Habits are hard to break, and annoying server habits can break an operator’s bank and damage a guest’s experience. Servers are responsible for a guest’s happiness, and if all they serve up is a hot plate of annoying…well, their guests will not be paying customers for long. And, that gets –– dare it be said? –– annoying for everyone.
Since breaking a habit is difficult, how can operators deal with their servers’ most annoying patterns?
One of the most annoying habits servers display is service with a shrug instead of a hospitality mindset, says Paul Paz, founder of WaitersWorld in Portland, Oregon, a service expert site.
“They appear annoyed or bored, disengaged and disinterested, acting like, ‘Can we get this over with?’ They roll their eyes. They huff and puff,” Paz says.
Robert Edell, CEO and co-founder of Servy, Inc., in New York, agrees that one of the biggest mistakes servers make is not interacting with the guests in the right way.
“Servy data overwhelmingly shows that server body language, tone and overall friendliness have the greatest impact on the guest experience,” Edell says. “Servers should greet each table by introducing themselves with a smile and eye contact. In each guest interaction, they should be courteous and respectful. They should maintain eye contact and smile when appropriate.”
In order to establish service with a smile, operators need to hire people who have a passion for service and who like helping people, says Paz.
“You can teach people to carry a tray, but you can’t teach them how to be nice,” Paz says. “A tool we can use is how to learn to smile under pressure. A smile sets the tone of hospitality; a smile is an invitation to service.”
In addition to not acting the part, not looking the part is another misstep for servers.
Paz says servers should present a professional uniform appearance that is clean and sanitary and not looking like it’s been stuffed in a hamper. Servers should be well-groomed and stay away from very casual language.
“ ‘No problem’ is not only very casual, but it implies that some aspect of the request could be viewed as a problem. Servers should always say ‘my pleasure,’” Edell adds.
Some annoying habits like mispronouncing common culinary techniques or offerings, not being able to share the details of feature menu items, being ignorant of cooking methods for menu options, or not knowing the answer to common questions about the menu (including pricing and extra charges) are annoying habits that management can easily break with training, rehearsal and practice Paz adds.
“The printed menu is the best training tool, because that’s what the guest is looking at and where the most questions come from,” Paz says.
Edell warns against servers who take orders without a notepad.
“Certain customers hate when servers don’t write down their order. It can make a certain type of customer anxious, and if a mistake is made, the guest is significantly more unforgiving,” Edell says. “Servers should be instructed to always take out their notepad, even if they don’t write more than a couple of words down on it.”
Impatient service will win no favors with guests.
“Nothing irritates a guest more than when a server prematurely tries to clear the table,” Edell says. “It puts pressure on anyone still eating and makes them feel insecure about their eating speed.”
Edell advises that management should clearly outline in the service manual when tables should be cleared.
“In most cases, it’s when every guest’s forks and knives are on the plate. And when there is any doubt, the server should ask more general questions, such as: ‘Can I help with anything?’ This gives the guest the opportunity to request that certain items be removed from the table,” Edell says.
Another annoying and costly mistake for servers is being too worried about tips, says restaurant consultant Christopher Wells, founder of Restaurant Building Blocks.
“The best way to fix that is to train them to sell more efficiently and more,” says Wells. “And crunch numbers with them, do the math with their personal numbers. Convince them that they can sell an extra $3 per table with examples — desserts, cocktail, coffee, etc.”
Being a tip bully is also a big no-no for servers, says Paz.
“ ‘Did you want your change?’” Sometimes servers ask that to expedite service so they don’t have to make another trip back, but also do it as a guilt trip on the customer,” Paz says. He advises servers to just bring back the change. “Don’t put them in an uncomfortable position. People may not remember what you do, but they will remember how you made them feel.”
Even behind the scenes habits, like failing to complete their side duties, can negatively impact a guest’s experience.
“A restaurant works well if teamwork is present,” says Wells. “Some servers are great at not following opening/closing procedures. And when they do, it’s the guest that suffers — often because side duties involve refilling salt/pepper, sugar, products in server stations.”
In order to make sure all side duties are completed, Wells advises that management put a system in place.
“Having a list is great, but the real issue is who ensures that the tasks are completed. Either a manager has to check every server or a head server checks before the server can leave, and he is responsible for the entire duties for the evening,” Wells says. “If you don’t verify, certain things are not getting done.”
Even faced with the most annoying habits from their staff, management can make a difference.
“Change is always hard,” Edell says, “but if management establishes clear expectations and works with their team to train them on the new processes, bad habits can always be broken.”
DeAnn Owens is a freelance writer who covers small business, finance and lifestyle topics.