The Simple Lessons Restaurants Teach Us About Making Clients Happy

Someone once told me that my job as a brand strategist was much like service at a restaurant—you only notice it when it’s bad. I take issue with this on a couple of levels. First, I think that all of the great designers with whom I’ve worked appreciate strategy and actually seek it out. Secondly, when I have an amazing waiter or waitress, I always notice and really appreciate it. But as someone who goes out to eat often, it did get me thinking about the similarities between various jobs across service industries, about keeping clients (or customers) happy, and the universal rules for delivering a satisfying experience. Along the way in my life as a restaurant fanatic, I’ve developed three major pet peeves, and I think they can apply as a helpful lesson to anyone whose job involves working with people (i.e. pretty much everyone).

1. State a point of view.
When I ask for a recommendation between two dishes and I’m given the response, "Well, they’re really very different," or, "It depends on what you’re in the mood for," I already know that the duck and the halibut are incredibly different. If I knew what I was in the mood for, I wouldn’t be asking. And yet, while I am frustrated by this type of response, I sometimes find myself in client meetings pulling a similar move: "You really can’t go wrong with any of these directions" or "We love them all." Of course I’m proud of all the work we bring to the table, but I’m also hedging, because I don’t know which one they’ll pick.

The truth is, when someone asks for a recommendation, it’s because they want a strong, decisive voice to help them feel good about their decision. Expressing a point of view shows you’ve spent time thinking about the work, and their business, and that you’re invested in the outcome. Even if they end up ultimately disagreeing, they’ll feel more confident in that choice because they weighed it against your well-considered opinion. Sometimes just hearing "duck" is all I need to know that I really wanted the halibut all along, and that’s okay. At least my server had the guts to put a stake in the ground.

2. Write it down.
Nothing makes me more insane than when a waiter doesn’t write down my order. It’s dinner, not a parlor trick, and 9 times out of 10, something comes back wrong. Of course there’s the very obvious corollary of taking notes in a meeting. But there’s also a larger point about practicing the art of listening. In long meetings (or even just a long day) it’s so easy to tune out, to be thinking about other things, to "multi-task." It takes a lot of concentration to listen well, but small actions like asking questions, repeating what’s been said, or yes, writing it down, help. It’s about being present, and giving the person speaking the respect of getting it right.

3. Timing is everything.
I don’t know when it became common practice to start clearing plates before everyone is finished, but I find it very off-putting.

Not everyone eats at the same speed, and the same is true for work. Of course deadlines need to be met, but when building timelines, we need to allow for exploration, discovery, taking risks, messing up, and then starting over. And that goes for the deadlines we set for ourselves as well. I’m a pretty speedy worker (and eater), but in both cases I have to force myself to slow down. Yes, I can bang out some words on a page and consider myself done, but when I take the time to pause and then revisit with fresh eyes, I can almost always make it better. It’s a great feeling to check something off a to-do list, but it’s an even better feeling to allow yourself the time to grow and evolve.

Just as bad service can ruin a meal, great service can improve upon it significantly. We spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re working on, but perhaps should spend more thinking about how we work with others.

Emily Heyward is a partner and director of strategy for Red Antler.

[Image: Flickr user Ross]

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  • Karen Funseth

    Interesting points albeit more personal preferences that do not translate well between a waiting tables in a restaurant and managing a project.

    Giving an opinion on what dish to order is vastly different than giving input on a business plan.I waited tables while going to college. I memorized everyone's order. People were actually impressed instead of put out.  That talent served me well.I would not dare do that while in business meeting.There is an art to timing while waiting tables and managing project schedules. It takes time and experience in the field to develop insights about creating a project schedule and managing it.

  • Scott Byorum

    Good article.  I would add one more point, though.  Follow-up.  Nothing peeves me more than when I never see the waiter again after being served until they bring me my bill.  They don't need to hover over me, but at least come back in 5 minutes or so to ask me about my experience.  It's a chance to fix a wrong or up-sell (another drink).  I'm a way better tipper if the waiter even professes the illusion of caring.  And so it is with any product.  It's called "product support," and it needs to be proactive.

  • kgapo

    While reading your article, I remembered the GoodExperience,com that I started reading back in the 90s. This site was among the first to start talking about good and bad customer experience and how it affects business. Further, I wondered how your suggestions might apply to health care delivery, where the patient(customer) experience is the least concern of health care providers....I am sure that if applied to healthcare we would have less medical errors and more healthy and with positive experiences patients.

  • Antonio Sanicola

    I really enjoyed your article and I quote any line you wrote in it. I like to think that I learned anything I know about Customer Service, Clients Retention and Customer Satisfaction there, and I bring those lessons with me evry day. Those lessons are the reason of my target over-achievemnt. If you begin a conversation trying to understand how to satisfy your clients needs selling him your products you are on a good route to build a solid relationship.

  • johncoryat

    I spent 30 years as a consultant and 8 years (high school and college) as a student. In that time, I never took notes on anything. Perhaps I'm just a freak but I can recall every important detail in a meeting a day, week or month later. People who take notes, especially detailed ones, are simply stenographers and miss the entire point of the meeting. They rarely ask questions and often don't know what the customer's deeper desires are.
    Notes can be useful but they are often a distraction. Better to pay attention, listen and ask questions to figure out why rather than what.

  • A Degenna

     Perhaps another lesson from restaurants would be image is more important than reality.  I too have never been much of a note taker however in a non restaurant sales position I had I would often take notes.  Infrequently the notes would prove useful.  More importantly I felt that it conveyed the proper image; attentiveness, interest, and a willingness to take their needs from the table.

    As to servers I have to say it makes no sense to not write it down.  As a young server I too could easily take orders for up to 8 people.  This was in the days when restaurants mostly featured steak menus, offered salads on all entrees, and a baked potato as loaded as one would like.  Nineteen times out of twenty their was no mistake but man when that miss happened in the middle of a busy shift!  Talk about ruining my flow in the heat of battle.  I also found great comfort in knowing when I was in the right when a guest would return something claiming I messed up the order.  Although one should not tell the guest they are wrong it is still satisfying saying to yourself "Sorry buddy!  I have the proof right here!"

  • Stacy

     John, while it's great that you have such a terrific memory, I have found that taking notes has served me well.  On many instances, I have referred back to my notes with the client and referenced specific decisions that were documented at a particular place and time.  I think it's important to strike a balance and not have your "head in a notebook" the entire meeting but rather to listen, engage and document important decision point,s at the very least.

  • emilyheyward

    Thanks for your perspective! I wish the people I worked with (and the servers I've had) had your memory - it sounds like quite a gift! It just hasn't been my experience that most people can recall details that accurately. But I totally agree that it's also not a good idea to be buried in note-taking throughout a meeting. There's a fine balance, and I think it's a combination of engaging, listening, and ALSO giving yourself the tools to remember what you need to later. I personally take notes by hand, which discourages me from taking too many, and also removes the barrier of a laptop in front of me.

  • Michael Rivers

    Thanks for your perspective. As a professional consulant of 25 years, it has often served me well to have taken notes. As Goethe said: He who writes, remains"
    In a restaurant last week, the server insisted that he did not need to write down our order. "If you were 10 people, I might get confused". Thereupon, I proposed a deal: If he made one mistake in the order he would receive no tip and we would not pay for drinks. If all was correct, we would increase the tip.In the event he lost, and although crestfallen, he accepted the consequences with good grace. "Write it down", I said.

  • Jonathan Weinberg

    John, I have to agree... I worked in the service industry for 5 years and never took notes. I found it better to commit to listening and memorizing my customers order, and it is not like meetings where ideas are boundless, this was an order off of a finite selection of items. I found when I write down orders I am no longer listening just putting notes on a paper, and would not commit anything to memory. 
    However you are correct about repeating the orders, and that can be applied to a meeting as well summarizing the key points or the next steps.

  • blakeeamesdesign

     John I have to disagree...I work in the design/build industry and am constantly annoyed with GC's that don't write anything down. We usually are talking in finite details and numbers/measurements. They are constantly dropping the ball, forgetting the details and coming to a meeting late or not at all. When questioned it always boils down to forgetting. 
     Not sure how you can compare taking notes in a meeting to not listening or acting as a "stenographer". I never walk into a meeting empty handed. I write down the important details but never make my clients feel as though I am not 100% focussed on them. 
     I can average 3 client meetings a day and could not keep the details from one project to the next in order if I didn't make key notes throughout the meeting. 
     I think you are the exception, not the norm. And kudos on your memory! 
    I'm envious.