17 years of anything should give you perspective one way or another on something relevant to the subject matter of what those years entailed. It wasn’t until tonight while at a Christmas party that it clicked what those 17 years did for me.
I suppose you could say my first career was in the food industry waiting tables. It got me through college and supported my life thereafter during the recession. It has been said before, but everyone should have to wait tables for at least a full year to better understand the human condition. Just as some countries enforce a mandatory period of time serving in their armed forces, we too should require each of us to be in service of each other.
I wore a badge of honor knowing I was in the service where people came to me hungry. You know how you get when you haven’t eaten. You skipped breakfast because your kid made you late for work and you forgot your lunch so now you have to spend money you didn’t plan on spending and you also have to leave work to get food when you have a million to-dos piling up. What’s the one thing you have right in front of you to take out your frustration on? Your waiter.
When I was a younger waiter I took great offense to people being rude to me. “How dare they think they can treat me that way?” This was the thought that ran through my fragile little undeveloped brain as I took their orders, grumbling under my breath with every new modification to the dish being requested. Eventually, my brain developed and I lost that arrogance that it was 'all about me' (at least regarding waiting tables). I realized that I'm there to provide a service and that the hangry-ness of the customer was just part of the job. It was just something I'd have to work with to be successful.
Table touching is a restaurant term used to describe the act of subtle, but meaningful interactions with your customers. A simple example would be checking in on the table to make sure everything is going well with their food and experience. One of the greatest uses of table touching that I found to be the most impactful was when I would be a little too busy to do a proper greeting with the newly sat table. Instead of ignoring them until I was ready to do my whole spiel, I would simply walk up to the table, physically touch the table with one hand and look at them all in the eye and say "Folks, I'm so sorry. I'll be right with y'all." Almost one hundred percent of the time the response would be "Not a problem." Sure, they may have been hangry or in a hurry due to it being their lunch break, but I knew I would be able to give them better and faster service if I simply took those precious couple of minutes to collect myself and handle the other business I had right in front of me.
I found that I apply this concept even today with my clients and customers. Sure, there isn't a physical table for me to walk up to, but I communicate with them as soon as I possibly can to let them know their initial message has been acknowledged. Have you ever sent an email to someone about something time-sensitive and it takes them days to respond? Yes, their response may be thoughtful and help with the issue you were having, but the time between you sending the initial email and their response was maddening! You didn't know if they actually received the email. You don't know if they're even in the office or if they're on vacation! You simply do not know.
Communication is the most important aspect of customer service. Even sort of 'ok' communication is better than what a lot of companies deem suitable. I pride myself on my response time. If a customer emails me at 8 pm Central Time and I know they're in another part of the world, I'm going to respond to them immediately because I know that even though it's 8 pm for me, for them, it could be the middle of their workday. If I wait till 8 am the next morning to shoot off a reply, it may be after-hours when they receive it. That's just not acceptable to me. Even if I don't have the solution to the issue, I'll still respond with "I just wanted to let you know I received your ticket and I will work to get you a solution ASAP." Did I solve their problem? No, but they now don't have to have any doubt whatsoever about whether or not I got their message. They won't be waiting at the proverbial table wondering 'where the hell is my waiter?'
Tonight, during my eye-opening conversation with my friend, he told me a story about an interaction he had with a colleague of his. This was no ordinary colleague. She is well-respected and comes with quite a bit of clout, to say the least. My friend sent her an email that was somewhat time-sensitive and required answers to some specific information he needed to get to the next step of his project. As I'm sure you can guess, a few days went by without response and so my friend did what a lot of us would do and he sent her a "friendly nudge" email to test the waters a bit and see if he could expedite her response. What he told me she wrote in her return email was the missing piece of my customer service puzzle... at least this little corner of the entire puzzle, that is. I fear I may never solve the entire thing, but damnit if I'm not gonna try!
Her response was, "I can give you a bad answer now or a great answer later." Wow, what a fantastic response! I don't think I would ever actually write that to a client, but it distilled why some responses take longer than others and it made me realize full-circle how I conduct my customer service. I get the message, I touch the 'table', and I deliver a great answer at a later point when I've had time to work the problem.
When one of my biggest clients signed on to work with me, I asked him "Why did you say yes to me?" His answer was simple. He said it was because I answered the phone when he called. This response made me chuckle when he said it, but the look on his face was so serious that all I could do was say 'thank you." I answered the phone when he called? This is a man who trusted his multi-million dollar business with a major company before me and here he is handing over the keys to his castle to a tiny little one-man show. I've worked with him now for 3 years and it still blows my mind to this day.
Communication and a healthy sense of urgency as well as good time management are the core concepts I learned while waiting tables. Because waiting tables is such an in-person and intimate interaction with people, I also learned how to have small talk with people and put a personal touch on the experience that makes whatever the subject matter of the interaction just a little nicer for everyone involved. So much can be learned by being in service of others and even though those 17 years were difficult and at times tough on my pride, I wouldn't trade them for anything. The lessons and values I learned from those experiences have made me better, not only as a business owner but as a person.
So, in closing, good communication is crucial to successful customer service. The more table-touching you practice, the better the relationship between you and your client. Also, don't forget to tip your waiter or waitress!