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What I Learned From My Waitress

Do you and your employees do these three things? In other words, are they as good at their jobs as Brenda is at hers?
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I believe in life-long learning. I also believe you can learn something from almost anyone. The key is to extract the wisdom from the wood chips and apply it to your own life.

For years, I've had a favorite waitress named Brenda. I hate to wait for anything, but I'm happy to wait for a seat in her section because I think she actually improves my digestion. I always learn something from her, which, given the fact that restaurants are the ultimate customer-service industry, is hardly surprising. This week I learned three important things from her. So pay attention.

1. Repeat After Me

Brenda has her own way of taking orders. She repeats everything that I say right back to me, word for word. There's a curious comfort in that, which is very reassuring. How many times have you had some waiter stand there while you're reciting your very complicated choices and not write anything down or repeat a single thing? Did you really feel confident that you were going to get what you ordered, or were you just a little anxious that maybe Wally the Waiter didn't have the world's greatest memory, and that your potatoes were coming with peppers whether you liked it or not? That’s not exactly the warm and fuzzy feeling that makes for return visits.

The most important part of Brenda’s process isn’t that she always gets my order right. Her mimicry sends a specific and powerful message. Not only am I being listened to; I am being heard. And I am being heard by someone who actually cares about me and about getting my order right.

The ineffable feeling of being “important” and cared for is the absolute heart of great customer service. Getting the order right is basic execution. Getting the listening part of the process correct is even more important.  It’s that old cliché: I don’t really care how much you know until I know how much you care.

We’re too often distracted when we're supposed to be listening. We're texting or typing. We're multi-tasking or checking our monitors for new email. And we're sending a very clear message to the person talking to us. It says, "I might seem to be listening, but you're not really being heard because my mind and my attention are obviously elsewhere.” Nothing could be worse for your people, your customers, or your business.

If your customers don’t think you’re concerned about them or listening to them, they won’t be customers for long.  And it’s even worse internally. If your people bring you problems or concerns and you seem too busy to listen or to be bothered, they’ll conclude that you don't care. They'll stop coming to you and, far more critically, they’ll stop caring themselves. When your people stop bringing you problems, you know you have a real problem.

2. Do What You Can Do

Brenda doesn't own the restaurant, so she doesn't set the prices or the portion sizes. She doesn't determine the daily specials and she can't guarantee that they've got my favorite fruit on a particular morning. Sometimes there are things simply beyond her control, like a new cook or busboy who just can’t get things right. And she better not ignore the "no substitutions" rule, which apparently is the Eleventh Commandment in the restaurant business.  

Given the many things that can get in the way of delivering the kind of service that makes a difference to her customers, she has developed her own simple strategy. She does what she can.

That may sound simplistic and somewhat random, but it’s not. This isn't some arbitrary process. It isn't a case of flouting the fat cats or trying to get away with something. It's good business to take care of your friends--the regulars--who represent the recurring foundation of the business. That's exactly what she does.

Say you don’t want the green beans that come with the meat loaf. But no substitutes are allowed. Well, she doesn’t substitute anything. She just piles on extra potatoes and lets you know it's a double portion. Not so good for the waistline, but great for making sure you know you're special. She can't change the rules, but she works her magic with the ladle. She works with what she has control over and she does what she can. It shows, and, believe me, it matters. This is her own individual solution.  When you incorporate this kind of flexibility and empowerment into your entire organization, you become Nordstrom’s--a business with the epitome of empowered employees and a great place to shop.

3. Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Every job turns out to be a direct reflection of the amount of time, effort, commitment and passion you put into it. There are really no boring jobs; just people who are bored with their jobs because they lack the energy, attitude and imagination to make something great out of every day.

The best bosses I know make it their business to find the pumped-up people in their places and make sure that their excitement, enthusiasm and energy is shared and communicated throughout the organization.

What I love about Brenda is that she absolutely refuses to let anyone be the “bad” in her day. Even on her worst day, she’s a smile waiting to happen.  Her enthusiasm is authentic and completely contagious.

It’s about attitude and respect. It says that her job may not be rocket science, but that she takes great pride in how she does it and she puts herself entirely into the process. She expects you to appreciate that, and to respect her effort and commitment to doing the best job she can do every day. And, unless you’re completely unconscious, you do.

IMAGE: emilio labrador/Flickr
Last updated: May 21, 2013

HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist

Howard A. Tullman is the CEO of 1871 ? Where Digital Startups Get Their Start and the General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC and of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners. He is a member of the Chicago NEXT & Cultural Affairs Councils and the Illinois Innovation & Arts Councils; an adjunct professor at Kellogg; and an advisor to many start-ups. He is the former Chairman and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Over the last 45 years, he has successfully founded more than a dozen high-tech companies. @tullman

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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