Service 101: The Language of Service


Most businesses don’t have the time or money to teach their staff what true hospitality is. Instead of investing in teaching compassion and genuine hospitality, most restaurants and retailers invest their time and money in teaching their teams how to recite a finely-tuned script for making friendly and efficient sales.

Rare are the shop keepers and restaurant employees who craft their language to suit the buying needs of their particular customer. Instead, it’s “what can I get for you” or “are you ready to order?” Rather than take the time to share stories of how customers were won over or made regulars through a few key exchanges, businesses focus on encouraging number of sales per hour, check averages, and a high score on a secret shopper report.

The problem is, the more we focus on speeding things up, the more we lose an important part of building business: connection.

Transaction vs. Interaction. How do we speak to customers?

A top priority in today’s business transactions is a clear communication of wants and needs. Customers give orders. Servers take orders. The business exchange of today is to speak to each other like computers sharing date:

Cashier: “What can I get for you?”

Customer: “Give me a large hamburger with a side of fries”

Cashier: “For here or to go?”

Customer: “To go”

Cashier: “That’ll be five dollars. We’ll call your name when the order is ready.”

Though this exchange is perfectly acceptable in today’s marketplace, it lacks a language of service. When our interactions are solely motivated by downloading key data with each other, we fail to share a human connection.

If we aren’t careful, hospitality and the language of service may soon become extinct. The language of hospitality may be something we want and expect from businesses, but it will die if we aren’t encouraged to use it with each other.

The Cost of Doing Business 

When I train staff on how to improve their culture of hospitality, I speak to them about the importance of using the language of please, would you like, and may I.  I train staff the importance of making customers feel seen.

Frequently, young people in service feel more comfortable staring at a point of sale screen than at the customer. I teach them how to smile at customers and greet them with a hello. I show them how using the language of service can help them connect to guests and assist them in improving their sales. For example:

Cashier: “Good afternoon! What can I get for you?”

Customer: “Give me a large hamburger with a side of fries”

Cashier: “May I interest you in sweet potato fries for fifty cents more?”

Customer: “Sure.”

Cashier: “Great. Would you like that for here or to go?”

Customer: “To go”

Cashier: “Thank you. That’ll be five dollars. We’ll call your name when the order is ready. Please help yourself to some water over there.”

Interactions with a cashier like this can be efficient while employing a language of hospitality. Though this exchange may take a few seconds longer, customers feel more taken care of and tend to spend a little more money once they know they have options.

Please and Thank You’s

I specialize in customer service and training, so it’s my job to listen to how people interact with each other in business. I use what I hear to assist employees see how they can improve their hospitality quotient and help customers have a better service experience.

The more I listen, though, the more I think people aren’t all that friendly to each other any more. Blame the digital age, smart phones, or a multi-tasking life-style all you want. The thing is, the only way to keep the language of hospitality alive is for all of us to use it.

Just as young staff members struggle to remember how to employ the language of hospitality, few customers use words like “may I” or “please” when speaking with service providers.

How frequently do we forget to treat the people who wait on us, ring up our groceries, or paint our house with the respect we feel we deserve? As customers we have high expectations for friendly customer service, but how frequently do we hold ourselves up to the same standard? For some customers, it is their strong belief that once they enter a business transaction they are relieved of any duty to be civil to the people working for them.

If we want to succeed in business (and in life) we ought to learn how to use our language and our actions to respect the people we take care of and show consideration for the people who buy our products and who take care of us.


Recent Posts

Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.


  1. September 17

    Love the ‘may I help you?’, not that it is used often.
    I also like how you emphasise the other side of the transaction as well. As part of my job I regularly set up decorated dessert tables in people’s homes for their special events. It is surprising how often people will make themselves a coffee and stand to watch us work for 2 hours or more without offering so much as a glass of water.
    Thanks for the continual mindfulness on this topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *