Service of Welcome

March 8th, 2010

Categories: Accommodation, Attitude, Blame, Customer Service, Excuses, Quality Control, Responsiveness, Restaurant, Staffing, Training

 

We enjoyed an enchanting evening to celebrate a family birthday at a NYC restaurant located in a quiet enclave, Tudor City, near the UN. Food, ambiance and service were appropriately delicious, festive and charming, but our welcome wasn’t. 

In fact, the welcome was so out of sync with the rest of the otherwise perfect evening that the first thing I did on arriving at the office the next morning was to write the chef and his partner to tell them what happened. How would they know otherwise? And had the weather not been so bad, had we not been in an isolated part of the city and had this not been a happily anticipated birthday party a deux, we might very well have walked out and missed the rest of the evening.

After much Googling and web site scouring I could find no email address of either man, so I mailed a letter to the partners.

As Snoopy would start this chapter of the story, “It was a dark and stormy night.” And boy was it. Once inside, our eyes adjusted to light in the even dimmer entrance and dead silence ensued. We stood feeling awkward with our dripping umbrellas, coats and hat and had no idea what to do with it all or with ourselves. You get the picture. There was plenty of staff. Three people stood  like statues looking at us from down a hall, hanging out around the reception stand. I included both the great and the bad in my letter

I received an immediate response from the restaurant’s service director, Carolyn DeFir. Her letter was gracious and apologetic. She understood the importance of this detail which, for whatever reasons, the trilogy of greeters didn’t.

Maybe they or their parents never entertain at home. Why do I think this? Would anyone leave guests at the front door and not greet them, take their coats, relieve them of their soaked umbrellas, make them comfortable so that they wouldn’t ruin furniture or carpeting by having to toss these things somewhere?

Ms. DeFir wrote, in part: “I agree with you whole-heartedly that the first impression is a strong one and I am sincerely embarrassed and saddened that you had such a negative start to your evening with us. I do not want to make excuses but I will apologize and I think that perhaps you caught us at an off moment in ‘our game.'”  She also enclosed an extremely generous gift certificate to encourage us to return–or to give to a colleague–and asked that we let her know when we planned to come so that she could “take excellent care of you myself.”

Oh, the name of the restaurant? Convivio.

In a subsequent email correspondence responding to my query asking her if she wanted me to mention the name of the restaurant in my post, Ms. DeFir said she didn’t mind and continued, “I think the bigger lesson I wish people knew and understood is that there are 200 plus people eating in our restaurant a night. While myself and my management team strives to know how each person feels, we clearly cannot get to every single person.  I wish more people would speak up both positively and negatively while at the restaurant.  It gives me a chance to fix things or say thank you to guests while they are still in my care.  I would love to look someone in the eyes and apologize if needed or thank them for their praise.”

I understand her reasoning and her point, and I know plenty of people who wouldn’t mind speaking up about something negative, but unless I could figure out how to do it discretely, off in a corner, I’m not one of them. We always rave about the food, its presentation or compliment the service, if appropriate. But making a fuss, whining or complaining breaks the joyful mood not only for us, but for other guests around us.

When I explained my point of view to Ms. DeFir, she wrote, “I’m so glad you had the opportunity to bring this to my attention! I had sincerely never thought of it that way before.”

I recently wrote about the Service of Excuses where nobody is at fault or takes responsibility for what they have done or what has happened. Not Ms. DeFir. Her attitude and approach will insure our return.

Back to the unwelcoming welcome committee: There are so many critical jobs, such as the first person a guest sees at any restaurant, that some think are below them or are inconsequential when, in fact, the performance of these key people is as important as the chef’s or the cook’s.

Can you think of some other examples? How would you motivate people in unsung jobs or is understanding the importance of what they do instinctive, not taught?

10 Responses to “Service of Welcome”

  1. Diane Baranello Said:

    Jeanne, your post on the Service of Welcome immediately resonated with me. We’ve all had similar experiences of not feeling welcomed … by a greeter at a restaurant, a receptionist at a doctor’s office, a teller at the Bank, or at a public or private event. The feeling of being dismissed or worse … overlooked … or made to feel unimportant … is disrespectful on so many levels.

    I speak to groups and coach individuals about the importance of building relationships that have distinction … which leads to business, connections, friendships, jobs and being invited by others to share in their social networks. Being the first to reach out and make someone else feel comfortable, sharing a personal greeting and a kindred spirit develops self-confidence, charm, and manners faster than any self-help book or workshop. I believe it’s often a lack of self-esteem that prevents people from being welcoming to others but that’s certainly no excuse.

    Making a positive first impression is the first step in building a personal brand that is remembered and stands apart. It’s that important. And, no, I don’t think service staff instinctively understand the inportance of excellence in customer service. There will always be those who do it so much better than others though because they appreciate they have the power to change the customer experience. The Service of Welcome is an honorable role no matter what the job.

    I applaud the Service Director at Convivio for taking responsibility, quickly reaching out to you and letting you know they value your patronage. There are times when we all need a second chance.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Diane,

    I will need to think about what you say about self-esteem–lack of same–leading to someone not being welcoming. I can see this in a one-on-one situation where shyness can throw up armors of arrogance and shields of coldness–but not at a job. But that’s because 1) I find that I can be bold at work—far more than in personal situations. 2) How would someone—or in this case three people—be so shy as to accept a front desk job at a busy restaurant where, as Carolyn DeFir wrote, 200 guests come in nightly and 3) How did they pass an interview for a job like this?

    As for the second chance, the converse is true with me. In personal relationships, I give more than a second chance. In business situations, I’m not usually forgiving. I return where I am welcome, whether at a coffee shop, elegant restaurant or street vendor. Apart from not wanting to spend my money where I am not wanted, I like feeling comfortable. A smile and cheerful attitude wins over little mistakes with me every time. I felt Ms. DeFir’s smile and as you pointed out assurance that we are welcome.

  3. Nancy Farrell Said:

    Jeanne: I am so glad you brought this up! I’d never been able to explain exactly why I didn’t like to complain in restaurants but you’ve expressed it for me. I don’t mind expressing my concerns one-on-one but I wouldn’t want to do it in a group and ruin everyone else’s evening. Also, it’s a simple act of courtesy to quietly state your case, especially if it involves a person’s job performance.

    I’ve had store clerks send me running for the door–either by ignoring me or saying right off the bat, “The sales rack is over there” all the while giving me “elevator eyes” without so much as a hello.

    I think that people who are “instinctively” motivated were at some point taught to be that way (that’s why, Jeanne, you asked if their parents ever entertained at home.) We’re talking about manners here. I had a mentor of sorts in my first job out of college. She was older, smart, efficient and I adored her. She was rather crusty, too, and at one point growled, “Will you please stop thanking me every time I answer one of your questions? You shouldn’t thank me for doing my job.” I told her that I couldn’t help myself, that saying thank you was automatic for me, and that it was the way I was raised.

    I can’t say how to motivate people other than to say that a little kindness goes a long way. And that praise is free. I’d rather hear praise for a job well job than to attend any office party or get any box of cookies at holiday time. And I’d prefer to work for someone who can do my job better than I can and will show me how–because that’s how I can learn.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Interesting, Nancy, that you and Ms. DeFir were almost surprised by my reasons for not making a fuss on the spot about something that’s gone wrong at a restaurant.

    I’ve been with people who snap their fingers and act aggressive and pushy at a restaurant, usually about some trivial thing, and I want to crawl under a table.

    Many take my approach as a sign of weakness, that I’m not standing up for myself. If I am abused–such as made to wait an exorbitant amount of time for my order—believe me, I speak up, but otherwise I either leave or don’t return.

  5. Nancy Farrell Said:

    Jeanne: Those who would think you’re weak would be wrong. Any hot-head can make a fuss and be pushy to make himself/herself feel better but their guests feel worse. It takes real strength and class to keep your cool and to act dignified and to refrain from saying the first thing that pops into your head.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Thanks, Nancy.

    Ages ago my husband and I were in a fairly new Brooklyn neighborhood restaurant where we were asked to sit at the bar to wait for the very next free table. We did not have a reservation.

    So we ordered drinks–I hate to feel that pressure–when another couple came in. The owner or manager greeted them loudly [the bar was by the door] and said he was so glad to see them, and sure, he had a table for them [obviously, they, too had no reservation] and sat them down immediately. With this, my husband gave the bartender money for our drinks and without saying a word, bolted out the door. The bartender didn’t speak much English and was shocked at our leaving. I explained that my husband didn’t like being treated this way. We never gave this place a second chance!

  7. Milton Zimmerman Said:

    Jeanne,

    Interesting and unusual, not in the greeting you didn’t receive, but in the response of the establishment. I wonder what was really going on at that front desk when you and your husband came in. Maybe there is another explanation about what happened.

    I’ve been eating in restaurants for longer probably than you’ve been alive, and the welcomes I’ve experienced have run the gamut from my being aggressively abused to my believing I’d actually passed through the pearly gates.

    Abused is what I felt when, in the early 1960s, I was taken, after I first moved to New York, to eat on the lower east side of the city. Fortunately, I had been warned that the abuse was part of the place’s “charm,” and that if I focused on the pastrami and raw onion on rye and the pickles, I’d be O.K. I did. It was absolutely delicious, but I never went back, not because the food wasn’t great, but because I don’t care to be abused even if it is supposed to be “charming.” I guess it is a cultural thing.

    Heaven is what I was in when we ate for the first time in a suburban restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain, a couple of years ago. It was freezing rain when we arrived and a young lady rushed out with a big umbrella to help us up the steps to the restaurant door from our taxi, warning us as we went up that marble steps were slippery and icy. Service for the next three plus hours was so smooth, seamlessly detailed and unobtrusive, that I fell into a trance believing for first time in reincarnation I had come back to earth as royalty!

    The secret to the place may be the shy young chef, an up and coming star in international cuisine. When he came out after desert to ask us what we thought of his cooking, he spoke only Spanish. When we asked him if he had ever traveled to the States, he said no. He preferred cooking to traveling, No signature jam pots for him, three stars or no. Our waiter subsequently told us that he was a tyrant with short fuse should anything be not exactly the way he wanted it.

    I suspect what may have been wrong with those three “statues” behind the desk you described is that you and your husband didn’t fit the image or demographic of what those pretty young things thought ought to be eating in their restaurant. Then again, service in American restaurants has always been hit or miss – I suppose it is the equalitarian cant of the place. Who knows?

    Milt

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Milt,

    I wonder if you can call New York a culture. I was born here and there are certain things I still can’t get over. In a coffee shop when the wait staff tosses thick porcelain dishes in a pail of dirty cups and plates, it makes a huge clattering noise that to me is what nails on a blackboard sounds to others. I hate it and even if I’m eating the best grilled cheese sandwich in the city, I won’t go back.

    Thanks for your comment. Due to your reminiscence of the lower east side, I will be thinking not of pastrami but of corned beef on a roll as I dig into my yogurt at lunch today. The pickles you find at that and other delis like it in NYC are unequalled. In fact, they spoil me so that I can’t tolerate any others. And pickles–bright green, crunchy, not sour–are one of my favorite food groups!

  9. Nancy Farrell Said:

    Jeanne: Your comments reminded me of something that happened a few years ago. We tried to make a reservation for 10 people in advance but were told that while they had a “list” they didn’t formally take reservations. This was a steakhouse-part of a chain that I normally wouldn’t eat at but since I didn’t choose the restaurant I didn’t want to complain. When we arrived we were told the wait would be 15 minutes and would we like to wait at the bar.We told them that since we had a child and a very proper senior lady in our party, the bar would not be suitable. So we stood in the vestibule as more people piled in and stood with us. After 30 minutes a server came by and asked if we’d like to order drinks while we were waiting. I said with a smile, “Not unless they’re on the house.” My sister-in-law continued, “Yes, and not unless they come with chairs.” So the server went away. 10 minutes later, another server asked if we’d like to order drinks. By now our list of demands were growing: “Not unless the drinks and appetizers are on the house and come with chairs.” So the server went away. After 45 minutes of waiting–20 of which were spent staring at an empty booth–I flagged down the manager and told him that I wasn’t sure if he’d seen that empty booth but we’d been waiting a very long time and that we’d like to sit there. He apologized over and over and explained that while that was our table, he wanted to give us an additional one next to it but that the occupants would not leave even though they’d finished eating and what could he do? I told him we’d be happy to grab some extra chairs and sit at the empty booth and halfway jokingly said that if we didn’t fit around that table, I’d volunteer to sit and eat my meal with the people who were refusing to leave. We got our table and several appetizers–on the house, naturally. I think it’s beyond nervy to try to sell drinks or anything else to people who don’t even have a seat. And it’s bad business to not take reservations–at least for large groups.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Nancy,

    It’s amazing to me that comfort and hospitality are two concepts that did not occur to the hosts and managers at that chain. Why would anyone want to juggle a drink under such circumstances, with chaos going on around and no place to sit? Are they so focused on making a buck that they forget the other reason they are in business–to make their guests feel welcome and wanted?

    It all falls under the title of “what were they thinking?”

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