Kate Edwards has an incredibly thorough knowledge of the service industry. After working in some of New York's most celebrated restaurants, she has learnt how to build an excellent service program.
She puts this knowledge to good use in her hospitality consulting business, and as an instructor at the Institute for Culinary Education. She also wrote a book on good service called Hello! And Every Little Thing That Matters.
With all that in mind, we were eager to hear her service insights. Kate spoke to us about what restaurants can do to improve the guest experience.
Can you tell me about your hospitality consulting business?
I offer executive coaching to help entrepreneurs and their teams either build or revitalize their service programs.
If they need to build a service program, we walk through the steps of service that they hope to cover during the guest experience. And then we incorporate that into a manual or a program for everyone who is involved in guest contact.
If it’s a revitalization, it’s similar, except I spend time in their venue to see what they’re already doing, get feedback from the team and really discover what they need to learn or unlearn to improve their service.
What do you think restaurants commonly overlook in their service training?
Restaurants are so food-focused, which is very important, but they also need to be people-focused. Do servers greet you when you walk in? Or do they just ask you how many people are in your party before taking you off to your table? When they only ask one question, it can be a little abrupt. I think it’s worth reminding people that they should warm up the service instead of being so task-oriented.
"I’m a big fan of slowing down by the table and making eye contact. It just says ‘I’m here should you need something,’ but it’s not an overt gesture."
Another thing that restaurants overlook is their timing. Customers know that once they get greeted, they will be seated, and then they will get their menus, and then someone will come and talk to them about drinks. When any of those things falls out of time, it creates doubt and uncertainty.
So you want to make sure the timing of those things is really thoughtful. Because once we build consistency for our guests they will trust us, and then when they trust us, they will believe in us and want to spend more money.
What should good wait staff look for when they are reading a table during service?
It’s all those little clues. They should consider what someone’s comfort level is. Do they immediately take off their coat and flop down on their chair, which says ‘I’m here and I’m ready’? Or are they a little more cautious, which says they’re not as comfortable. I think assessing comfort is a big component.
It’s also important to assess their confidence level. Are they someone who dines out often, who can scan the wine list and find what they want, or are they someone who needs a little more help? Maybe they’re just reserved, or maybe they’re hungry and that’s why they’re quiet. You have to figure out if they need more information or if more information would make them feel talked down to.
Do you have any tips to help servers have conversations with guests?
It’s so funny. I read an article in a magazine that was mostly geared towards casual dining restaurants, and they gave their top three tips on this. And when I read it I was like, 'oh gosh, please don’t do those things!' One tip was to kneel on the floor, so you can get at eye-level. Please don’t kneel on the floor and put your arm on the table! Those are things that I don’t recommend [laughs].
Just try to connect honestly without giving too much information. I’m a big fan of slowing down by the table and making eye contact. It just says ‘I’m here should you need something,’ but it’s not an overt gesture. Because some people do not need that much attention, they just want to know that you’re there.
What can servers do to make things move more smoothly with their teammates?
Communication is absolutely key. When I was a waiter back in the day, I worked at a really busy restaurant called Balthazar, and when you worked with your busboy, you had hand signals. So if he was across the room you could let him know you needed a bottle of sparkling water for table 28.
It was a really great thing. Even when I’m working with restaurants now and helping them build a system, I like to encourage the team to make-up an internal language because it’s cool and fun and it creates a shorthand way of communicating without offending patrons.
Do you have any advice for dealing with angry guests?
Well, that’s a hard one. Sometimes people are just the way they are, and there isn’t much you can do. I always advise people to stay professional. Try not to get unraveled or confrontational. When you have confrontational guests, they are going to look for you to either muscle up to them or to turn into a pancake and flop down. I always train people on the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. We never want to get aggressive, but assertive is okay.
When you train someone to be assertive, they also need to know that they have backup. You need to figure out what the internal language is going to be in that situation, so the server doesn’t feel like they are alone in a situation with an upset customer. A tricky customer should be everybody's concern.
What should servers do when a guest has noisy children?
Having lots of crayons on hand is a great idea. I have known restaurateurs who buy little coloring books and Xerox a few pages. Then they have a pile that’s more girl-centric and a pile that’s more boy-centric, and that keeps kids occupied.
There are other little things you can do, like asking if you can get them some juice, and not charging their parents for it. Or finding something small that might occupy them, like a couple of spoons or a couple of straws.
"Once we build consistency for our guests they will trust us, and then when they trust us, they will believe in us."
It depends on how much time you have and what type of server you are. I had some luck back in the day – if I had lots of time, I would ask kids if they wanted to go on little adventure trips to the kitchen or the stairs. Feel out a table to see if that’s cool, and figure out whether or not that’s going to be okay with your manager.
You wrote a book called Hello! And Every Little Thing That Matters – a sort of a service manual for the industry. How can that help restaurants?
It’s really a service manual for anyone who is in a customer-facing business. I actually started out thinking it was going to be a restaurant book, but we ended up opening it up to any industry that has customers because the lessons are so easily digested.
Service is everything, because service is the experience of the guest. They experience the entire environment. They experience all of the actions and words of the people who are working in that environment. They will make assessments and judgments about it before they even get there; online, on the phone, even driving up to the parking lot.
And unfortunately, they are not going to say, 'Oh gosh, the owners really dropped the ball when they left the trash overflowing in the parking lot.' No, they are going to say, 'Oh! The service here is bad. No one knows what they’re doing.'
The experience that your guests have from the moment they connect with your business will affect their memory of you. You don’t want to give them any reason to remember you negatively. And you have the control to do that. That’s really what the book is about. Here are all of the ways you can control a guest’s impression of you as you build the guest experience.