Service 101: Help Me Help You

“I’m not usually a difficult customer,” The Beverly Hills housewife said out of the corner of her red lipsticked mouth.  “I just don’t understand why getting me a drink is such a production.”

It was a Friday night and the restaurant was packed. I had spotted the guests’ unhappiness across the room when I scanned the dining room for signals of possible problems. My glance bounced over happy customers curved over plates and full cocktail glasses, and stopped hard against a squared edge of a black suit and the stiff neck of the man wearing it.

I was already moving across the room towards the four-top when the suited man’s friend, a man with gray hair and no drink, swiveled in his chair in search of assistance. I stepped up to the table and took my place next to the ladies perched in their seats. The women were two rigid examples of a 60-something Beverly Hills housewife.

“Good evening,” I said with my most soothing voice of leadership. “May I help you?”

“I should hope so,” the white knuckled man with no drink said. “We’ve been here thirty minutes and our server hasn’t been able to get us a drink.” I nodded. Time warps and stretches into large increments when you’re a desperate for something. I had seen a trusted server working hard to find a single malt scotch for the suited gentlemen, surely their thirty minutes were—in real time—actually just five or six.  But in the world of the customer, perception and reality don’t always meet.

The make-up primed blonde housewife continued. “I don’t want anything crazy. I just want a glass of chardonnay.”

I smiled. A deep breath would fuel my calm. This would not be an easy turn around.

You see, we had no oaked or sugary chardonnay on our wine list. We had not one lemon-water Pinot Grigio or even a hit-you-over-the-head Sonoma Cab. There were no knee-jerk choices on the wines by the glass list here. Even the bar lacked any easy choices. It was stocked with small batch bourbons, organic vodkas and pretty little digestives made from hand-picked herbs.  The menu had no spaghetti and meatballs, no fettuccini alfredo, and never would you see tiramisu make an appearance. The men and women in the kitchen saw their work in food as a vocation—not “slinging hash”–and sought to engage their customers about their favorite subject by offering dishes and wines only a native Italian would be familiar with.

I just want a glass of Chardonnay, she said. And as requests go, a simple glass of chardonnay shouldn’t be a tough one. But what she was looking for was something more than that. The glass of wine she sought–a buttered, candy apple California Chard–would never be made available on our menu.

So. In this moment with this particular woman, at this specific Italian restaurant, we had just hit upon what could become a rather huge obstruction.

“We don’t have a chardonnay by the glass,” I said. My insides winced as I felt the tension at the table rise with every word I spoke. “But I’d be happy to bring you a couple of tastes of some wines I think you might like very much.

The lady bit at the air with her sharp white teeth. “Why can’t you just get me what I want!”

Here is where I wish I could hit the pause button, lay out a comfy blanket, light a fire and unfurl the long list of reasons of what makes her particular brand of  get me what I want so complicated.

letter to an angry customer

A waiter's letter to an angry customerI do want to get you what you want, dear lady, I thought. But getting what you want at a restaurant requires an ounce of trust and a little bit of surrender to someone (or something) other than yourself.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m going to take great care of you.”

The older lady swatted me away with a bejeweled gesture that reminded me of a queen waving away a servant. Be off with you already.

I took her cue and stepped away from the table to find a solution to my very pressing problem. My job requirement isn’t to talk philosophy, it’s to get people what they want. So I stepped up to the wine wall and uncorked two bottles that could appeal to the ladies’ particular tastes and—as I shelved the thought that I deserved a splash of wine to abate my anxiety–I poured a bit of wine for the unhappy women.

I returned to the table with the wine and a small prayer: please let this wine please the ladies. Since women are often the feelers of the table and tend to direct the tone of the final voice of judgment, their happiness was paramount to me. This was my chance to win the table back.

I wish I could tell you that those glasses of wine were just what it took to turn everything around. The glasses of wine helped and the brief flicker of a smile from the ladies certainly made me feel better. But soon after, there was the business of the pork chop being unacceptable for its “unbelievable amounts of fat”—a complete reversal from the description from a neighboring table who called the very same dish “the best chop I’ve ever had.” The angriest of the ladies hated anything with fat on it, and refused to eat anything else, for fear of being disappointed.

I wish I could spin a yarn of how my friendly demeanor lifted the darkness in their hearts. Or how my empathy, compassion and going the extra miles helped turn the angry table around. But that wasn’t the case.

angry customer bad serviceHow would one help four unhappy people who wanted something we didn’t have? No matter what we did, we could never give that illusive thing they craved to them. And not because we didn’t try. We lost them because they refused to step outside their small circle of choices and try something new.

Managing expectations is something we in the service industry have to deal with inside the restaurant and outside on the street. All of us humans carry around our own internal list of How Things Should Be. But the challenge is to have a certain amount of flexibility in how we approach getting those things we desire.

Will we ever reach the imagined ideal of that thing we want so much? Probably not. Will we ever find the holy grail, the perfect sandwich, the best margarita, the sacred spot, the wonderful mate, or the greatest vacation spot? Perhaps. If we are lucky enough to find that greatest thing once, why is it we continue to seek it out in exactly the same way, in several different places?

In order to find true happiness, I think, you have to have a certain amount of humility, flexibility, and the willingness to expand your understanding of what the all illusive Its are. Because honestly, if you cling too tightly onto a single imagined idea of what it is you want, you may never find it. And what’s worse, you’ll spend the rest of your life—or dining experiences—very, very unhappy.

39 comments

  1. Belinda @zomppa

    Very insightful and so true!! It’s strange when folks go out to eat and then get uptight about everything. Isn’t it supposed to be an enjoyable experience – for all?

  2. marla

    As always Brooke you open my eyes and expand my horizons. We will never be happy if we don’t make it a priority. Thank God for health, sunny skies, love, connectivity and food. All of it in it’s simplicity & complexity :) Can’t wait to see you this weekend!

  3. Moe

    This is why, no matter what type of establishment you’re running, you must always have a case of Sutter Home and a box of Franzia on hand.

  4. Fran

    This is a perfect example to share with the people I work with. We too are in the service industry and there are never enough beautifully written examples of how to delivery exemplary service.

    You’ve done it again. :)

  5. Nancy@acommunaltable

    Hi Brooke!! I am very embarrassed to see the date of this post AND the date I am actually commenting on it!! Another well written piece and an excellent reminder that some of the best things in life can be found OUTSIDE of our small circle of choices!!!
    Personally I love it when servers(?) offer to introduce me to something new – as I see it, they know their restaurant and if they are eager to share what they love about it, I am all too happy to oblige!!!

  6. Dan @ Casual Kitchen

    This is an exceptional post. A question for you: How do you determine the cases where there are going to be quickly diminishing returns serving narcissistic customers like this? When is it better to just cut your losses, do the best you can to get them in and out of your restaurant, and make sure they never come back? There are limits to the of service a person can give in a restaurant or service job–better to expend it on customers who care and who will come back.

    Dan @ Casual Kitchen

    PS: Nice use of “illusive”–a word that (until today) I’ve never seen used in a blog post, much less used correctly.

  7. Pingback: Service 101: Managing Expectations
  8. AdriBarr

    Wow. What a terrific piece of writing, and an even greater piece pf psychology. An absolute spot on joy to read. And where is your restaurant?

    • Food Woolf

      Adri,
      Thanks for the compliment! This piece was written while I was working as a consultant at an award winning Italian Pizzeria in LA. Now I’m working at a brand new pizzeria and bakery in Santa Monica!

  9. Luky Luttmann

    The lack of conduct can’t be taught because it’s too late for rude people.
    great job, great insight, great writing as usual.
    congratulations!

    love,
    Luky

  10. Ruby

    I clicked over here from Saveur’s shortlist and I can see you’re a good writer with an interesting perspective. What a shame, then, that you lost me when I got to your third blatantly disparaging use of the word ‘housewife’. Let me ask you something. Did she tell you she was a housewife, or did you just assume? I can see why you’d be frustrated with her and customers like her, but why perpetuate outdated and sexist stereotypes?

    • Food Woolf

      Ruby, thank you for coming by to read. I am sorry you were offended by my use of the word “housewife”. My intent was not to use the word in a disparaging way but as an adjective to describe the woman. I will gladly take your feedback as an indicator that I could be more thoughtful when choosing my words. Thank you for stopping by and offering your perspective.

  11. Ingrid

    I am not the author, Ruby, but I used to work as a host at an Italian wine bar in Beverly Hills. To call the women in the story “Beverly Hills housewife” is a very specific term, and not sexist or stereotypical in the outraged sense you’d like it to be. Every single day at the wine bar, rich women in their 50′s and 60′s with armfuls of shopping bags and the inability to facially emote due to extensive plastic surgery would come in, usually in the afternoon (i.e. when others are normally at work) and do exactly what the author writes about in her piece – demand something we didn’t have, complain about something that was out of our control, make wild, untrue claims and generally be the worst kind of customer you could ever imagine. I have in restaurants worked all over the country and Beverly Hills remains the worst customers I’ve ever encountered, mainly due to these Beverly Hills housewives. These were women who were married to doctors and lawyers (they would talk loudly about their husbands at their meals) and spent the majority of their day making others miserable. The term “housewife” is not meant to demean actual hardworking, stay-at-home mothers here; in this context it literally means a wife who has nothing to do but spend lavish amounts of their spouses money and take her boredom out on people she considers to be servants and pleibians. Don’t be offended by the term, it’s a real thing.

  12. melinaphotos

    Gosh I loved this story. You so totally hit the nail on the head. I love your poignant writing and how you described the sternness of those unfortunate diners. Breathe deeply and often!

    Thanks for putting a great smile across my face and sharing a tale too often the case.

  13. melinaphotos

    Oh, and I found you through the Saveur competition, too. :)
    My blog is nominated for best single food photo, should you care to check on it and share the love around. Have a beautiful day!

  14. Pingback: La rivista Saveur pubblica i vincitori del 2012 Best Food Blog Awards. Ecco i migliori food blog | MentalClaud – Il piacere dell'inutile
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  16. Jade

    Thanks for sharing your point of view on the “impossible to please”. Kind of sad characters in a way – it’s not the lack of generic wine that’s missing from their happiness…

    I look forward to reading more from you!
    -Jade

  17. Niki

    I am so glad to know that IS possible to find (abroad) an Italian restaurant without “fettuccini Alfredo” and “spaghetti with meat balls”. They make me sick.
    By the way, this lady is the perfect nightmare!

  18. wietog

    Well, unless you KNOW how long a customer has waited, you really shouldn’t assume that they have expanded the actual time in their heads. People sense your disbelief and it offends them. Sometimes, it’s difficult to put EVERYTHING that’s previously occurred into a brief response. Any number of things could have happened prior:

    - The guests could have had reservations yet were made to wait.

    - The women could have felt slighted if one of your staff ignored them while doting on younger/more attractive females (I can’t believe how often this stupidity occurs in restaurants – especially high-end ones – because it is very rare for the attractive young woman to be the one paying/tipping.

    - The guests could have had a hard time finding your location, parking and/or were given the “bad seats”. Restaurants usually have some obviously “good tables” and should strive to make them all that way, if they can.

    - They could have been ignored upon seating. You HAVE to make eye contact with new guests and bring them something – anything – if they have to wait to order. The table needs to be set properly. The menus should be out. Water should be immediately offered. Bread or crudites ought to be set down (ask first). And if possible, a drinks order should be taken ASAP.

    - If there is any unusual delay – busy restaurant, large parties, short-staffed, kitchen disaster, 86′ed items, etc., something MUST be done to rectify the situation. A free glass of wine. An amuse bouche. A discount. It’s up to the restaurant to manage the flow. Even if the circumstances are out of the restaurant’s control, the customer must never be privy to the reasons, nor made to suffer for them. I can’t tell you how often a server has relayed the woes of the restaurant to me as though their incompetence would engender more understanding from me. Highly unprofessional.

    - If a customer requests something fairly standard in the area (wherever that may be) let’s not slam them for not being aware of how precious your offerings are. Especially if they are older. Even if they seem well-t0-do and cosmopolitan. A smooth, seasoned server would know to present something to the customer AS THOUGH THE CUSTOMER HAD REQUESTED IT. For example, “Certainly. You must appreciate the round, luscious flavors of a balanced Chardonnay. I’ll tell you what, while we don’t stock actual California Chardonnays, we offer a wine that just may become your new favorite. Would you like to sample some?” Then you bring out two tasters (promise less/deliver more) and continue to encourage the guest by appreciating THEIR appreciation. “This is an Italian Greco – perhaps you’ve tried it before. What do you think?”

    While many customers seem easy going, most will still have their bad days and will get edgier if they sense that the servers are annoyed with THEM. As a host/server/restauranter/etc., it’s up to YOU to charm them back down to their happy place. Putting the onus on them is only going to exacerbate the situation and frustrate you more. It’s part of your job.

    • Food Woolf

      Natasha,
      thank you for your comment. My post does speak to the idea that it is important for people in restaurants to have compassion for their guests. I apply compassion to my work every day. I believe that we are all responsible for actively pursuing our own happiness–through our actions of service to others. I am curious. Why would my suggestion that customers have compassion for the people who serve them make you uncomfortable?

  19. kimberlee

    have to agree with ruby, while I can empathize with the situation … it is also seems you had already summed up the group before you started. some of your adjectives are a bit condescending and/or judgemental, probably intended to make the story ‘pop’. Likely they never caught on to your disdain, being the sort of clients they were. But reading about your inner condemnation doesn’t exactly make me want to rush out the door to visit your establishment (not that I could since I am in the south of France! ha). Sometimes these sorts of stories can come back to bite us, just like the heat of the moment FB and twitter rants we hear about. You could have well made your point sans the jabs. Maybe less entertaining for the readers, but way more inspiring for future guests.

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