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Communication tips for servers in sticky situations – Carmel Murphy

Posted by Emily Tatti on Jun 29, 2016 9:00:00 AM

Carmel Murphy is the director of the Communication Queen, a company in Australia that teaches hospitality leaders how to communicate more effectively. Her specialities are team building, emotional intelligence, customer service and mindset (among other things), so we thought she would be the perfect person to talk to about communication in the restaurant.

In this interview, Carmel talks about some of the sticky situations you can face as a restaurant server, and how to deal with them. 


Hey Carmel! Tell us about yourself. What do you do at the Communication Queen?

I started Communication Queen because I was getting excessively frustrated about the lack of communication in the hospitality industry. My strength is helping people communicate effectively. Oftentimes someone gets a promotion and isn’t given the resources they need to become a proper manager or leader.

Those in charge just promote their best waitress and think ‘oh she must be good as a manager’.

I’ve worked my way up from being a waitress to management and recruitment. I also work full-time as a Regional Manager at a restaurant chain and I kind of marry that up with what I do at the Communication Queen.

What can servers can do to improve communication with their peers, specifically those in front of house vs. back of house?

Number one is: don’t take things personally. Number two is: try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Being in front of house we often don’t see the pressure someone in the back of house is under, and vice versa.

"When times get hard, I notice that people stop developing their people. But servers will move on if they stop feeling valued."

Something I would often do is bring one of the back of house guys out and go: 'you go to the table and tell those people why that steak isn’t cooked properly'. They’ll go: 'I don’t want to'. Well, that’s what your front of house person has to do. So don’t be the person who gives them grief when they come to the pass because they have just had that from the guest.

Also, if there is an issue, leave it until the end of the shift and then bring it up with either the manager or that person.

What tips do you have for service staff about picking up on body language?

I'm all about scanning tables. Take a moment and step back and go: where am I at? If you scan your guests, you can figure out their needs. For example, if there’s a group of young women, they’re probably going to have a giggle and a laugh and some cocktails. If there’s a young couple holding hands across the table, they’re not going to want to be bothered too much at all. Get in, take the order, get out and just check on them now and again to make sure they’re all right.

If it’s a group of blokes, you’ll want to keep the drinks coming. They’re more likely to want big juicy steaks, so be ready with your recommendations. If there’s a family with little kids, they'll want to be in and out really quickly. In a lot of restaurants, we make sure the kids’ meals come out first, so educate your back of house. Because when the kids are happy, the parents are happy. 

How do you think a server should deal with a difficult or angry customer?

Always have open body language. Let them rant for a minute or two and then say: 'so how can I fix this for you?' Because the guest will tell you. Quite often it will be something like 'oh just shout me a drink or give me 10 percent off my meal', or whatever that is for that guest.

Sometimes you're just the person at the end of a long line of stuff that has gone wrong for them on that day. So again, don’t take it personally.  

What should a server do if they make a mistake communicating with a guest?

There are usually two scenarios that can happen. One: you stuff up and realize it straight away. Or two: you’ve put the order in wrong and don’t realize it until the chef tells you ‘we haven’t got this, we told you at the beginning of the shift.’ In case of the first scenario, you go up to the guest and say ‘hey guys, I apologize profusely, I have just put your order in incorrectly but I’m going to fix this for you straight away.’ Most people will appreciate this.

"You shouldn't be scared to tell your manager when you've made a mistake. They should be empowering you to say when you need help."

If the other situation happens, I would go to the manager and tell them honestly: 'I have stuffed up. However, it’s been 15 minutes since I took the guest's order and I’m not sure if they’re going to be aggressive about it.' You shouldn't be scared to tell your manager about it. They should be empowering you to say when you need help.

As a manager in this situation, I will be honest with you, I have often lied. For example, if a server has put in an order of five dishes for a table of six people, I have on occasion gone to the table and said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry, they were sending out that meal and someone dropped it and they are making a fresh one for you’ or ‘it was not to our standard and I wasn’t going to serve that to you, so I’m having them make a new one’. It’s a little sales lie that just makes people think ‘oh, their standards are so high.’

Do you have any closing advice? 

I think it's really important for managers and leaders to keep developing themselves and to keep developing their staff. When times get hard, I notice that people stop developing their people. But servers will move on if they stop feeling valued. 


Topics: Tips for front of house, Customer service