“How Can I Help You?’

I have never forgotten my days in customer service. It started when I was a waitress in our local burger and ice cream restaurant in town. The owners made sure that all their help were trained the same way:

“The customer comes first.” (The customer wasn’t always right or even pleasant, but they always came first.)

“Don’t go anywhere without something in your hands.” (I’ve kept this habit each day of my life; it’s amazing how much time it saves!)

“Check your tables often to be sure that everyone has what they need.” (This is really a life lesson; always check in with those around you now and then; that way you don’t miss anything.)

“Never let the customer see you doing nothing.” (I must have folded thousands of paper napkins while I worked there. It was ok to sit down as long as you kept an eye on your tables and were doing something while you were sitting.)

“No matter how rude a customer is to you, always treat them with respect.” (Boy, was that a tough one! But I did it; I learned to keep smiling no matter what.)

“If you know the customer’s name, then call them Mr. and Mrs. (Name). If you do not know them, address them as “Sir,” Miss,” Ma’am,” or “folks.” (Back then you never called customers ‘guys,’ ‘y’all,’ or, in the case of older people; ‘honey,’ ‘darling,’ ‘sweetheart,’ or ‘dearie.’ It was considered disrespectful, not friendly or appropriate.)

“If you have no customers and have nothing to do, FIND something to do!” (This is where I learned to both look and be busy. There was always some sweeping to do; such as brewing another pot of coffee, folding napkins or dusting tables.)

“If a customer does not leave you a tip, ask yourself if you did the best job you could. However, some people just do not tip. Get over it.” (That alone was an ‘ah ha!’ moment. Lesson: you don’t always get what you deserve. So yes, get over it and move on.)

“If a customer should leave something of theirs on the table; sunglasses, pen, hat, etc., try to catch them before they drive away. Otherwise, just put the items behind the counter for when (or if) they come back.” (By the time this restaurant changed hands years ago, many of those lost items were still behind the counter!”)

“No swearing—PERIOD!” (One swear word would get you fired; no ifs, ands, or buts.)

The atmosphere in the restaurant wasn’t always about these ten lessons, either. Often things happened that we just had to roll with and hope for the best. The two “events” that stand out clearly in my mind are these two gems:

Gem 1: A couple came into the restaurant for lunch. They came in arguing, and continued to argue even while the waitress taking their order. The woman just ordered a Coke; the man ordered an open-faced egg salad sandwich. The arguing escalated.

When the Coke and sandwich arrived, the man wordlessly picked up the sandwich and pushed into his girlfriend’s face. Let’s just say that mayhem ensued, and the restaurant owner ushered them out at the speed of light.

Gem 2: One day a couple drove all the way up from Connecticut to have the restaurant’s famous lobster salad and fruit salad, two of our most popular items. I was their waitress, and told them that luckily we had one each left. They were thrilled!

The salads were enormous, and the two of them could not fit on one tray. Therefore I had the fruit salad in one hand, and the lobster salad on my tray. As I walked toward the customers’ table, a young boy ran into me under my “tray” arm and I lost my balance. The lobster salad slid off the tray and smashed onto the floor, and the fruit salad slammed into the wall. You can imagine how that couple felt!

It’s been decades since I was a waitress, but I never forgot these lessons. It turns out that they are all life lessons; things we should remember each day. I credit those owners who were tough but fair to me; they taught me what became my work ethic in every job I ever had.

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Yelpers

I am one of the few people in America with no social media footprint; I’m not on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/or even LinkedIn (which I dumped once I retired). However, I do *Yelp.

Yup, you heard me; I am a Yelper. I love writing restaurant reviews, especially positive ones, because I find so many negative ones. When I really love the food or service or whatever, I write a positive review because I would like other people to have the same good experience that I did.

Whenever I see a bad review for a place I’ve liked, I have to wonder if the person writing it was just trying to score a free meal or was in a bad mood. Yes, it’s important to both customers and business owners to get the straight skinny on what is right or wrong with their establishment. But I feel that a lot of yelpers out there are just griping about foolish things such as:

  • “The waitress/waiter didn’t fill up my water glass when I snapped my fingers and whistled.”
  • **”I ordered sushi and it was RAW! Who eats raw fish?!”
  • “This restaurant didn’t serve Coke products, only Pepsi, so I didn’t tip my waitress/waiter.”
  • “I have a severe gluten allergy that could kill me. When I asked my waitress/waiter whether or not their bread had gluten in it, they told me that it did. Didn’t they know that I have a severe gluten allergy?!”
  • “I ordered the special burger at our local Burger Doodle and it wasn’t the same size that they show on the signs (burger on the sign was about 12″ by 12″).”
  • “I ordered a lettuce, cheese and tomato sub. When I got it, there was no meat on it! (Um, perhaps you might have asked for meat as well as the lettuce, cheese and tomato??)”
  • “This meal was TERRIBLE! I’m not paying for it!” (Then why did you eat it all?)”

I get it that bad service, bad food, bad language, etc. are not cool when you are spending your hard-earned cash somewhere. But if I don’t have a good experience at a restarant I just don’t come back. That’s my review. It’s like suing someone; unless something is so bad that it warrants letting the public know about it, just don’t engage.

The only bad review I wrote was when my two best friends and I had lunch at a well-known Italian “garden” restaurant. We had ordered a special cheese dip appetizer prior to our lunch. It tasted exactly like melted cheese mixed with a generous dose of Pine-Sol.

We let our waiter know, and asked that he have the chef taste it in case we had lost our minds and taste buds. While it was taken off our bill, no one apologized, no one confessed, and, evidently, no one cared. So I wrote my one and only bad Yelp review in the hope of saving taste buds everywhere.

Reviews, especially restaurant ones, can be very helpful. Just say that you have never been to Maine and have never had a lobster roll. You are making this trip for the very first time, and you really want that real Maine experience, part of which is a fabulous lobster roll.

So you start looking up all the restaurants that serve lobster rolls. If you are also an onion rings fanatic, you’ll want to know if the rings will be as good as the lobster rolls. So before going in blind, check out the Yelp reviews.

As a born Mainer (which gives me the right to call myself a “Maine-ah”), I can tell you right off the bat what constitutes a great lobster roll:

  1. The lobster meat is fresh, as in right out of the trap, yanked off the ocean floor that day.
  2. The lobster roll should be cut in good bite-size chunks, and mixed with enough mayo to hold it together, and maybe a pinch of celery salt (I also put pepper on mine).
  3. The roll itself should be a good hot dog roll, toasted and buttered.
  4. The lobster roll should be presented with a goodly portion of potato chips and a few pickles.
  5. Also, if you want to have a good Maine drink to pair with the lobster roll, get yourself a ***Moxie to go with it.

What does not belong on or with a good lobster roll is melted butter. Period. If you want butter on your lobster, then don’t fool around; just order a boiled lobster and crack it open. Dip the meat in melted butter. (Oh yes, and just so you know: real Mainers don’t wear lobster bibs, only the tourists.)

But by all means, check the reviews. You should be able to separate the good ones from the cranky ones who just want to make a stink.

*Yelp was founded in 2004 to help people find great local businesses like dentists, hair stylists and mechanics. … In addition to reviews, you can use Yelp to find events, lists and to talk with other Yelpers. Every business owner (or manager) can setup a free account to post photos and message their customers. (https://www.yelp.com)

**I have to credit the wonderful Bitchy Waiter for this one. Go check out his website (thebitchywaiter.com) and you will laugh your butt right off. He’s so funny that you may need to pee first.

***Moxie’s flavor is unique, as it is not as sweet as most modern soft drinks and is described by some as bitter. Moxie is flavored with gentian root extract, an extremely bitter substance which was reputed to possess medicinal properties. It originated around 1876 as a patent medicine called “Moxie Nerve Food.” (From Wikipedia)

What I Learned From Being a Waitress

During the summer when I was in high school, I was a waitress in the town’s most popular burger and ice cream restaurant. It was a terrific place to work, and I learned far more there than how to fold napkins, serve food efficiently, politely deal with all sorts of people; most of all, I learned how to be professional. The husband and wife who ran the restaurant trained me well, and I have carried the principles they taught me throughout my working life, such as:

  • Never let anyone see you NOT working.
  • Remember what it is you do to earn your paycheck.
  • Smile and be polite to everyone.
  • Don’t complain. Either fix the issue or live with it.
  • Even if the boss is a jerk, the boss is still the boss.

What I learned specifically about waitressing:

  • Always ask if the customers would like one check or separate checks right at the beginning.
  • Write down EXACTLY what each person wants.
  • Check the table a few minutes after everyone has starting eating. Ask first if everything is satisfactory, then ask if anyone needs anything. If they do, go get it, STAT.
  • When you see people sitting with their hands in their laps or their napkins in their plates, it’s a sign that they are finished eating. If someone, even one person, is still eating, wait until they are finished to come by and ask to clear and/or take a *dessert order.
  • Once the table has been cleared, desserts delivered and eaten, bring the check (or checks), smile and thank them sincerely for coming, that it was a pleasure to serve them,  and that you hope that they will return soon.

Please bear in mind that, no matter how thoughtful, caring and considerate your service is, people are going to tip you well, badly or not at all. This is annoying, but it really is out of your control. Do not gripe (out loud) about it.

Things you should NEVER say to your diners:

  • “But you TOLD me that you wanted your burger well done!” Even if he did and you served him his requisite charred burger, don’t argue. Apologize, then ask politely what he wants and how he wants it and get it out pronto. Trust me, someone in his party will tell him he is being a girnormous knob and tell him he was an absolute tool to the waitress. You might get a big sympathy tip from someone else at his table, too.
  • “No problem.” DO NOT SAY THIS, EVER. It has become the usual response to “thank you.” The correct reply is always “you’re welcome.” Whenever I am told “no problem,” I grit my teeth before I can blurt out “it’s ‘YOU’RE WELCOME,’ YOU TROLL!”
  • “You want peanut butter for your baked potato?!?!” Yup, this actually happened to me. I remember wanting to hit the guy who ordered this in the head and ask where he learned such a barbaric food combo, but, thanks to my training, I smiled at him and said I would be happy to bring him a side of peanut butter for his baked potato. Ours is not to question why.
  • “I gave you good service, and you only left me a 5% tip.” You may have done everything for them including clipping their toenails, but what they choose to tip you is up to them, not you. Sad but true.
  • “Whatever!” PLEASE do not say this to your diners. Just smile and walk away. “Whatever” implies that you really don’t give a hoot about them. You may not, but don’t show it by saying “whatever.”

Back when I was waitressing, the rule for greeting customers was addressing them by their names if you knew them, or if you didn’t, simply “folks.” Back then it was considered rude to address diners as “you guys” or, if the diners were older people, “sweetie,” “sweetheart,” “honey,” “hun,” and so on. To do so was considered disrespectful. But times have changed, so it seems that doesn’t apply anymore.

Personally, I don’t like being called “you guys,” “sweetie,” “sweetheart,” “honey,” but I didn’t mind at all when I lived in the South and was routinely called “darlin’.” Funny, huh? But the “sweetie,” “sweetheart,” “honey” just makes me feel old, and it makes me want to tip a lot less. I don’t, of course–but I want to.

Anyway, I learned that you pretty much get back what you give, although sometimes you get griped at for no good reason you can see. If so, please remember that in that case, it’s completely their issue and not yours–just as long as you were considerate and patient with them. One of the hardest things I had to learn was that you can be as nice as you possibly can be, helpful, fast, efficient–and you still can get screwed on your tip or get barked at for no good reason. Again, try to remember that the diner may be having an awful day. It’s just one of the many things you’ll just have to let go. Don’t let it eat you up. No pun intended.

*The place at which I worked during high school summers had fabulous homemade ice cream and sauces; fudge, butterscotch, marshmallow, penuche, and, for some odd reason; pineapple mint. This was an ungodly combination of mashed pineapple and mint flavoring. It was always on the counter and looked like pineapple in mold sauce, and tasted like pineapple-flavored toothpaste. The one and only time I went “off the reservation” as a waitress was when a diner asked pineapple mint over vanilla ice cream. I said without thinking twice, “Please don’t order that; it’s terrible. I recommend the fudge sauce.”

 

Customer Service — R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Customer service is tough job and is often thankless. I worked as a customer service telephone rep for a few years and it was, well—eye-opening. Frustrated people frequently take out their frustrations on the customer service rep because after all, that’s what they are there for, right?

But as the main goal of customer service is to serve the customer and take care of their complaint or issue, you end up ignoring a lot of insults; it’s just part of the job. You learn quickly not to take it seriously. One of the best bits of advice I got was from an older woman with whom I worked who said, “when someone yells at you and calls you names, just replace your name with the company name in your mind and it won’t feel so personal.”

Example: “YOU <insert company name here> are useless, stupid, lazy, and obviously not smart enough to hold down a REAL job, you <insert company name here>!”

Great advice, and it works. Granted, there are some terrible customer service people out there, but there are a whole lot of excellent ones, too. Things generally work best if, when presented with a problem, both parties get satisfaction by being at the very least civil to each other. Otherwise, things can spiral out of control, and that’s when tempers flare and nothing gets resolved.

That said, an awful lot of people feel that customer service folk are stupid, have less than stellar educations, and are generally a lower species who thrives on abuse. They feel perfectly justified to yell and scream and berate the person on the phone who trying to help them.

Another job that invites abuse and ridicule is waiting on tables. I paid my last two years of college by waitressing at a local restaurant, located conveniently near my dormitory. This is another job tailor-made to put you on the business end of some pretty ugly behavior. When you are a waitress, here are some of the assumptions many people have about you:

  • You are too stupid to have a better job
  • You have no problem cleaning up the ketchup and mustard some kids squirted all over  the floor
  • You are somehow less a person because of your job
  • You don’t mind it when men get handsy with you
  • You don’t mind if customers’ kids run wild and often cause you to drop full trays of food
  • You love taking orders, even the ridiculous ones (“WAITRESS! My water has too many ice cubes in it!!”)
  • You don’t mind picking up a dirty diaper left smack in the middle of a table
  • You will not have the nerve to mess with customers’ food if the customers are rude to you

Now before we go down the dangerous path of messing with peoples’ food because of their behavior, let me say this: I never saw this happen while I worked at the restaurant near my college, nor did I ever attempt to sabotage any customer’s food. Was I ever tempted? You bet I was–but I didn’t. I truly believe that karma can be a bitch who never forgets. (That said, I also think that is insane for someone to be pissy with those who have anything to do with their food. Why tempt fate?) By all means, if something is wrong, bring it to the manager’s attention. And FYI—blaming the waitress for anything that has nothing to do with her bringing you your food is counter-productive and won’t help the situation one iota.

Now on to the forbidden subject: tipping. A tip means that you have had a nice experience at the restaurant, and that your server treated you respectfully, got your food out on time and took good care of you. Problems in the kitchen, the parking lot, the freezer, the bar, the restroom and other customers’ behavior is NOT your server’s fault. If you can’t afford to tip your server, then don’t go out to dinner and splurge, or just go to a fast-food restaurant.

When I was waitressing, a 15% tip was considered the norm for good service; more than that was a bonus. These days a tip is more likely to be 20%, depending on how you felt about the service. The following (all of which I received while waitressing) are NOT considered tips:

  • candy
  • a written compliment on the bill (but no tip)
  • a free ticket to the local <insert boring function here>
  • the ripped-off corner of a $20 bill tucked on the side of a plate (har, har, har–HILARIOUS! Not…)
  • a religious tract
  • a pile of pennies
  • an invitation to have drinks somewhere

Let’s face it, most of us have had our turn in the barrel doing low-paying or menial jobs; it’s part of our work history. Often some retirees return to the workplace for part-time jobs, such as greeters, baggers in grocery stores, telephone reps, or jobs in maintenance. It’s something that gets them out of the house and seeing people and brings in a bit of cash. These types of jobs may not be crucial or lifesaving, but they are necessary.

There’s an old saying in the theater: the most important person in the theater is the one who opens and closes the curtain. Let’s try to show a little respect for all those curtain pullers.