Customer Service

Foodies have been known to travel hours for a taste of the grilled black figs with tangy lime sauce, a medallion of veal tenderloin with woodsy mushrooms, or a slice of Valrhona chocolate cake with roasted banana ice cream.

But perhaps the tastiest thing served at the world-famous Inn at Little Washington is the service itself. Few restaurants -- indeed, few businesses of any kind -- seem so adept at fulfilling their customers' every need. Founded in 1978 by chef Patrick O'Connell and Reinhardt Lynch, who who oversees the business, the Washington, Va., hotel and restaurant has won nearly every honor in its field. Most recently, Zagat's 2003 hotel survey ranked the inn's 100-seat dining room as America's best. "Heaven comes in second place," the authors gushed, "and it's not really close."

Regardless of what business you're in, there's a lot to learn from the Inn at Little Washington's approach to keeping its customers happy. And while most chefs would sooner bite into a Big Mac than reveal a cherished recipe, O'Connell agreed to share one -- the inn's five-course system for, as he puts it, "delivering the perfect experience."

"It's not enough for staffers to be courteous. They must also convey an extraordinary degree of competence."

Measure the customer's mood: People, O'Connell believes, aren't impressed by what you know or what you can offer until they see that you care. And you can't possibly care in any meaningful way unless you have some insight into what people are feeling and why.

Enter the "mood rating." When a new party arrives in the dining room, the captain assigns it a number that assesses the guests' apparent state of mind (from 1 to 10, with 7 or below indicating displeasure or unhappiness). The mood rating is typed into a computer, written on the dinner order, and placed on a spool in the kitchen where the entire staff can see and react accordingly. Whatever the circumstances, O'Connell's goal is crystal clear: "No one should leave here below a 9."

To that end, restaurant staffers spare nothing in their attempt to raise the number -- be it complimentary champagne, extra desserts, a tableside visit from one of the owners, even a kitchen tour. "Consciousness to the extreme is great customer service," O'Connell says. "If guests ran into terrible traffic on the way over here, or are in the midst of a marital dispute, we need to consider it our problem. How else are we going to ensure that they have a sublime experience?"

Cultivate expertise: It's not enough for staffers to be courteous, O'Connell believes. They also must convey an extraordinary degree of competence. Employees are encouraged never to stop learning about their job, the inn, and anything else that might take the team closer to perfection. In line with that philosophy, all staffers -- from managers to waiters to hosts -- are assigned research projects and expected to become the resident expert on their subject, which can range from wild mushrooms to French merlots and vintage port wines. And staffers are called upon to demonstrate their expertise by giving presentations to their co-workers.

It doesn't end there. Dining-room staff also are assigned a notable restaurant critic and asked to memorize everything from the reviewer's culinary hot buttons to his or her favorite words. The goal here is less to please any particular critic than to cultivate a deeper understanding of the opinion makers who can make or break a restaurant's fortunes. Indeed, staffers even are assigned to eat at a local restaurant, write a review in the style of their assigned critic, and present it to their fellow employees. "You have to know what controls the marketplace and what controls the perceptions of your customers -- and ultimately your bottom line," says O'Connell. "Rather than maintaining a passive adaptation to these critical players, we study them."

Tolerate failure...once: Making good on customers' wildest fantasies isn't easy. It requires everyone to be "on" all the time, and to practice impeccable follow-through. The way O'Connell sees it, guests should leave the dining room feeling changed in much the same way they would after an overwhelmingly beautiful artistic performance. If you flub your lines by, say, pouring water the wrong way or removing a plate at an inappropriate time, the entire show is tarnished. When such gaffes occur, O'Connell lets the offenders know immediately -- a practice he calls "instant correction." "It sounds rough, but it actually reduces the employees' anxiety by letting them know what is expected," he says. "Plus, bad habits aren't allowed to form."

Hire for attitude: Early on, O'Connell and Lynch assumed that technical ability and experience were the best indicators of future performance. They were wrong. Talent, they learned, means little if an employee has a lousy attitude. "In the hospitality business a desire to please is the key criterion to success," O'Connell says. What's more, he adds, "we found that over time, nice people can be taught almost anything."

Now, during the hiring process, the inn divides potential employees into two distinct groups: those who liked their past bosses and those who didn't. In nearly all cases, applicants who have positive things to say about their previous jobs make better employees, O'Connell says. He's on to something. In an industry known for its endless turnover, the Inn at Little Washington manages to keep employees on board for years. Best of all, says O'Connell, "we don't have prima donnas jockeying for pecking order and making the whole place miserable."

Don't say no: Staffers are forbidden even to utter the syllable. If a guest asks if an appetizer is sweet, a waiter won't answer no -- even if it's incredibly spicy. Instead, the waiter describes the ingredients that make up the dish so diners can understand exactly what they're ordering and make their own informed decision. The phrase "I don't know" is also discouraged. Following several months of apprenticeship and training, all new waiters undergo a rigorous test, in which veteran staffers ask every imaginable question, from when the inn was built to peculiarities of the menu. Only after passing the test are waiters considered "full cut," meaning worthy of a portion of the significant tip pool. A monthly newsletter keeps everyone up-to-date, and a list is passed around enumerating the 12 most-asked questions and how they're to be answered.

These days, it's often said every company is in the service industry. That requires, according to O'Connell, a shift in your staff's mentality: "All of these policies help convey to our people that they don't deal in financial transactions, but rather financial dependencies -- we owe our business to the customer and great service comes from showing incredible gratitude for precisely that."