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SERVICE: The Real Product of Your Restaurant - You Know It, So Do Your Customers

No one makes you feel good about spending your money better than the Walt Disney® Company does. Bring a family of four into one of its parks and even if you exit with an empty wallet and an exhausted credit card, you'll still be smiling. It's not magic; it's a calculated result of the Disney service culture.

Disney employees are trained to be "cast members" in a grand production, designed for your enjoyment and convenience. Even if one of the "cast" is busy sweeping a walkway, he'll not only be able to answer your question, "Where are Mickey and Goofy," he'll tell you in a way that makes you glad you asked, as if you did him a favor. Ask where the restroom is, where you might get a snow cone or some film for your camera. You can't stump the street sweeper because Disney is a service operation, and he knows that his job is to serve you. You and your family walk away from the experience gushing about the "service."

You might not be able to define service, but like true love, you know it when you find it. Pity the management consultants who try to reduce the concept into a neat, measurable, and tangible package. Countless business seminars and books have been written on the subject of service. Nearly every company touts service as its goal. Even Webster's College Dictionary has a hard time pinning down an exact definition of the word. Hospitality industry scholars, such as Melvin N. Barrington of the Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Travel Administration at the University of South Carolina, acknowledge that "service is an elusive concept, which is extremely difficult to measure and evaluate."
start quoteWe can teach the technical skills, but it's much tougher to teach people skills... We have had servers that maybe are less technically superior... but they are so genuinely caring and personable at the table that it more than compensates for their technical imperfections.end quote
-- Legendary Chef & Owner, Charlie Trotter
 

The irony of "service" is that while it seems "elusive and intangible," it is the lifeblood of the restaurant industry and is going to be the guts of your new restaurant operation. It will form the relationship with the people who bring the money to your door, the customers. While it defies definition, hospitality "black belts" like Disney can deliver it on a silver tray day after day, year after year. To succeed in any new restaurant, you need to do more than say the word, you need to embrace and understand it. You also need to figure out ways to measure it.

The Most Overused Word in the World

Clearly, that's a cynical view of government agencies but it's insightful because our experience shows us that service is promised far more often than delivered. That's why we are all delighted, and surprised, when we find genuine service. Acclaimed Chicago restaurateur Charlie Trotter says "We can teach the technical skills, but it's much tougher to teach people skills... We have had servers that maybe are less technically superior... but they are so genuinely caring and personable at the table that it more than compensates for their technical imperfections." (From "Lessons in Service" by Edmund Lawler, Ten Speed Press, 2001.)

The genuine and personable touch starts the moment a guest walks in the front door. Which approach do you want your people using?

Envision this scenario: You and an associate walk into a restaurant for dinner, after a downtown meeting. It's raining, and you are seeking a decent meal and a convenient place to discuss business and unwind after a long day. The young hostess is flipping though a magazine and talking to her boyfriend on the telephone. You want to see a menu to decide if you want to eat there. You attempt to get her attention. She raises a finger to indicate that she will attend to you shortly, and after cooing to her sweetheart for another minute, she ends the call. You and your associate stand in the entrance, look at your watches and wonder if you will have time for a meal before your associate has to be at the airport.

Politely, you look at the hostess, who waits for you to approach her. It's raining and your umbrella is dripping on the floor; you look for a place to stow it during your meal. The hostess seems to be oblivious to your concern. Finally, she acknowledges you, seats you, and races off. You scan the floor to locate your server, and look at the antiques and pictures on the walls, until someone comes to your table. The tone for the rest of the experience has been set. At best, you'll receive some nourishment and a warm, dry place to chat. The dining experience will be unremarkable and forgettable. Today you have more important things on your mind than to critique the restaurant and its service. You hesitate as you calculate your customary 15% tip, but do it anyway.

You've accepted the poor service. It's unlikely that you will complain to management. Next week, when your brother invites you to lunch downtown, and asks you to pick a local eatery, it's a safe bet you won't choose this restaurant. It's unlikely you'll recommend it to anyone else either.

What would it have taken to make that same experience remarkable and unforgettable? What if you walked into the same restaurant and the hostess quickly terminated her telephone call. With a smile and unwavering attention, she greets you. At that moment, she makes you and your associate feel as if you are the two most important people in the world. She sees that you have a wet umbrella, and offers to store it for you. She takes you to your seat and introduces you to your server. During the meal, she visits the table to see if you need anything and are satisfied with your experience.

Consider the effect one person can have on the entire experience. Now multiply that by a dozen or more employees. You leave the table satisfied with your choice, happy to leave a tip, and refreshed, and even if the quality of the food, the decor and the atmosphere were only average you'll probably recommend the restaurant. Everyone wins.

While most successful restaurateurs know how to convey the meaning of the service relationship to their customers, many times startups are so busy with opening details they forget the effect one person can have on a customer's entire dining experience. For a new restaurant or new location, the attitude and behavior demonstrated by that one hostess could make or break the success of an opening and prospects for long-term business. As the old saying goes, "first impressions last."

What this means is that the first rule of service is simply to find people with the right attitude and perspective to help you open your new location. There's nothing more important -- nothing! Some people simply care more than others do about the happiness and comfort of customers. Those are the people you want -- period. Serving techniques can be taught, sophistication acquired, but a service mentality is a personal trait. Your customers recognize it, and down deep you recognize it, too. In the rush of a startup, you can't rush the process of finding and hiring the people who can demonstrate that care. In fact, a good question to ask any potential restaurant employee is "Can you define what you believe the word service means?" The answer can tell you a lot about the attitude of the person you're considering.

Your Customer Defines Service

As we home in on a definition, there are some basic truths about service. First, it's always defined from a customer's perspective, never from ours. That's why it is so important to spend the time necessary searching for service people who understand that customers have different needs and demands. For example, some customers like it when you ask frequently if there is anything else they need, and some don't want to be interrupted during their conversations. Consider the difference between a young man who's on a first date, and who wants his lady friend to have everything she needs to enjoy the dining experience, versus the employer who is conducting an interview over a meal. The tuned-in staff is perceptive, astute, empathetic, and pays attention, while they serve and anticipate what to do.

We all know successful service is not a one-time event. You're only as good as the last encounter. It's unfair, but a customer perception of your service can be great one day and ruined on another day. Your restaurant's ambience can be enthralling, your food sumptuous, but poor service casts a shadow over the experience. When service suffers, the dining experience will be mediocre, at best. It's a harsh awakening for some restaurateurs, who invest a great deal of money and creativity in creating the best concept and the best fare, and learn that their service doesn't live up to their customers' standards. Ultimately, it is the delivery of your promise of service that sells all aspects of your restaurant.

Measure Your Service Just as You Measure Your Drinks

Because service is such an important restaurant ingredient, it's critical to try to measure it. Setting up systems to do that doesn't need to be elaborate, complex or unduly time-consuming. Many successful methods are informal and simple.

Creating a customer feedback system gives you the opportunity to discover potential problems early and do something about them. But to be effective, your methods of gathering and measuring customer feedback must be consistent, and you and your staff must review and study the results frequently.

Because service is an elusive and intangible concept, the more customer feedback you can acquire the better (as long as the process doesn't annoy the customer). The first line of feedback is your staff's observations. If you ask them for their opinions and show that you are open to candid responses, your staff can provide a wealth of information on what's working and what's not. Moreover, they'll appreciate your interest, and respect that you care about what is happening on the floor. Periodically managers need to ask: "How's service going?" If there is a problem, the servers will generally be the first to know (right after the customer) and steps can be initiated to correct problems.

Because many service problems require immediate attention, you do not have the luxury to wait until the last guest leaves to fix problems. You need to create a policy that requires and encourages servers to bring service problems to a manager's attention as they arise, even if the server created the problem. Staff should never feel that it is necessary to hide a problem, and should understand that honest mistakes can be fixed, if caught soon enough. If you can cultivate this attitude in your staff, your reward is a steady stream of real-time information, the ability to correct problems when they occur, and many saved customer relationships. We observed the value of this system recently at Pappadeaux® Seafood Kitchen restaurant in Houston. The server had missed part of an order for one of the six people at our table. When the mistake was brought to the server's attention, he not only took steps to complete the order, but he also notified the floor manager, who promptly came to the table to see if we needed further assistance. We tipped the server well, and we know we'll be back.

Managers should also use their powers of observation, and take frequent mental notes on the quality of service during their shift. Unlike a server, who is focused on his or her customers, a good manager can get a sense of the overall level of service in the house. There are always signs when problems are developing, such as a customer looking around to get the attention of a server, or a diner reaching over to an empty table for silverware, salt or sweetener. A good manager notices these signs and symptoms and moves quickly to solve the underlying causes.

Customer Comment Cards & Secret Shopper Services

In addition to informal methods of measuring customer satisfaction, some restaurants use "customer comment cards" that are presented with the bill. These can be very useful in gauging service from the customer's point of view. (See example on this page.) Not all customers will take the time to complete them, but you will be surprised how many will, particularly if the forms are short and simple. People generally like to be asked their opinions. You can increase response by printing comment cards with postage-paid return addresses, to be completed and dropped in the mail when they return home.

When designing customer comment cards, ask questions that are specific and easy to understand. Elicit the customer's level of satisfaction with various aspects of the dining experience, on a scale of one to 10. Providing 10 degrees of response reveals "gray" areas of satisfaction, unlike simple "yes/no" or "one to five" formats, which might overlook slight but important service problems. In addition to using these cards to solicit feedback on the quality of service and food during the meal, you can use them to gauge interest in services or products you might offer in the future. For example, questions that ask if the customer would be interested in patronizing your restaurant for Sunday brunch or if she would ever hire a catering service offered by you, could be a valuable source of marketing research.

The cards can also illuminate problems that you would not easily discover on your own, such as how well telephone reservations are being handled, or if your restaurant is too loud. In the latter case, you might not know the answer, since you're accustomed to the noise level, and rarely would your customers mention the problem, since there is little that can be done about it during the meal.

In addition to asking customers to rate various aspects of your restaurant on a scale, you might allow room to jot down responses to general "open-ended" questions, such as "Do you have any other comments?"

Over time, comment cards can help you determine both the quality of your service and food, and where you need to improve. Desktop computer software packages include simple-to-use database and spreadsheet programs that allow you to compile and analyze feedback, and then create graphs that can visually communicate trends to staff and managers.

The cards are inexpensive, yet offer valuable information that can help with all kinds of management decisions. To be effective, however, they need to be used. It is amazing how these cards are diligently presented with the bill when they arrive from the printer, but, as time passes, the remaining cards collect dust in the closet. The managers and staff must be constantly reminded that each and every check needs to be accompanied by a card.

Another approach to help measure your service is a "secret shopper" service. Nearly every town has a business in which an independent service will come to your restaurant to check it out and report back to you what they've found. Certainly more expensive than the previous methods, this kind of service offers in-depth and comprehensive reports on its findings.

Look on the Web or in the telephone book for listings under "secret shoppers." Check out www.measurex.com and www.coylehospitality.com, which tout these services.

Attitude is Everything

The nice thing about adopting strong service as the product of your restaurant is that where some parts of business are easier talked about than accomplished, this one isn't. Service is simply an attitude borne from the desire to help, truthfulness, kindness, knowledge, professionalism, and empathy.

Improving the quality of service at your restaurant can be an overnight transformation, as long as you get the "religion." It requires you to become a service "evangelist" and to inspire your staff through meetings, training exercises (e.g. answering phones, greeting people, handling complaints, product knowledge) and monitoring performance. Every manager needs to follow the adage: If your business is experiencing trouble, the first place to look for the problem is in the mirror.

Service: So Elusive, So Difficult to Define, So ... Simple

What if you set out to create the most successful customer service organization in the world, and one that would delight people of all ages? How would you do it? Here's one suggestion:

"Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends." -- Walt Disney

-- Restaurant Startup & Growth




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