At Your Service: May 19, 2010

It is easy to believe that we are delivering great service whether or not our customer’s experience matches our belief. This is especially true when we have a reputation for good service. Rather than become complacent, it is valuable to remember that the service story is always the same, “What have you done for me lately?”
Last weekend I was down in Westchester County. My cousin, who lives in Baltimore, had asked me to find a suitable restaurant for the family to go to following her father’s funeral. I asked around and heard the same name from three different friends. Independently, my cousin who lives in New York heard great things about the same place. The Baltimore cousin made a reservation.
The family grouping included 27 people ranging in age from eight to 86, some traveling from as far away as North Carolina. We reached the recommended restaurant just as the regular lunch hour was ending. We were a subdued crowd and a hungry one.
We settled in and down within 15 minutes while water glasses were filled and menus distributed. Despite the fact that it was a large crowd with the tab being paid by one person, the restaurant insisted on a la carte service. The upscale menu tempted us with Tuscan savories and a mix of other Italian treats. The waitress (only one for the entire group at two long tables) brought bread, butter and olive oil and then disappeared for 30 minutes.
She took orders with deliberation, moving slowly from one person to the next, marking their location on her pad as she wrote down the choices. The three ordered appetizers (soups and salads) arrived within 10 minutes. Another 20 minutes went by before my city cousin went and found the waitress to ask where the rest of the meals were. The response, “They will be served as soon as the appetizers are finished.”
Suffice to say that my cousin’s reaction — pointing at the hungry children — prompted the immediate delivery of most of the meals. The waitress was aided in this process by two busboys. Silence prevailed as people began to eat. Unfortunately, one entrée was missing: the shrimp scampi ordered by my Baltimore cousin (who was paying the tab).
All in all, it was some of the worst service I have ever received. Yet, I am sure that the waitress and her helpers were doing what they believed was the right thing to do. They did, in fact, do things in a way that was perfectly appropriate for a table of four on a leisurely Saturday night. What could they have done differently? They could have asked the hostess how she wanted the service to proceed.
When my cousin made the reservation, she informed the hostess that this meal was her way of thanking her family for their support after the death of her father. She indicated that we would be coming directly from the 12:30 funeral and that there were children, adults and several diabetics who would all need to eat rather quickly. The response: “Don’t worry, we will take care of everything for you.”
Whatever else was communicated to the waitress, the message about speedy service didn’t get through. She did not check in with the hostess to confirm her understanding of what was expected. She did what she probably always does; but under a different set of circumstances than she normally works, it didn’t work.
It is easy to make sure that you always deliver good service. Ask your customers what they expect and then deliver that. Their requests will relate to their immediate needs and your response will say, “This is what I can do for you now.”