My childhood dream was to become a waitress. Every Career Day from 1st until 5th grade, I went to school with a tray and apron. I should mention, this was because I saw an Arrid Extra Dry commercial featuring a waitress whose outfit I liked. Yes, my early career ambitions were based solely on a 1980’s deodorant commercial.
My dream came true when I was 19.
It’s been more than 10 years since I last clipped on a pager and apron or carried a Guest Check, but I still have recurring nightmares that I forgot to deliver drinks to table 31 or that I forgot to fire table 22’s filets. I still harbor a fear of the number 86 and fight the temptation to run to the kitchen every time my phone vibrates.
Waiting tables is not easy and if you think it is, you’re either not doing it right or you’ve never done it at all. If you are doing it right, you’ll learn some really important lessons about customer service that you can carry with you through business and life.
- The Customer Is Always Right. Clichéd, I know, but so true. Lady wants the chef’s sushi grade Ahi done medium well? Let her know – as diplomatically as possible – that the chef recommends rare. At the end of the day, she’s going to order it how she wants to eat it. You can arm customers with all the facts and advice – and even warnings – in the world, but you can’t make their business decisions for them.
- You Have To Take A Certain Amount Of Shit And Give A Certain Amount Of Fucks. Listen up, Millennials. I know it’s super trendy to not give a fuck about anything and to not put up with any shit. But guess what? That’s not how business – or life – works. I am not saying take everything personally, but at least take some responsibility and hold yourself accountable for mistakes. Sometimes a customer wants a Grey Goose up with olives, but you (or the bartender) screw up and order him grape juice in a cup with olives (true story). Own up to your mistakes. Don’t take it personally if you hear some static for them. But, for God’s sake, swallow your pride and care enough to fix them and make it right.
- Fake It Till You Make It. Maybe you don’t eat red meat, but your customers do. So put on a smile and work those Calcutta nights until you can sell a 64 oz. Porterhouse to an 84-year-old vegan wearing dentures. Approach the sale of a steak with the same level of enthusiasm as you would coconut-battered tofu (and vice versa if you’re a carnivore). This may come as a surprise to some, but your clients’ and customers’ ideals will often deviate from your own. Tough shit. Suck it up. Customer service is about the customer… Not you.
- Every Table Is Your Only Table. News flash: people like to feel important. They like to feel like you care enough to make them a priority. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 2-top that asked you for a bottle of ketchup or a 10-top dinner party that wants you to prepare table-side Caesar salads. Customers are needy and sometimes downright demanding. Meeting their needs and keeping them happy is your effing job.
- You Have To Keep A Lot of Fires Going, Balls In The Air, Etc. If you did not pick up on the sarcasm in no. 4 above, let me spell it out: you’re rarely going to be waiting on only one table. And every table is going to have different needs, and be at different stages in their meal. The same is true for cases, projects, portfolios, etc. You need to come up with a system to organize and stay aware of what your customers’ goals are, and where they are with respect to meeting them.
- Know What You’re Selling. You’re not going to sell a single Veal Saltimbocca if you can’t answer whether the chef made it with Prosciutto or Chorizo. You lose credibility and trust when you try to sell a customer something you know nothing about. Sometimes clients or customers will ask questions for which you have no answer, and it’s OK to say “I don’t know.” But for the love of God, do your homework and get an answer. And if you’re selling products or services, you had better get your head around them and anticipate your customers’ questions and know how best to answer them.
- Know What Your Customers Like and Do It. We had one customer, Mr. Mariano*, that needed his filet still mooing in the center but medium well around the outside. It was so particular that we added an extra temp button to Micros with his last name on it: Mariano Rare (for real, can’t make this shit up). We never asked him how he wanted his steak done – we just had him confirm he wanted it Mariano Rare. No two customers are alike and none fit any particular mold. They all have their quirks; they all have their preferences. Learn your clients’ rhythms and dance to them.
- Know What Your Customers Don’t Like. And Don’t Do It. Hell hath no fury like a lady that gets dressing on her salad when she asked for it on the side. If you serve her with a plate of lettuce drenched in Peppercorn Ranch, when you know she wanted the Ranch on the side, not only will you be taking that shit back, but it’s likely she won’t want to pay for it. If your customers hate itemized bills, it doesn’t really make sense to send them a 20-page detailed invoice. Don’t piss people off by ignoring their preferences. This is such a basic concept but so many struggle with it.
- Learn Your Customers’ Names And Use Them. Often. My waitressing experience was unique in that, at a country club you are seeing the same people over and over, and you are expected to know their names. But this concept applies anywhere and goes hand-in-hand with making customers feel like they are important. Learning and using their names shows that you care. Where appropriate, learn more than just their names. Pay attention. People want to do business with people they like – showing interest makes you likable.
- Know How To Delegate When You’re In The Weeds. You can’t clone yourself (yet). I’ve tried. I had some nights where my entire section filled up at the same time. I was always terrible at delegating and would try to be everything to everyone, which meant I inevitably sacrificed attentiveness and my own sanity. Serenity came when I allowed another server to deliver drinks I’d ordered, or asked our M.O.D. to drop entrées. No one likes a frazzled server and no one likes to be ignored. It’s totally OK to let go and delegate tasks you simply can’t get to. In fact, it makes you a better, more efficient manager, and keeps your customers happy.
One of the greatest compliments I ever received as a lawyer was from a client that said they “always feel like [my] highest priority.” Providing standout customer service is a skill, and one I learned and honed entirely waiting tables.
To the managers, chefs, staff, and club members that taught me, thank you. I am eternally grateful.
*Name changed to protect the nutty