What makes a great server?

by Zac Bond, Content Manager for Waitrainer

Truly excellent service has a je ne sais quoi about it— that seemingly unknowable quality that sets it apart— it's hard to pin down but you know it when you see it. Great service flows with grace that appears effortless and seems to perfectly anticipate the guest's needs.

This sort of service is rare, and it doesn't always show up where you expect. You'd think the service at a $180 prix fixe, 6-course-meal-type establishment would be impeccable, but this isn't always the case. Likewise, you can be surprised by the quality of the staff at much less fancy restaurants.

When you've worked in the hospitality industry, it inevitably colors the experience you have dining out— you can't ever go into a restaurant or bar again with the same expectations as before. Experience gives you a critical eye, and this will make you either more or less forgiving, depending on your temperament. If you're like me, you also tend to think a lot about why the service in an establishment is the way it is.

My wife and I went to a restaurant last week, a mid-priced Thai place we hadn't been to before, and were given fabulous service. Some of the wait staff looked like they had a few years of experience under their belt but most were just college kids. Our food consistently arrived on time, we felt attended to but not hovered over, the manner of the wait staff was warm and inviting without feeling cloying or forced. We were given authentic service and treated with professional regard. Everything just felt right.

I've been to much fancier places, where it was clear the wait staff had years of experience— you could tell by the way they carried themselves they were all veterans— and been given lousy service. It wasn't a lack of experience that was the problem. There simply wasn't a desire to create a great experience.

More recently, we went to another restaurant where the waiter was obviously a fresh hire, a kid just starting out. He made a lot of basic mistakes. He checked in on us at the wrong time, came back too frequently to fill our water glasses— things all nervous kids do. I understood. I was there once, when I started waiting tables at 15. But— the kid's earnestness was authentic. He had a good handle on the menu and his answers were candid when we asked about the different dishes. I could tell he wanted to do the best for us. He actually cared whether or not we liked our food. Training and experience will iron out any employee's awkwardness and issues with timing, but it takes the right internal culture to identify and nurture the desire to really care about the guest.

So what's more important in your front of house staff— experience, or a real desire to give great service? With the right training, the first part of that equation comes naturally over time, but the second part is a bit more ephemeral. Attitude can be encouraged, but never forced or coerced.

We have a few ideas on how to get the most out of communicating with your staff. Click here to learn more.

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  • My peers who have commented are on the right track.

    John Drew speaks of the, "Hospitality Heart", in his interview with Nations Restaurant News" (6/11/2001). From the article, "The hospitality heart is a characteristic of a person who
    intuitively has a genuine desire to please, without the expectation of reward," Dew says."

    Both Reed and Michele are also correct that it is a business and the financial factor has a clear role of influence... as it does with the owner-operators. However, when the dollar becomes the primary focus we lose sight of what really elevates the consumers value placed on gratuities. it's how the individual service provider (waiter, bartender, host, cocktailer, busser, etc) makes them FEEL.

    The famous poet, Maya Angelou, said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." So it is with our tableside engagement with our guests.

    Gratuities are regularly and often disputed as to what is "appropriate". But my experience has taught me this life lesson: Copper wired was invented by customers and waiters fighting over a penny tip!"

    The mission statement for WaitersWorld captures this: Make It Fun... Make It Easy... Make Some Money... in that order!"

    We sell a "good time" and it's all about feelings. As such, great service technicians aren't enough... we have to engage and connect with our guests emotionally to make the experience extraordinary... for us and our guests!

    Look forward to engaging the folks from Waitrainer face to face... ws we are both located in the Portland, OR market.  :-)

    Happy New Year!

    Paul ~ WaitersWorld

  • I have to admit as a server that I do "profile" guests and have different expectations of what their gratuity will be according to years of experience. Any server that says they don't do this I think is being dishonest. What I don't do is adjust the level of service that I give accordingly. Giving the best service that I possible can is about me and my own personal integrity, not the guest and certainly not their gratuity. I know this is counter-intuitive to many servers who are incapable of separating what they do from how much money they make, but I would challenge them to try to do just that. I think they will find if they do the work for the sake of the work the money will follow. 

  • I found this blog pretty interesting.  As a server, I can relate in having a critical eye whenever I have the night off, and decide to dine out.  However, sometimes bad service can come simply because of the diner's age.  I feel as though sometimes younger servers don't give younger couples or groups better attention because the server assumes a younger group won't tip well.  This has happened to me a few times while I've been out with friends.  It's discouraging because I hate that someone would automatically assume that, and also know, as a server, you should give every guest quality service, regardless of age.  I have also spent enough time in the industry to know that even some people I work with act this way.  It really is a shame because while I pride my work on giving good service, I also like to receive good service when I'm out!

  • I agree completely. The price paid has very little to do with the level of service encountered. I've said it many times and many ways on my own blog. Essentially what makes for great service is the ability to see a situation from the viewpoint of guests and co-workers.

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