Why Service is Dead and When “Upselling” is Wrong

I’m ordering breakfast on a Thursday morning at 7 am near San Jose, California. The hostess pours me coffee, and eventually my unsmiling server arrives, her mug no doubt the inspiration for the Whiskey Sour. I close my menu. “I’ll have the Country Omelette,” I said, “with wheat toast, please.” Without looking up the server automatically replies……….

Two days later I’m sitting in on a server meeting at a large casual theme chain’s Orlando-area unit. Midway through a lengthy agenda, The GM exhorts the waitstaff and bartenders to improve their “service” because customers “want it” and it’s “important.” Next topic. The staff, hearing the word “service” once again and lacking specifics in either desired behavior or corrective action, begins to look down, away, or discreetly checks the number of voice mail messages on their cell phones. “Maybe if we had enough people,” grumbles the bartender next to me under his breath, “we wouldn’t have a problem with ‘service’.”

Two incidents a continent apart that spin a cautionary tale for operators: the words “Service” and “Upselling” have become, respectively, both meaningless and dangerous. Service is not Hospitality, and treating customers as if they’re a face with a pocketbook attached, is neither hospitable, nor smart business. Most operators agree. “Any canned patter is not guest friendly,” says Paul Bolles-Beaven, Managing Partner of the Union Square Café, “instead, servers should read each party, figure out how much suggestion they want, and leave it at that.”

I’m privileged to be able to consult with dozens of successful restaurant chains and independent operators on the topics of improving “service” and “profitability”. The programs we’ve mutually designed have been, for the most part, extremely successful in generating measurably improved customer feedback and significantly increased sales. But I prefer the term “hospitality” to service since the s-word has become watered down and something of a commodity term due to its overuse and lack of specifics. And I’ve always preached “helpful suggestions” over pre-scripted and forced “upselling”. Done right, it makes the customer feel great. Done pre-scripted and pushy, it raises the guest’s hackles. Now maybe you’d argue that it’s just a word game, but the distinctions can make a significant difference in your customer counts, employee retention, and bottom line.

Some will argue that the word “service” refers to the mechanical part of the concept (serving from the correct side, hot food hot, etc) while contending that “Hospitality” engenders the emotional side of the guest’s experience (smiles, friendliness, remembering names.) I like it. But no matter what you call it, service, hospitality, or caring behavior, it’s our invisible product, and we should continuously look for new ideas to make our guests feel good about doing business with us. The meaning of customer service is always changing because customers are always changing. As always, I’d prefer to offer examples, rather than theory, so here are a few good ideas from some hospitality experts:

  • Be specific about hospitality in your mission statement.

    Here are two of my favorites, and neither is more than five words long: The DeRosa Corporation in Milwaukee, operators the Chancery Pubs and several other cool concepts, keep their objective simple: “Every guest leaves happy.” The first line of the Great Harvest bread company employee manual sets a tone for hospitality that is as clear as it is brief: “Be loose and have fun.”

  • Smile when you answer the phone.

    It may sound silly, but hospitality begins on the phone and your guests can hear the friendly difference in a smiling voice on the other end.

  • Adopt the two-person rule.

    Mistakes happen. Problems occur. And a guest should never have to talk to more than two people in order to resolve a problem.

  • Touch Every Table.

    Don’t spend too much time with being friendly and hospitable with your “regulars” at the risk of ignoring your “unknown” new guests. “Seek out a stranger every shift,” says Michael Edwards, owner of the Sarasota Seafood Company in Siesta Key, FL, “and make every guest feel special.”

  • Ask the right questions.

    If you’re serious about identifying your hospitality (or culinary) goals, Lee Cockerell, Executive VP, Operations at Walt Disney World suggests you pose this question to your staff: “What do we want to be famous for with guests?” George Mannion, co-owner of the LoDo Grill in Denver prefers asking these questions every six months of both his employees and vendors: “Is it easy for customers to do business with us? If it isn’t, why? Change it. Is it easy for us to do business with ourselves? If it isn’t, why? Change it.”

  • Define the heroes, symbols and rituals.

    Cultural anthropologists can learn a lot from Sue Elliott, Director of Training for Luby’s Restaurants in San Antonio, TX. She says the best way to first assess and then improve hospitality is to look at the behavior of the natural leaders and evolving culture of the restaurant. She suggests identifying first who the heroes are; i.e. which employees are held in esteem because of caring behavior toward the guest or fellow employees? Why? Which employees have the greatest success selling appetizers, desserts, wine? What behavior of theirs can be taught or repeated? Sue also believes it’s important to identify and reinforce the success symbols in the restaurant’s culture; in other words what does your company do to recognize achievement relative to hospitality, suggestive selling or education? Pins? Certificates? Different colored aprons or shirts or hats for certified trainers? Awards? And finally, what rituals in your company reinforce caring behavior and incremental sales? Pre-shift meetings

  • Never Lick Your Fingers at Work.

    Nuff said.

  • Be hospitable to your “internal” customers (employees) first.

    “Where we have the highest level of employee satisfaction, we have had the highest increases in sales and market share,” says Stephanie Skurdy, Director of Communication for McDonald’s. And remember that hospitality, like charity, begins at home. As Union Square’s Bolles-Beaven adds, “it matters how the staff feels, because how they feel ends up on the plate.”

  • Hospitality delivery is dependent on staffing.

    All the best intentions and hospitality-focused training may be for naught if you’re nagged by a chronic labor shortage. “If you’re under-staffed, even excellent training is wasted and the customer becomes the shock-absorbing system,” explains Scott Armstrong of LaborWizard.com. “If the quality of the customer experience is very poor there is a strong risk of permanent customer loss. If the quality of the experience is marginal, the visit frequency will be less than it should be. In all cases the average check is lower because the server does not have the necessary time to read the guest or suggestively sell. The good employees become dispirited because they cannot provide good service by getting to the tables as often as they know they should and the marginal employees are completely swamped.” You get the picture. Morale sinks, turnover rises, and you end up focusing too much time on filling a schedule instead of providing hospitality to both the internal and external customer. So staffing is the nail, and training is the hammer. After all, in these days of labor challenges, we could be focusing on how to make the people we’ve got better as well as looking to “fill positions”. It’s possible to build a better person than you can hire.

Whatever you do to improve the customer’s experience, make sure you work it out via training, and role-playing first. NEVER practice on the guest. As Will Kilbourne, a GM with the San Francisco-based Kimpton Restaurant Group says: “Guests are not like buses. If you miss one, another one won’t come in.”

All right. Enough already.