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Leadership

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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