This morning I woke up a little more groggy than normal. As I was making my morning spin around the internets, I ran across a post from our friend the only slightly cranky waitress about rapport. It seems her company has taken this up as a replacement for “hospitality” as their new Beetlejuice word. I refer to these terms as Beetlejuice words because somewhere in a corporate office someone is convinced that if they say the word enough it will magically appear. I have personally tried this approach with “gold”, “diamonds”, and “Alyssa Milano.” All of these efforts were to no avail. I would go so far to say that I am infinitely more likely to have Alyssa Milano appear by repeating her name than rapport to magically appear at their restaurants.
I fully agree that rapport is the most important factor in hospitality. The first note I got from all three first round editors on my book was, “you have to come up with another way to say rapport.” I felt it is so important that I apparently repeated it ad nauseum. It plays a vital part of the actual hospitality formula (oh yes, there is one) and I do not think its value can be overstated. What can be overstated is the word alone without a clear understanding of what you must do to build and maintain it.
Rapport is the feeling that comes when you reach an “I’m okay, you’re okay” moment. It is human nature to categorize people as “like you” or “not like you.” Rapport is established by creating a common ground with your guests that enables them to put you in the “like me” category. Thus in the battle of “us” versus “them” you are one of the good guys (or gals). This puts them at ease knowing that you are on their side and working towards providing them with the dining experience they seek.
All of this is purely definition. It does not move you closer to actually establishing rapport. To develop rapport you must first take an inventory of yourself. When some guests see you the first thing they will notice is the differences between you. It could be your age, demeanor, attire, attractiveness, or anything else that makes them feel you are not like them. These guests intentionally put up barriers that prevent you from building rapport. You must determine the root of their hostility and subtly address it to remove the barrier.
Here are some examples of how to address common situations:
Barrier: The guest feels underdressed or out of place in a fancy restaurant.
Solution: Compliment some part of their outfit and state that you are lucky that someone tells you what to wear at work because you can’t pick out an outfit that stylish to save your life.
Barrier: The guest feels intimidated by the menu.
Solution: Explain that you spotted words from four different languages on the menu the first time you read it, but you have tried everything on it and would be happy to give them an honest opinion.
Barrier: The guest seems to doubt your competence.
Solution: Let them know that the same people who wait on you when you go out must have waited on too. Assure them that you hold yourself to a higher standard and want to give them the dining experience they want.
Barrier: The guest is simply in a bad mood.
Solution: Tell them that a good meal and a nice drink will help most every problem except for being overweight, which is something they obviously do not have to worry about.
Yes, I have done everyone of these things. You cannot build rapport by being generic. Remember the third rule of serving: generic servers receive generic tips. If you want to build rapport you must be willing to stick your neck out. You cannot retreat from customers who are putting up barriers. You must address these barriers to move onto building rapport.
The good news is that most guests go out to dinner in a good mood and do not throw up barriers for you. Most of them want to have a great experience and are willing to let you be a part of this. Look for opportunities to find common ground. Once you know where to look for them, they are pretty easy to spot. If a guest is wearing clothing with a logo on it, they are broadcasting that they are a fan of whatever the logo represents. This is an open invitation to build common ground. Guests who are on their way home from a kids sporting event, love to talk about it. Parents love to brag about their children. Women love to have their jewelry complimented, especially in front of their friends or the person who bought it for them. The invitations are there for you to build rapport; you must simply take advantage of them.
Building rapport is not about being fake or insincere. That is the opposite of rapport. Rapport is about treating the guests at your table as you would if they came to your office. Of course the most important part of the experience is the meal, but a bit of small talk makes the meal more enjoyable. Doctors call it bedside manner. Tableside manner sounds a bit awkward so we call it rapport. Building it with your guests will turn around the experience unhappy diners and lead to a little more on the tip line.
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