Tuesday, January 24, 2012

You Know What they Say About a Bad Apple

I spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of good service.  Probably too much time (thank you, degree in hospitality administration). 

What makes someone empathetic when serving other people?  Is it something you are born with, some sort of hospitality gene?  Or is it all nurture, a childhood environment that taught the importance of caring for the needs of others?  Or can it be learned as an adult?  Is it all just acting, training your facial expressions to appear genuine and helpful when underneath you want to kill the annoying customer with their annoying questions standing in front of you?

We all must put on a good face from time to time even when we don’t want to provide good service.  But I’ve always felt it is pretty easy to tell when someone is going through the motions.  Even though the service is technically good, as a customer, sometimes I cannot shake the feeling of disingenuousness (Singapore to Doha crew on Qatar Airlines, I’m talking about you).  Then there are the people who seem to really care even about the mundane, who, for example, go out of their way to make sure your water glass is always full without ever intruding on your personal space (Doha to JFK crew on Qatar Airlines, many thanks for the exceptional service).  It’s a difference that is hard to describe, but you know the look in the face, the subtle actions.  It’s a level of service that divides the good from the great experiences. 

Then there are the proverbial bad apples, the single individual who so detests her job that she threatens to undo a business and all the hard work put in by colleagues by treating customers with an attitude that borders on contempt.  Such was case last weekend, when a female server rained down a torrent of sharp glares, rolling eyes and snide remarks on our table during a quiet dinner out with friends in New York’s Upper East Side.

The Bad Apple, a pretty girl looking to be in her early twenties with a light Eastern European accent, turned sour on our four top within minutes of being seated at this modest Turkish restaurant.  She demanded a wine order from us, insisting that buying the bottle was a better deal than ordering by the glass (could she have been any more obvious in her ploy for an upsell?).  She hovered, fast-talking us into a decision before John finally sent her away.  “No we don’t want your wine suggestions.”  Her wide eyes suggested we might have been the first people to voice our lack of appreciation for her hard sell. 

We ultimately selected the single bottle of Bordeaux on the list.  Bad Apple brought the bottle to our table and promptly drained it into our four glasses, not even pausing to so much as let us look at the label.  We had to sip carefully lest our precariously full glasses slosh over the edge. 

Attempting to order entrees at the completely normal New-York-Saturday-night-dinner-hour of 10:15 pm, we were informed that the kebab dishes had been sold out for hours.  “What do you expect?”  Our waitress replied to our astonished reaction.  “It is a Saturday night, you should have come here earlier.” 

Considering that these two dishes made up 50% of their entrée selection I asked what I thought was a reasonable question, “Don’t you think that might have been nice to tell us when we sat down, 45 minutes ago?” 

“You should have known.  We are busy on Saturdays.”

I will admit, not everything about this restaurant was bad, including the service when we finally demanded a replacement server to free ourselves of the wrath of the Bad Apple.  And though the wine selection was abysmal, the food was mostly good including the much talked about sesame studded flat bread, dolmades filled with cinnamon laced ground beef, and sweet and juicy grilled swordfish.

If there were a secret formula to good service, there would be a lot more successful hospitality professionals out there and a lot more satisfied customers.  But alas, there is not.  Some people seem born with it, others learn by example, some just fake it, and occasionally there is a bad apple that you can only hope a certain restaurant owner knows to get rid of before she spoils the whole barrel. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

1 comment:

  1. Dear Amy,
    This is a great article and very good topic. Customer service (good or bad) is something I experience every day, but often don’t think much about it.
    I think for me personally, the service experience is just as important as the quality of the food or the ambiance, when deciding whether or not I'll return to a restaurant. Can good customer service be taught? I think so, to a degree anyway. But a person's core values definitely factor in, as well. When a difficult issue arises, a person’s true character and nature emerges quickly. But honestly, the same can be said of the customer, as well. During her high school years, my sister Michele worked as a cashier at a large home products store. She is as sweet as they come, and yet she was slapped a few times by a few irate customers who did not get what they wanted, for whatever reason. The door swings both ways I suppose.
    On the other side of the coin, I've sometimes wished for a service agent who was simply direct and competent, rather than polite and nice. I've ended phone calls feeling very good about the service I'd just experienced, only to find out later that the person didn't follow through at all on their commitment to resolve the issue. It’s such a bummer when you think an issue is resolved, and then a few weeks later you find you have to start the process all over again. Also, I’ve also visited with prospective customers (in past sales positions) where the customer was very nice and acted as though they couldn’t wait to sign a contract with my company, only to find out later that the customer had already decided on a different supplier, even prior to meeting with me. Thanks for being so nice! Ugh.
    And then there are the instances where poor customer service or rude behavior just might be 'part of the service'. During my first trip to Paris last fall, I was expecting rude comments and attitude from waiters and hotel staff—this based on everything I’d heard about the general attitude toward Americans. But my experience was the exact opposite. The French people we met were very kind and gracious, wherever we went. There was only one instance where a waiter acted rude toward us, largely ignoring us while we asked politely for water and the check. However, this occurred at a 'famous' Paris restaurant, and perhaps he was simply acting out a role. When I called him on his rude behavior—with a significant look and impatient gesture—he changed his attitude completely, and thereafter couldn't have been nicer. Was his earlier behavior really an act? Was he just shocked that an American didn't cower under his arrogance? Who knows? Will I go back to that restaurant on my next visit to Paris? Maybe. It might be fun to visit my new French friend again and see if his ‘act’ has changed at all.
    Sometimes people want rude behavior or service, and they actually pay extra for it. When I lived in NYC in the 90’s, there was a Greenwich Village restaurant (perhaps it is still there) where customers waited in line to pay $10 for a PBJ sandwich, and they honestly hoped to be yelled at by the owner for eating too slowly.
    So what’s more important? Kindness? Politeness? Competence? Or does one’s expectation vary depending on where you are, where you live, or perhaps how your day has gone so far? Growing up in St. Louis, I’m sure that my patience for poor service was a little different than it is now, having lived in NYC and San Francisco for 15 years. My mother (who still lives in St. Louis) will think nothing of eating a bad meal (or that wrong meal) that’s brought to her, instead of sending it back. When asked why doesn’t complain, she invariable says “oh, I did not want to be a bother”. Mom, send it back! it’s your money! Haha. It’s no use.
    Thanks again for the great article, Amy!