QI'd like my restaurant to provide great customer service, but staffers don't seem to grasp the concept. Can it be taught?

Colleen Bryan
Vice president of marketing
Queens, New York

The most important thing you can do is make the distinction between customer service and guest hospitality. You need both things to thrive, but they are completely different. Customer service entails getting the right food to the right person at the right time. Hospitality is the degree to which your customers feel that your staff is on their side. It involves thoughtful acts like listening, making eye contact, and remembering people who've eaten there before. It's also about handling mistakes well.

There are systems you can employ to improve service. At my restaurants, we have training drills before every meal. We talk about what we did yesterday that was great and what we can improve today. If your problem has more to do with hospitality, that's another matter. Hospitality is almost impossible to teach. It's all about hiring the right people. When I interview job applicants, I look for five key traits: friendliness, curiosity, a good work ethic (they're neat and on time), empathy, and self-awareness (in other words, they don't look like they're under a storm cloud). I keep those traits top of mind during interviews and by the end I know who is what I call a hospitalitarian.

Short of hiring a new staff, consider giving subpar workers a chance to improve. Tell them why they're not measuring up and give them a set amount of time to make specific improvements. If they don't improve, ask yourself if it's because they can't or they won't. If they can't, but they're trying, give them one more chance. If they won't, let them go. How much time you give staffers to turn around depends on the job: I might be more patient with one of 20 busboys, say, than with one of three sous chefs.

Finally, keep in mind that hospitality starts with employees treating one another with respect and trust. If that's missing with your staff, it will be missing with guests.

Danny Meyer is CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group, a New York company whose 11 restaurants include Gramercy Tavern.

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