Psychology at tableside: what waiting tables taught me about peoplePosted: January 18, 2013 | |
I read this story years ago, on a website of unknown repute. It might not be true anymore — heck, it might never have been true — but it’s a great anecdote, so here goes:
Urban legend says that when hiring a new managing executive, Wall Street CEOs will take the guy out to a restaurant. A nice restaurant with silverware and busboys. This outing seems like a normal business lunch, but the CEO is actually observing how the manager behaves in this specific environment. Waitstaff are in a service position and therefore of a perceived lower rank, so people often reveal their true colours. If the manager makes nice with the CEO, then turns around and snaps irritably at the waitstaff, that shows that he cares more about title and salary than about treating people equally. Something as simple as asking for a water refill can give great insight on how you’ll handle an employee of lower rank than yourself.
The short version: server-and-customer interactions can teach you a lot about human nature. I’ve found this to be very true! I’ve worked at lots of different food establishments — from a hole-in-the-wall sushi place with 44 seats, to a nightclub-esque restaurant you could fit a whole village into; from a local family pizza joint, to a multi-national seafood chain. No matter the surroundings or the food type, people show their true nature when a waitress walks up and asks what they’d like. That true nature is overlaid with things like low blood sugar crankiness or the general tone of their day — but the person still shows their personality in fundamental ways.
Like the CEO fable says, some people are inclined to look down on a waitress, or anyone else of a service-type profession. They think they rank higher than the waitress in all ways, or they simply think that the customer is literally always right. Fortunately, those people aren’t the majority. Most folks come to a restaurant as a treat or a celebration. They’re looking forward to good food and a good time. A friendly server can add to that experience — because this nice person is the one who brings the food and wine, right? Right. I’m fairly sure the decline in home cooking has made a difference, too. More and more people are dependant on processed food because they don’t know how to cook, or they feel they’re too busy to cook. Those folks are easy to please by bringing them a hot meal.
So when I approach a table full of strangers, I need to quickly determine their opinion of me. That’s usually easy enough, based on their body language while I’m greeting them, and whether they say hello back. I explain the night’s meal specials — and abbreviate them if the customers’ eyes are glazing over, or elaborate if they want all the details.
I also ask a few questions — “So, what brings you out tonight? Celebrating something special?” — and see whether the customer volunteers a little (or a lot) of information. By the time I have their drink order, I usually have a pretty good read on the customers’ personalities and mood. It’s taken a few years to refine my technique, but I do like to know whether I’m safe to crack a dorky joke.
Along with quickly reading people, I’ve picked up phrasing tricks that can influence the customer’s response. Choice of words can make all the difference in the world. I call it “server mind tricks” in the same tone I talk about Jedi powers — although, actually, this sort of benevolent trickery is a great skill for everyone to know. Knowing what to say can smooth over a lot of customer service situations.
You know when a server asks if you want cheese and pepper grated onto your pasta? I’ve found that if you ask it as an open-ended question — “Would you like cheese or pepper?” — the customer usually says yes. Because who doesn’t want extra cheese? But at the busy nightclub-esque restaurant, sometimes I had more pressing tasks to look after than standing there grating Parmesan. So I tried asking, “Would you like cheese or pepper, or is it fine the way it is?” The last part of that sentence — fine the way it is — was what stuck in the customer’s mind, and far fewer people asked for extra topping. I was usually free to go. (Honestly, the food at that restaurant was delicious already: it didn’t need extra cheese or pepper indiscriminately dumped on.)
Psychology is even more helpful if the restaurant’s kitchen is struggling to keep up. Most customers are decent folks who sympathize with the only-human staff — as long as you play your cards right. If the food takes 10 minutes too long and the customer is staring while I bring the plates? I don’t say, “Sorry for the inconvenience” — because that emphasizes that something bad and inconvenient has happened. Not an idea I want to reinforce. Instead, I sincerely tell the customer, “Thank you for your patience.” That’s a compliment so subtle that it doesn’t even seem like a compliment. People are inclined to think, “Yes, I was patient in the face of this mild annoyance” and that makes them feel like a good person. The frustrating situation suddenly doesn’t seem that bad.
Serving tables might not be the most glamorous profession, but it’s a great way to see personality types in action. And word choice can make an enormous difference in how situations turn out. So, basically, I’ve gained skills that are relevant to many walks of life — including writing. If everyone waited tables as their first job, I think our world would be a much more understanding place.