Friday, February 12, 2010

TQNEWS: APOLOGY BELATED

TQNEWS: APOLOGY BELATED

My friend Terry posted this on his blog, TQNEWS. It's a letter that was left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  I found it powerfully moving and beautifully human. As Terry says, "read it and weep." We both did.

Monday, February 8, 2010

My Place Is Your Place, Or What The Heck Does Being A Great Waitress Have To Do With Properly Serving An Online Community?

If you regularly read my blog, you've gathered that I'm a single mother and have been for a long, long time. Yes, it's the Carla Furca Show 24/7 and the only one who saves the day is me. Occasionally I run into, let's say, a shortage of capital. I often take in freelance writing projects or pick up a short term makeup artist stint, but these gigs are often slow-paying. When I'm short of funds and I need cash in a hurry, I turn to my old standby, waitressing.

The last time I had to take a waitressing job I was 35. My first night on the job held an interesting learning experience for me--actually, the entire assignment was very informative. For the first time in my life, all of my peers were a lot younger than I was. The entire waitressing staff was in their early 20's and I felt like an old lady. The venue was a swanky sports bar where people like Ozzie Guillen and Gale Sayers frequently imbibed. I was worried that the clientele would prefer the younger girls and would be disappointed when a 30-something woman showed up at their table instead. I was sure that I would make a lot less in tips than my much younger counterparts...I decided to suck it up and do my job and stop dwelling on my insecurities.

To my surprise, it soon became evident that I was making more, a lot more, than anyone else on the floor. Consistently. My total ring for any given night was 3 times anyone else's total and my tips were 5 times everyone else's, so not only was I selling more food than my coworkers, I was getting tipped at a much higher percentage rate than they were too.  What's more, the manager started sending me to tables that had been taken away from a fellow waitress after she had thoroughly upset the customer--I was damage control. Often times the managers would send a poorly performing waitress home for the night and give her entire section to me.

At the end of each night, when we counted out tips, the other waitresses would complain that I was making more because I was getting all the good tables. Impossible.  Sections had consistent boundaries and were assigned on a rotating basis. Diners were seated on a rotating basis as well, so that each section had roughly the same amount of seated tables at all times.  I was clearly working harder and smarter than the other waitresses.

I started thinking about what I was doing differently and I came up with an interesting list.  If you want to be an outstanding server, here's what you have to do:

1. Know your product. Memorize the menu. Know which sides go with which entrees. Know what each item costs. Is there a wine list? Learn at least the basics about each wine (pairings, regions of origin, flavor notes, etc.). Come in a few minutes early and have a quick chat with the chef. Are you out of any food items? What are the specials? How are they prepared? Be sure to ask what's in the specials too.

2. Know your customers. Whether you have table full of regulars or out-of-towners, get to know each table. You can do this by asking the people at each of your tables appropriate questions and answering their questions about you--in other words, engage with them. How are they feeling? What are they up to? Where are they coming from? Where are they going afterward? Ask a big group of people how they all know each other. Generate conversation. Answer any questions they ask about you in a professional, and congenial manner. Don't tell them about the boyfriend that you just broke up with, but do tell them about the painting class you just signed up for.

3. Using your product knowledge and your familiarity with your customers, sell the product--after all, one of the chief reasons people come to a restaurant is to buy food.  When a customer can't make up his mind about which dish to order, offer a suggestion. Someone at your table is likely to have a lot of questions about the items he is considering--maybe he is dieting, maybe he has food restrictions or food allergies. Your thoughtful answers will impress him and put him at ease about his final decision. 

4. Communicate effectively with all of your fellow staff members.  As a server, you are the hub for all manner of communication in your restaurant. Has a guest made a special request? Type it into the order entry system and then walk back into the kitchen to make sure that the cooks understood the request. Is there a table that needs to be cleared of empty plates? Find a bus person and alert them to the situation. Are there any promotions going on? Get detailed information from your floor manager and communicate this information to every table. Has someone asked about booking a party? Find a manager and let them know immediately.

5. Provide excellent customer service by anticipating and fulfilling your customers' needs and  responding quickly and effectively to the requests that you didn't anticipate. About two minutes after you bring an order to a table--stop back and make sure the food is satisfactory to your customers and no one needs anything so that everyone can start eating together as soon as their food arrives. As you move about the restaurant, do a quick scan--if you see that someone's soda glass is almost empty, swing by and refill it. If someone has almost finished an alcoholic beverage, ask them if they would like another. Do you notice anyone trying to get your attention? Stop by and see what you can do for them.  Don't make your guests ask for the check. Look at the plates on the table--are they nearly clean? Have guests placed their napkins on their plates? Have all the people at a table stopped eating? It's time to drop off the check.

Here's the bottom line: People aren't coming to a particular restaurant just to eat--they can eat at home, or at any other restaurant. They come to a certain restaurant because they identify with something about that venue and they want to enjoy a specific dining experience.  Ultimately it is the server's job to ensure that this happens. I happen to really enjoy connecting with people and making them happy, so the five points above came naturally to me and I truly enjoyed engaging both with my customers and with my fellow staff members and providing an excellent dining experience for my guests.

Now what on earth does this have to do with fostering a happy, healthy online community? Let's go point by point.

1. Know your product. You must know enough about each line you represent in your online community to have a conversation about it and to quickly respond to questions about or issues concerning items within it. Be able to name each business unit and detail the types of products represented in each one.  Aside from the products within each line, what are the unique features of each?

2. Know your customers.  Sure, you should review the available statistical data on who, in general, is patronizing your company. But you should also be getting to know your customers as individual people. Listen to (or read, in this case) what people are saying.  Who's planning a graduation party for their oldest child? Who's resolved to get healthy by becoming more active this year? Who is The Barbecue Master? Of course, this information is useful in selling specific products to your customers, but it's even more useful in developing a rapport with your customers. Share gift ideas with the proud parent; the latest news in exercise science with the fitness enthusiast; recipes with The Barbecue Master.  Cultivate relationships with your online community members by learning about them and sharing with them.

3. Let your product knowledge and your rapport with your customers inform the way you provide service and promote events and products within your community. Someone who is making a large purchase (for instance, a treadmill or a riding mower) will have lots of questions. If you can answer them, or quickly put the customer in contact with a person who can, you take the uncertainty and fear out of the buying experience and put the customer at ease.

4. Communicate effectively with the departments you represent. Are many community members complaining about a certain process? Are they looking for a product your company currently doesn't carry? It's your job to quickly and effectively communicate this information to someone within your company who can rectify these issues.

5. Provide excellent customer service. As soon as you see that someone is unhappy with a product or process, apologize and ask what you can do to make the person happy. Do everything within your power to honor every reasonable request. If you see that someone has offered positive feedback, thank them and see if you can find out more about what made them so happy.  Pass this information on too.

Here's the bottom line (again): People patronize a business because they identify with that business in some way and they expect to enjoy a specific experience when they interact with that business. If you want to cultivate a happy, healthy online community, you are responsible for finding out what those expectations are, communicating those expectations to the appropriate members of your business team and making sure your community feels that your company is meeting and exceeding those expectations.

Again, I really enjoy building relationships with people and making people feel at home and I'm quite good at it.  I hope to employ these traits and abilities in a professional capacity--full time--very soon.  Until then, I'll be working on freelance social media and online content projects until 2 AM on weeknights and all weekend long. Like I said, I'm hoping to do this very soon. I'd love to know what 6 hours of sleep--in a row--feels like.