My friend Marcy has the innate ability to intimidate people. She is a beautiful 5’8” blonde attending law school. She is aware of having this effect on people, but neither of us truly understands why. While other people see the surface, I have seen her trip over her own feet and know that she occasionally enjoys cold marinara as a salad dressing. This makes her far less intimidating to me. Where others are intimidated by her appearance, I know that there is a health portion of inner dork beneath the surface.
As a server, you must be aware of your intimidation factor. There are most likely traits that you have which will intimidate your guests and create hostility. While you cannot change these, you need to be able to counterbalance them by relating to your guests in a way that overcomes them. Remember the third rule of serving: generic servers receive generic tips. The key to winning over a hostile guest is to not be a generic server by showing that you are professional, human, and similar to them.
Integrating these characteristics into a serving routine is not as difficult as it appears. Over the course of a meal there is time to convey all of these traits to them. They are not contradictory, but rather compliment each other nicely by creating an image of you as a well-rounded person. To win over hostile guests you must be more than a one-dimensional person reciting the same lines you do with every table. You must exceed the guest’s preconceived notions of you and become someone more relatable. Tripping over your own feet is optional.
Here are the steps to integrating the factors discussed in the first two parts of this series to win over hostile guests.
A Warm Greeting: I know that you do not get to choose when your tables arrive. They may sit down at the same time as three others or in the middle of another table making a dozen requests. No matter what the situation, you must greet them with warmth and a smile. This is your first impression on your guests. If you think you do not have time to greet them warmly, then you definitely do not have time to overcome a poor first impression. Let the table know that they are important by giving them your undivided attention and greeting them sincerely. Acknowledge any special occasions they may be celebrating. Ask them how they are and reply to their answer. This shows that you are legitimately concerned about how they are that evening. Offer them a beverage or allow them time to consider. This first impression will stop most hostile guests before they have the chance to become an issue.
A Knowledgeable Presentation: Offer your guests suggestions from the menu or present the specials in a way that shows you are knowledgeable and take your job seriously. Give them the opportunity to ask questions and provide insightful answers. When taking the order, maintain eye contact as much as possible even if you must write down the order. Maintain good posture at this point. Do not rush them. If they need more time, offer to return. Compliment entrees you think the guest will enjoy. These are all factors designed to differentiate you from the generic server they have a negative reaction to. Providing this positive impression will show that you are a professional and they do not need to worry about the meal. Conveying that you are both concerned and capable will let them relax knowing that you want their meal to go well.
Relate To The Table: Once you have shown you are legitimately interested in serving them a great meal and are a professional capable of providing it, the hostile guests should be letting their guard down. This is the time to show that you are actually interested in them and their experience. Look for any clues that indicate a common ground. If they are wearing a sporting teams logo, take time to ask about it. Guests who are dressed up, but not celebrating, are generally heading to or coming from another event. Ask about their evening’s plans. This does not mean sitting down at the table to have a conversation. This is polite small talk that allows you to relate to them. If they have bought tickets for an event or attire with a logo, they are telling you something they enjoy. People love talking about the things they enjoy. Relating to a guest is really just a matter of showing that you are interested in the things they are and therefore are similar. This is as far from generic as you can be. The key to this step is that it can happen at any point in the meal. You can time it to occur when you have time to give them your full attention.
Use The Food: The server/guest relationship is inherently unequal. You work while they rest in hopes that they will give you money. You work for them. You do have a secret advantage though in finding a way to relate to them. All guests have one thing in common: they are hungry. When their food arrives they are achieving the goal that they desired enough to drive to your restaurant and wait for. When the food arrives and they are enjoying it you should take advantage of the positive feelings they are having towards the food. If they took one of your recommendations, tell them you are glad they liked it. For guests that are enjoying food you did recommend, comment on how you enjoy how the chef makes certain flavors compliment each other. They are eating a meal you are familiar with. That is your common ground when all else fails.
The key to all of this is sincerity. These are not evil tricks used to manipulate your guests. These are the same ways you would relate to a friend you would have over for dinner. We refer to people who eat at our restaurants as guests, rather than customers, for a reason. We want them to feel as if they are our invited guests. Too many servers forget this fact. The real key to making a hostile guest love you is treating them as you would treat someone you are trying to impress.
Any advice given in this series that would also apply to making a good impression on a boss, future in laws, or a blind date. If you were looking for a manipulative trick, I hate to disappoint you. I also think that you might want to look into why you want to manipulate your guests rather than giving them sincere hospitality. When you treat a guest the way they want to be treated, they will respond positively. If you care about the hostile guest’s experience, they will react positively. If you do not care enough to extend sincere hospitality, can you really blame them for their hostility.
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Selling Away and Selling Up (Tips Squared)
Remembering Labor on Labor Day (Tips Squared)
Awkward Moments (Restaurant Laughs)
Understanding Restaurants: The Guest Perspective (The Manager’s Office)
Cherry Limeade Recipe (Foodie Knowledge)