did you think of it? Would you go there again? Would you recommend it to a friend? The thought process you’ve just been through is a pretty complex one. You will have conjured up images of the place, sound, textures and will now have an emotional response to it. And it is this emotional response, which is a mixture of all those senses stored in our memory, that influences our decision to return or not.
Our emotional attachment to a restaurant, both good and bad, is essentially a recollection of how we were made to feel. How you make your guests feel is the determining factor as to whether or not they return.
Make each of your guests feel valued and you will have a successful business. Part of that is the food, of course. That’s the foundation of any restaurant. People want to feel like they are getting value for their pounds. That doesn’t have to mean cheap. People will happily pay a lot for a plate of food, but they need to feel that the plate of food is worth it.
If your guests don’t feel that they’re getting their money’s worth they certainly won’t feel valued. If you don’t get this right you’ve fallen at the first hurdle.
But let’s say you do get this right. The next phase is all about your staff. Your staff need to make each and every guest feel valued. Your servers are your brand. They represent you, and you need to invest in them as such.
Easier said than done. Don’t forget every guest is different and they all want to be treated differently. What might make one guest feel valued might be over-the-top for another. Also don’t get complacent; regular guests can be in different moods on different days and will want different levels of service.
A good friend of mine is head waiter at an iconic London restaurant. His regulars will behave, and require, completely different styles of service depending on who they are with. If you really want to learn how to adjust service on-the-fly, book one of our courses, but in the mean time, here are the basics...
Listen to them. Actively listen to everything they say. Don’t be too keen to fix and interrupt them. Hosts do this all the time, in a rush to seat their guests, they forget to take the time to properly welcome them. I hear things like
“Good Evening. How are you? Table for two?”
Don't ask a question and then not wait for the answer! If you ask someone how they are at least have the courtesy to wait for the response. Running questions together with no concern for the answers comes across as scripted, generic, and soulless.
Always make your guests feel like you have time for them. No matter how busy you are. Whenever you are at a table your focus should just be on that table. Open body language, no tension, good eye contact - soft, gentle tone, and a good pace of speech at a good volume (your voice should be audible enough for the guest to easily hear but, not loud enough to push past them to any other tables).
Do not approach tables too often. There’s nothing more annoying then getting three check-backs during a meal, or being interrupted mid-conversation. This happens because the server is lacking awareness. You should never interrupt a table more than is absolutely necessary. Again, book on one of our courses to learn how to deliver great attentive service from afar.
Finally give a genuine goodbye. One of my massive bug bears is when three different people say goodbye and not one of them has meant it. Screaming goodbye at me, with no eye contact, means nothing.
A good goodbye, is soft, gentle, warm, and genuine. I only need one of those.
Managers you should value your staff as equally as you value your guests. Listen to them, have time for them, when you’re speaking to them, they should feel like they have your full attention. If you can make them feel valued they in turn will find it much easier to make your guests feel valued.
It’s all about making people feel good. If you make someone feel good, that makes you feel good. The more you can cultivate this win win scenario the more successful your business will be and the more likely I, and the rest of London, will be to pop in on a Tuesday night.
OK I admit it, at first glance the idea of finding time to be mindful, in a hectic restaurant may seem a little crazy. Taking fifteen minutes out to meditate on a Saturday lunch (although it would be wonderful) isn’t the most practical of ideas and certainly wouldn’t help your labour budget. But what if I suggested that there are ways to get a good dose of mindfulness even in the most hectic of shifts, and these moments of consciousness, aren’t just good for your mental well-being but are, in fact, vital to the growing success of your business? Even if you’re not sold on the idea of mindfulness and presence, read on, you may just find it useful.
So let’s imagine you’re a waiter, it’s a Saturday lunch, it’s busy, it’s hot, the bar are running a little behind on drinks and the host has just given you one too many tables. Just take a moment, imagine this situation (I get a little tense just thinking about it). Now, I want you to start thinking about your thought process at this point, the stream of consciousness inside your head. As the pressure grows that interior monologue gets quicker and quicker, louder and louder, “where are my drinks? "I told that host not to sit me any more tables!" "I hate this job? What am I doing here? Where’s the spinach for table 6?” Our heart rate increases, tension grows, and we start to become less and less present and more and more locked in our heads. Awareness decreases and stress increases.
This scenario is not uncommon, go into any busy restaurant on a Saturday night and you may just see it. But is it really that bad? Surely that’s just part of working in a restaurant isn’t it? Well yes and no. Yes it is bad, I’ll go into why in a second, and yes it is part of working in a restaurant.
So why is it bad? Firstly, for the waiter. Health wise, both physically and mentally that amount of stress is simply not good for you. It’s exhausting. I’ve just been reading The Art of the Restauranteur by Nicholas Lander. There are so many incredible people who have founded wonderful restaurants only to tragically die of a heart attack ten years in. Leaving their business partners to carry on alone. That’s the pay off for working with all that stress. Secondly, for the customer. The customer is on the receiving end of distracted service. Nothing frustrates a customer more than when they feel the waiter is not giving them their full attention. Thirdly, for you, the owner. As stress increases our ability to make rational decision decreases. There's proper scientific studies into this. The more distracted we become the more mistakes we make, the more wastage we create, the less productive we become. Not to mention the fact that your customers are now not having a great time either and might not be too keen to return.
That idea of mediating for fifteen minutes doesn’t quite seem so crazy now does it? I jest... But we do need to get present, and we need to be able to do it quickly. It can’t interrupt service and it has to be done on the floor. So here’s how we do it. Every time you go to a table it is an opportunity to be present. Think about that for a second. The waiters have to talk to the tables. So why not use this time to bring yourself into the present. To stop all that interior monologue. A three minute break from all the stress to enjoy being with your guests. When you’re at a table, you don’t have to run food or drink all you have to do is be present. Listen to them, speak to them, enjoy that human connection. If you find that connection you will become present. Simple.
On a busy shift you need to see tables as a gift, a gift to be present. Like a mini pit stop during service. So many waiters go over to a table so distracted and rushed they completely miss this golden opportunity.
Here at Hop there’s a little mantra we teach all of our students to remind them how to get present on busy shifts. Before they go over to a table they take a second, I literally mean one second. They take a breath and say the following in their heads. “Establish. Engage. Enjoy.” Now let me explain. Establish: they establish good body language, usually just letting go of tension. Engage: they genuinely try to engage their guests, great eye contact, good smile. Enjoy: now they have the engagement from the guest they can enjoy that connection, enjoy that human experience. That’s why we all do this job because, at the heart of it, we are social beings who enjoy connecting with other people.
Establish. Engage. Enjoy. At first waiters will say I haven’t got time for all that. But it only takes seconds. At first they will feel like they're spending longer at the table, because they are speaking at a more relaxed pace. But in reality the actual time at the table is the same.
Furthermore, whilst they’re at the table their stress will reduce, their awareness will increase, the guests will be getting a much more unique and genuine experience and you will have a happy restaurant with a better atmosphere.
That’s how to get a good dose of mindfulness in a busy shift. Joss sticks are optional.
One of the things I love about our industry is the diversity of the people who work in it. I'm not just talking about where people are from or what language they speak, I'm talking about the skill set they have. In what other industry can you find a trainee lawyer, an architect and classical pianist in one room. When you think about it, that’s pretty cool.
Now, there are two ways to look at it. Firstly, these people probably aren’t going to be here that long and they’re not really interested in the job as a career so we’ll just let them get on with things. They’re not really valued as employees. Or we could look and say, “perhaps these people won’t be here forever, but hey, they’re living with purpose, they’re trying to achieve things, they could be a real asset while they’re here”. And this is they key: if you want to bring out the best in people, so they give your guests amazing customer service, you have to make your staff feel valued. How? Just speak and genuinely listen to them. I mean really listen, ask them about their lives, their dreams, they’re interests. It’s so easy to ignore the staff who we don’t see as ‘important’ or see as ‘transient’ but these guys are speaking to your guests every day. If you really value them, they will value your customer. Simple.
Now stop reading this, and go and add some value to your restaurant team. Customer service with heart is what every good restaurant should have and that comes from being valued.
Sometimes, what you see, isn’t always what you get. Don’t judge a book by its cover my dear old Gran used to say. And the same is true with people, as we found out at a training session last week.
We’re in a big new, beautiful restaurant a week before soft launch. We’re mid-session and a shy, nervous student gets in front of the rest of the class. She moves to the front of the room to see if she can put into action some of the things we have been talking about. She starts the mock scenario with our actors. To begin with, her style is cold at best, at worst a bit scary, intimidating, aggressive almost.
Now, at first glance you may have thought there is no way this person could provide gentle, empathetic and fluid service. She obviously hasn’t got ‘it’ and there’s no way she could learn ‘it’. ‘It’ being that elusive, effortless ability to make guests feel relaxed and welcome. Some people may have thought she’s never going to get ‘it’. Just let her get on with it and maybe she’ll leave eventually. Not us. We try a couple of things. She has a go at the scenario again. Not great but better. The girl has heart and determination. The pressure is building as the rest of the class watch on. The actors look a bit scared. We work on voice, body language, intention and then boom! I can’t do justice to the transformation; all of a sudden there is the most incredible smile, a warmth, a joy, a sense of humour. She has ‘it’ and not just a bit but she has ‘it’ in spades and all in under fifteen minutes.
I have no doubt this particular student will go onto to be a General Manager, the feedback from the management team has been incredible and this particular student has discovered a side of herself she didn’t know existed. Transformations like this are incredible and they create the most loyal and dedicated employees; but sometimes you have to get through the hardback cover to discover them. I just wish my Gran could have been there to see it.
Something that has always struck me is the amount of untapped potential that lies hidden within the service industry. So much gets overlooked, ignored and ultimately wasted. In the UK especially we seem to have this rather nonchalant attitude towards people who work in the restaurant industry. It seems to be woven into the fabric of it’s DNA. We just don’t take the careers of people who work there that seriously. Now I’m not talking about your General Managers, or your Head Chefs, I’m talking about your waitering staff, your bar staff, your hosts. How much time do we invest in these guys? In my experience not enough.
But these guys are the front-line of your business, the direct link between you and your customers. The represent your business, your brand and speak to way more of your customers over the course of a week, month or even a year than you. And yet, if we’re really honest, do we really train them well enough to represent the company, to be engaging, to make every single guest feel welcome, relaxed and uniquely valued? The answer in most cases is no. We train them adequately, so they can achieve a certain level of service. Sounds ok, right? But once they've achieved that level, work can become a little uninspiring and monotonous. Once we become proficient enough at something we tend to start to switch off a bit. “I can do this with my eyes closed I’ve been doing it so long”. Not perhaps the best way to engage your customers. I see so many Front of House teams lacking motivation and energy. Why? Because no one is investing in them, giving them new skills, unlocking their potential. If you want to change the energy of your team you must invest in them, value them and trust them.
There's heaps of potential in this industry and at HOP it’s all about unlocking it, motivating and inspiring teams through the acquisition of skill. Just even acknowledging that an individual has potential goes such a long way to changing their attitude to work. At HOP we teach teams how to become masterful in what they do. Practical, specific, skills that create change amongst the individual, team and business.