So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Daily Archives: May 3, 2009

A few things more servers should do that can increase their tips

No, this isn’t trotting out the famous study done by Dr. Michael Lynn of  Cornell University that found that drawing happy faces on checks or touching the shoulder of a guest increased tips by a couple of percentage points. But it’s close.

A few things I’ve noticed in my years of waiting tables is that there are a few small things that seem to put the cherry on the top of the sundae that is restaurant service. I have no firm data or studies to show that they actually make a difference and I suspect that you really can’t quantify these things – but the little things matter in service, so why not try them out and see if they help?

Shake your host’s hand. By host, I mean the person who pays the bill. You’d be surprised how few servers do this, and it will set yourself apart from the rest. You’d also be surprised how pleasantly surprised a guest is when you do this. And since you do it at the exact moment when they’re calculating your tip and making their final decision about how good your service was,  I think it really helps them be more generous, not only monetarily but also toward any mistakes that you might have made. If you get in the habit of doing this, it will feel strange when you can’t do it for some reason.

Change your spiel for each table. When you work up your spiel of the specials for the night, try to arrange it so that you can hit the salient points in different ways for different tables. If a table seems very interested in what you have to say, be prepared to go into more detail (if you have the time). If a table seems impatient, don’t burden them with descriptive phrases that they don’t need. Change your delivery to fit the mood that you perceive from the table. If they seem to be playful, use it. If they are more businesslike or abrupt, play to them by being matter-of-fact. Try to vary the tempo and rhythm of your words to suit their personality.  Change the order of your presentation. All of this benefits you as much as the guest, as it keeps you from robotically saying the same script that you have formed in your head. It puts your focus more on personal service and less on a mindless service style. Plus, don’t you think that your neighboring tables might be listening in? If they hear the exact same speech performed in exactly the same way, won’t it make them feel less personally served than if you avoid a rote recitation? This can only help subliminally put them on your side and appreciate you for being a creative and caring server.

When returning the guest’s credit card, thank them by name. Unless the name is insanely difficult, hand them back the check presenter and shake their hand, saying something like, “Thank you Mr. Smith. It’s been a pleasure serving you tonight”. It’s been said that a person likes to hear their name more than anything else. I suspect that it’s true.  I even attempt difficult names by saying, “Thank you Mr. Doiron – is that the correct way to say your name”.  If it isn’t, they’ll correct you and some will even say something like, “That’s pretty close” or “It’s Dw-rown but most people get it wrong. You were pretty close”. And if you nail it, they’re usually surprised. and pleased and will praise you for getting it right. And if you were way off, they usually will forgive you for making the attempt if you qualify it by asking if it was correct. And this leads me to the next point:

Say “Thank you for coming in” and “It was a pleasure to serve you (even if it wasn’t). These are subtle signals that you appreciate them choosing your restaurant and that you hope that they will reward you for the service that you have given them. You’d be surprised how many servers don’t bother with this small courtesy.

Don’t assume. This can be applied to many situations. If you assume that someone is going to be a lousy tipper simply by their appearance, you run the risk of giving them the service that you expect them to be paying for. From older dowager ladies to blacks to rednecks to entitled well-dressed lawyers to young people, you prejudge people at your own risk. It’s human nature to do this and very few people can avoid it entirely, but don’t fall subject to your own prejudices and preconceptions. You’d be surprised how many people will surprise you. If you find yourself in this position, try a little bit harder to get them to your side. Also, don’t assume that a guest wants service to go a certain way. If you have any questions about how they want things to go – ask them. You might find out that the businesspeople that you are waiting on are trying to close a deal and don’t want you interrupting them to hit a service point like asking 2 minutes after they get a course how everything is. They might very well be satisfied with you coming by, seeing if they want to make eye contact and simply giving them the opportunity to tell you if anything is wrong with the dish without you asking. Or, if they are in a bit of a hurry because they are trying to make a show, they might appreciate being asked if you can bring the next course before the previous one is finished. If they aren’t, they’ll tell you. If they are, they’ll appreciate you asking.

Be engaged, or at least pretend to be. Use inflection to indicate your pleasure in serving them – show a little excitement. Don’t be a robot. If you are busy and in the weeds, the guest can feel this. Make the effort to slow down and not rush your spiel. Pause occasionally – dontrunwordstogether in an attempt to get through the spiel as quickly as you can. It will cost you a few seconds but it will make your guest feel like you are giving them the attention that you need.

Always apologize if you have to reach across a guest.  Many times you’ll have to reach across someone to remove a plate or hand something to another guest. Simply say, “I’m sorry for reaching”. It’s a common courtesy that some servers forget. Also, don’t “give your guest the shoulder”. This means, if you’re pouring tea from the right for instance, don’t do it with your left hand, do it with your right. This forces you to face the guest more than if you pour with your left. Try it and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The same goes for placing or removing tableware and plates.  Don’t put your shoulder to the guest. It’s body language that alienates, not includes and you want to draw the guest in with your body language, not exclude them. 

These are all subtle style points  but the little details do matter. The more details you hit, the better your service will be perceived. And you’ll be able to find these hints and more if and when my book comes out (hint, hint).