Service not servility

Weldon Mather asks which is worse: the server who couldn’t care less about you or the one who fawns over you to the point of annoyance? Neither is good – so how did they end up in the service industry?

We’ve all had that experience with an individual in the service industry where his or her sheer lack of charisma or even manners has led us to wonder “How did this person ever make it into this industry?” Lately, I’m wondering how so many abrupt, rude and difficult people end up in the industry. So much for ‘The customer is always right”. It’s more like “Nobody pushes the server around”!

Then you have the other type: the subservient ones, who fawn over you and are so eager to please, almost insincere but definitely angling for a gratuity.

It got me thinking about the service that I have received in the past and the people who stood out, not always for the right reasons. Sometimes you just get the sense that a person does not want to be serving you or anybody else. If I’m out for a nice meal with my better half, I want to relax and enjoy myself and yet the experience can almost be ruined by negative energy from the person who is supposed to be facilitating my enjoyment of the evening.

What makes the difference when it comes to the service sector? It’s attitude. Some people genuinely enjoy serving other people and take great pride in their role and you can tell. You generally reward them with a tip, which means there’s something in it for them if they get it right.

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People buy from people they like
I was in a restaurant on Saturday night. It’s relatively new, so there’s a curiosity factor and there was a major event in the area, so it was packed. The place was buzzing. Our waiters were older – what I would call ‘career waiters’. They were a joy to watch; pleasant under pressure, they took it all in their strides. I found myself ordering a starter even though I wasn’t that hungry, just to make my waiter happy. And I’ll definitely be back. That’s the power of good service. It’s good for the server in the form of tips and it’s good for the business.

A cultural tipping point
At a recent British Hospitality Association conference, one of the speakers – Alastair Storey, chairman and chief executive of the largest independent catering group in the UK, Westbury Street Holdings – made reference to the fact that some people see service as servility and that this is a barrier to entry for new employees. I would agree with the speaker. In my view, it’s a cultural thing. Maybe it’s got something to do with our history, I don’t know, but in the UK and Ireland we don’t seem to excel at it. There’s another big factor though, and it’s that the industry here is not respected from a career point of view either by society as a whole or by government.

I have worked overseas in many different countries where being a barperson or a waiter or waitress is seen as a profession, one that is respected and sought after. In the United States, bar and waiting staff in particular rely on their tips. It’s culturally expected that you tip in the United States, much to the annoyance of many overseas visitors unused to the convention. Though a waiter in the States may count on a tip, by working hard for their customer, he or she can increase that tip quite easily. There’s something in it for them when they practice good customer service.

We all know that in the States, the rate of pay for these jobs is fairly low, hence the reliance on tips. So is that the answer? Pay servers poorly so that being nice to their customers becomes a do-or-die for them? I’m not arguing for that at all.

That is part of the reason that we are experiencing difficulty in the service sector. If it’s not seen as a good prospect, it won’t attract the bright and lively ones, even if they do enjoy working with people.

It’s beneath us
So, perhaps the real question is: is the service industry seen to be beneath people of today in the UK and Ireland?

Quite possibly. I think really we really need to challenge this assertion through education and by giving younger people an understanding of what exactly is involved. The raft of legislation on employing young people is an obstacle in achieving this: you cannot employ people below a certain age and you can only take them on for a certain number of hours. While all this is good in terms of protecting young employees, it has changed the way we take our interns and train people for the industry.

Youth unemployment is a major problem in Europe. Training in the hospitality and service industries would give them discipline, organisational skills and teach them to fend for themselves. The hospitality industry offers young people fantastic opportunities at entry level and to work their way up the ladder through hard work, determination and self-belief. Also being nice to customers. No, more than that, offering top-class service.

One of my talented and charming waiters on Saturday night turned out to be the brother in the (Italian) family business. In other words he felt invested in the business. He had a real stake in doing his job well, and yet he had absolutely no problem with waiting tables.

So, what can we do about it? Education? Yes, as early as possible. On-the-job internships? Yes, without exploiting people. We also need to find a way to nurture and develop those ‘naturals’ who get a kick out of serving people well and want a career in this industry. Nobody need fear that we’re going back to the Downton Abbey-esque world of downtrodden servants as there is robust legislation in place both nationally and at EU level. This message needs to be got across.

The last word goes to Muhammad Ali –

Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.

How do you think we can turn around attitudes to service as a profession?

Weldon Mather is an independent hospitality and tourism consultant in the hotel, restaurant and pub sector. He works with clients in throughout the UK and Ireland including banks, owners and managers, receivers/administrators, liquidators and investors. www.wmconsultancy.eu

For more information please contact Arlene McCaffrey on 020 7025 1872 or email:arlene.mccaffrey@epmagazine.co.uk

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