Everything I Needed to Know About Business I Learned Waiting Tables

Everything I Needed to Know About Business I Learned Waiting Tables

After 25 years of creating wildly entertaining and effective ways to communicate corporate messages to company employees, I had an epiphany. I’ve had the interesting experience of sitting in myriad conference rooms with senior leadership of many diverse companies, from Fortune 100 to smaller public and privately owned firms. Very often, one of the main topics in those meetings had to do with a company’s overall productivity. You know; sales, revenues, profitability, employee engagement, efficiency, and attitude…and how all these things were being negatively affected by what the leaders often perceived as the company “culture”.

After years of hearing this same perspective from many different companies, I recognized a trend in corporate   America…a trend that was costing companies millions… billions…in revenue, yet was highly correctable, with absolutely no cost to the company. Seriously, not a dime.

The concepts are pretty simple, actually. In a nutshell, it is this:

We, as in all of us, are motivated by the same things…in our companies, in our jobs, and in our personal lives. We all want to be respected and treated with dignity, trust, appreciation, and empathy, and to be recognized by company leaders and managers as human beings with human feelings. Really simple, huh? Not that ground breaking.

But, here is the rub. I sat in hundreds of meetings and listened to Presidents, National VPs of Sales, VPs of Marketing, and other senior leaders, as they groused and complained about employee “attitude”, and how they needed to change their company “culture”. But, the truth is they actually had no idea what their culture really was.

First, to simplify the concept, let’s define what culture is not. Culture is NOT sales plans, marketing plans, products, services, policies, strategies, cool dining rooms, free snacks, 24 hour a day food court, trips, incentives, contests, company goals, or “Casual Fridays”.

Culture IS what we feel…about our workplace, our peers, our job, our leaders, and our passions…it is our core belief system. We go to bed with it at night, and we wake up with it in the morning. It is in every part of our lives. It is our sense of self, our ethics, and how we interact with the world. Our culture should be respectful, supportive, passionate, kind, and joyful. We believe in it right down to our core, whether or not we are even aware of it. It is engrained in our psyche at a deep level and we feel it, and live it, every single day.

Once established cultures are not easily changed and certainly cannot ever be influenced by emails, memos, contests, policy changes, new sales strategies, or random edicts from senior management.

So, back to the meetings: Often, and with some amusement, I would then see these senior leaders exhibit exactly the behaviors they least liked about their employees, without realizing the flat out, MOST important fact about company culture. That fact? Culture never starts at the bottom and works its way up…NOT EVER. Culture starts at the top and works its way down. These very leaders created the culture they were complaining about.

I realized that nearly every company, big and small, has in their power the potential to radically affect their bottom line and productivity by creating with cognizance, intent, and design, a great culture.

Now, besides having happier employees, how does “culture” affect actual productivity?

It has been posited in study after study that happy, trusted, supported, passionate, and joyful people are significantly more productive in all things they do; better at their jobs, their relationships, their health, and their lives. I believe this to be a truly profound and ultimate truth.

Here is an example…and, yes, I love a good story!

I worked my way through college as a waiter at a wonderful restaurant, The Nantucket Lobster Trap. It was very successful and busy every night…a great gig making terrific money and a really fun place to work. And, although I would not have identified it as this at the time, what we had at Nantucket, also, was an awesome culture. There was very little turnover of staff: in the kitchen, in the bar, or on the floor, and most of the waiters had been there for years. So, in truth, we were damned good and the level of service, as well as the food, was outstanding. And our manager, Bo, treated us with dignity, respect, and trust.

So, it’s another packed night at the restaurant and my station is full. I’m waiting on a 4-top that is not happy about anything. From the get-go their attitude was, “This better be good”! And they challenged me on pretty much everything …not enough crab in the crab cocktail, not enough shrimp in the shrimp cocktail, swordfish too small, dinners not hot enough, kitchen too slow, drinks not strong enough, and so on. It was brutal and every waiter’s nightmare.

As the evening wound down I dropped the check and then  went to Bo and suggested, “You might want to pay this table a visit…they seemed pretty unhappy with their dinner and, in fact, they weren’t satisfied with much of anything.”

Bo looked at me and asked, “How was everything”? He asked about the appetizers, entrees, service, everything.

I told him the entire meal was absolutely up to our standards and nothing was wrong…in fact, everything was dead solid perfect.

So, Bo goes to the table. He introduces himself, “Hi, I’m Bo, the manager, and I understand you were not happy with your dining experience with us tonight”? He then listened, as they vented about all the things that were wrong with the meal and with me as their waiter.

When they were done, he simply smiled, and said, “It’s obvious you didn’t enjoy your evening with us, and that the meal was not up to your expectations. You didn’t have fun and I know Dennis didn’t have much fun either”. He then picked up their check and said, ”Tell you what, tonight’s dinner is on me”, and with a flourish he ripped up their check.

They lit up, smiling triumphantly and catching glances of satisfaction with one another. Bo then continued, “There is one thing, though…a condition. I would like you to leave now, immediately, and never, ever, set foot in my restaurant again. I assure you, you will not be welcome if you do. So, please leave…NOW!”

They sputtered, muttered, harrumphed, and were generally incredulous and indignant that they were being treated this way. They gave the proverbial, “Well, I never…” as they scooted out of the booth and Bo escorted them to the door.

Bo then proceeded to bus the table with me, getting it set for the next party. He smiled at me, chuckled as he shook his head, gave me a little salute, and off he went.

So, what did Bo gain here and what did he lose? Well, he certainly lost those customers now, didn’t he? They were not ever going to be back. But did he really “lose” them? I mean did he really ever want them back again? A rhetorical question, I hope. The truth is he lost nothing, right?

If they were not going to appreciate and embrace our product and service, why would he want them to dine with us in the future?

But, what did Bo gain? I was already a very committed, engaged, and appreciative employee. As I said, this was the best restaurant gig I ever had. But, after this experience, I was even more committed to him, and to the restaurant. He had listened to me as I related the facts of the evening to him. He didn’t doubt, he didn’t hem or haw, he didn’t make excuses for the customer’s bad behavior. He took what I told him, made his decision, and acted on it. He supported me in every way because he respected and trusted me. My commitment to him, as a manager, was certainly solidified, and I proved that commitment to him again and again over the years.

Now, let’s consider how this whole exchange could have gone, and think about if this next scenario is analogous to what happens in the corporate world much of the time?

What if Bo, after our conversation, had gone up to the table and said,  “I am so sorry, folks. This is not the type of experience we want you to have here at Nantucket Lobster Trap. Let me comp you dinner tonight (ripping up check) and offer this to you. The next time you come in a round of drinks on me and free appetizers and dessert.

We really want you to give us another chance, and look forward to having you back again.”

How would I have felt, as an employee, after telling Bo the food and service had been perfect, and up to our standards, if he had responded this way? Had he comped them dinner and entreated them to come back and try us again, even rewarding them, what would that have meant to me? I would have been embarrassed, dismissed, humiliated, mistrusted, disrespected, and hurt.

But, because Bo trusted me, respected me, and supported me, I felt an overwhelming devotion to him as my manager.

So, back to what was lost, and what was gained as this is really important: Would these people ever have become valued customers; appreciative, loyal, and a delight to have in the restaurant, even had Bo rewarded them for their bad behavior?  Not likely.

And, again, what did he gain? The absolute loyalty and commitment of an employee, me, to give 100% effort every night, every table. This is a very human reaction, to honor and respect those who honor and respect us. So, my “above and beyond” button definitely got pressed, and Bo gained a level of commitment from me that was nearly boundless.

And here is a postscript to this story. It was not long after this night that I was walking out the door of my apartment,  going to pick up my date for a very special evening. The phone rang and it was Bo. Another waiter had come in not feeling well, so he had to send him home. He asked if I could come in and cover the open station. I didn’t even think twice…I said, “Yes, I’ll be right in”, and I called my date to ask her if we could meet later as I had to go into work. Saying no to Bo was not even a consideration for me. I was delighted, in fact, that I could do something special for him.

So, what is the takeaway from this restaurant analogy as it pertains to corporate culture?

Every employee, every day, in every company, has a choice as they arrive at their workplace. That choice is “how much effort am I going to put in today”? Am I going to go above and beyond, or am I going to give just enough effort to not get fired? And, believe me, the difference between these two levels of effort is staggering!

This is a precept of human nature…that we all respond the same way when we are shown kindness, understanding, trust, respect and empathy. When we are treated this way our response is to give our all, our very best, with passion, commitment, and joy.

So, every CEO and leadership team also has a choice, just like employees do. “Will I sit back and allow a mediocre or abusive culture be our ‘norm’, or will I work to create a workplace of respect, joy, trust, and empathy and, as a result, increase my bottom line by double digits”?

I would hope this is another rhetorical question but, looking at the oft times abysmal state of corporate culture in America, I have to say, regrettably, it is not.

But, it could be!

Moral of the story:

*The customer is not always right…in fact, sometimes they    are dead wrong

*Every company’s greatest asset is their employees

Photo Credit: chelseakoh Flickr via Compfight cc