2009 September: Engaged

I was traveling the interstate close to midnight when I stopped by a restaurant still open in the small community of Canyonville, Oregon. My 18-year-old waiter, Kyle, graduated last year from his small high school in a senior class of 12 students. He was not the best in the technical aspects of formal tableside dining service, but he was a joy as my service provider. His entire demeanor broadcasted a “How can I possibly help you?” vibe. His animated service and genuine sense of hospitality was a breath of fresh air in comparison to all the other businesses I typically encounter. The way he made me feel important made up for any service faux pas that otherwise might have distracted me from the visit.

The current culture is comprised of a young labor pool that’s more comfortable communicating with staccato text messages or e-mails using a language only their peers understand. As a food service operator, the challenge is fi nding staff that has the proper soft skills to engage customers face-to-face in a professional and businesslike manner but still maintain their individuality as a person. Soft skills, also referred to as emotional intelligence skills, are the skills that enable effective listening. They are skills that enable a person to handle themselves at work and relate with their customers and peers.

Let’s take a look at Oregon’s “Q Care” Customer Service Training Program (www.OregonQCare.com). It was developed by a state agency, Travel Oregon, to elevate the customer service awareness and skills for the travel tourism businesses in the state. It defi ned three primary customer service needs as the foundation for understanding what consumers want and expect from their service providers:

 Understand me: Different types of visitors and recognizing their different needs.

 Respect me: Specifi c attitudes and actions that show customers are highly valued.

 Help me: Service skills that deliver and make your business’s hospitality a reality.

In line with this concept, young restaurant staffers typically lack the life experience to bring these skills to the work environment. They are skills that cannot be learned reading a manual and are best taught with onthe- job-training, role-play and mentoring.

One critical aspect of customer service is the difference between delivering service and initiating service. Delivering service is the ritual and mechanics (i.e., “serve plates on the left; remove from the right”). Initiating service is delivering service without being prompted by the usual ritual or mechanics. The service commences without request.

For example, staff might not greet a customer until the customer has read the menu, made a decision and then approached the counter to place their order. Initiating service is greeting the customer with eye contact, a smile and “May I help you?” as customers enter the door. That holds significantly higher customer service value because the staff initiates the welcome and hospitality rather than it occurring only by the prompt of the customer. That elevated perceived value of your company is a leg-up on the competition.

Don’t forget the importance of the employee’s game face. One typically visualizes the professional athlete portrayed in the sports drink commercials –– strong, fierce and intimidating –– but that is not acceptable in the hospitality business. The proper game face in food service is engaged eye contact and a smile. Engaged eye contact is the visual skill of letting your customer know you are listening to them and are providing them the attention they seek. The smile is the international signal of friendliness and being of no threat. It is also an invitation to service. These gestures display a message: I see you, I work here, I can assist you, ask me, etc. Studies have shown that the one facial expression that can be recognized at the farthest distance is the smile, which is how critical it is as a soft skill. What is most interesting is the fact that these displays are mirrored by customers. Engaged
eye contact combined with a smile sets the tone for a positive start in a business transaction. Think of how the smile is displayed, often almost unconsciously, when engaging others (especially when meeting new people).

Another area of contention for the service side of dining is what is known as the critical moments of service. There are fi ve critical moments of service that can be the tipping point in the ritual of dining that leaves customers with either a favorable or unfavorable impression of their service experience and your business. They are the moments that transition to the next dining service step; and, if missed, they can cause a high level of distress for the customer. What is important is that the service staff knows the fi ve critical moments of service and understands that urgent action is required to prevent and/or remedy the situation. Here are the five critical moments of service:

1. Greeting. Customers must be greeted/ acknowledged within one minute.

2. Refi ll of beverage. Optimum moment to offer a refi ll is when the drink is halfempty.

3. Next course. Closely monitor the time between when the customer fi nishes a course and is anticipating the arrival of the next.

4. Dessert. Always provide the opportunity for the customer to consider dessert.

5. The check. This is as urgently important as the greeting! When customers are ready to leave, they want to leave NOW. Delays in presenting and processing their payment can ruin their memory of all the good service experiences provided before this one critical moment of service.

Coach your staff on your service standards, these soft skills and the importance of positive service-sales execution. Best results are achieved with role-playing in the on-the-job environment. Without educating your staff, they are left with the only remaining emotion to conduct business on your behalf –– panic. Panic is what we feel in that moment of not being able to perform our jobs, regardless of the level of effort. Educate your staff on their role in branding your company to sustain continued and future opportunity for themselves, the company and every team member in your organization. Make it personal.

From the consumers’ perspective, each employee they engage and how they make them feel, no matter how slight the encounter, is the face of your company.

The continuing service challenge is to create a memorable dining experience for your customers and working experience for your employees. The standard should be one of seeking service opportunities to acknowledge, assist, guide and serve your customers and each other. The goal for each employee is to make their customers and teammates feel welcomed, safe and secure as they perform their role with your company. The prize is a successful business that provides good jobs, great career choices and sustains the economies of the communities in which we serve and live.

As I learned long ago from my mentor, Bob Farrell (Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlors): In today’s economy, service is the deal breaker. And to my new friend, Kyle of Canyonville, Oregon, … I’ll be back! 09.09.09

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