5 Ways to Be a Better Waiter, Deliver a Better Restaurant Experience

Brian Cantor

The customer experience is a relevant concern in nearly all transactions, but its importance exponentially increases within the confines of a restaurant. Unlike an utilitarian trip to the mall or the local grocery store, a sit-down restaurant is valued notably for its experience and is thus subject to more aggressive standards of service and customer-centricity.

After all, few urban and suburban families own cows from which they can produce their own milk. Stocking up requires a visit to the convenience store, and the inelasticity of that demand means customers lose some leverage from an experience standpoint. They will go to the store regardless of service levels, so there is minimal motivation for the store to invest in "wowing" that customer.

A restaurant, however, is an experiential alternative to cooking food in one’s home. Though the quality might be a little bit better, most individuals and families are capable of constructing a great home-cooked meal. A restaurant is not their only option for satisfying taste buds.

It is, however, an event. It is a special experience for patrons, and the service a restaurant provides is therefore an integral part of the equation. If customers do not feel like the restaurant enables them to throw their cares away and live like kings as they wine, dine and converse in utter delight, their reason for attending that restaurant is considerably lacking.

With customer-centricity so important to the restaurant experience, it is therefore integral that the waitstaff—the "face" of the restaurant to patrons—understands, appreciates and acts on the commitment to the customer. If the business’ desire to dazzle customers does not shine through the waiter’s every fleeting glance and every spoken word, the experience—and the reason to enjoy being at the restaurant—is compromised.

Below are five tips all waiters must consider when serving customers. And this is not an isolated attack on the front-line—if you, a restaurant manager or owner, are not providing a workplace atmosphere that facilitates an elite customer experience, you, too, need to rethink your operations.

1) Don’t judge a book by its cover – It is human nature to maintain prejudices, but when it comes to serving restaurant patrons, those biases and inklings must be left at the door. Every customer who comes in, no matter what expectations the waiter has about his or her proclivity to behave respectfully and leave a big tip, deserves the best possible service.

For starters, "covers" can often be wrong. One might think that a "snot-nosed" twentysomething is going to stiff him on the bill, but given the fact that thousands of 22-year-olds are landing high-5 and low-6 figure jobs right out of college, is it fair to assume they won’t spend much money on a meal? And even if they do not have that money, many young patrons relate to the challenge of working in customer service and thus might feel inclined to leave a big tip.

Increased equality, meanwhile, assures no "societal minority" is necessarily a risk of going light on the order and capping his gratuity at 10%.

The self-fulfilling nature of such discrimination is also relevant. Waiters who assume African-Americans are poor tippers might pre-emptively deliver poor service, which ultimately gives patrons a just reason to tip poorly and thus perpetuates the stereotype. Unless you get a poor tip in response to your best possible effort, why assume specific customers will not appreciate your work?

Most important, however, is the fact that customers earn the right to stellar service the second they enter the restaurant and agree to pay their check. No matter how much hosts, busboys, waiters and managers want to convince themselves otherwise, it is the subtotal—not the tip—that pays for exemplary customer service; a customer who tips 0%, no matter how unlikable, is as an entitled to great service as someone who leaves 25%. And though the notion of waiters’ banking on tips to produce an acceptable salary might attract sympathy from some onlookers, it is the responsibility of the restaurant—not the customer—to assure waiters are compensated in a way that will encourage optimal effort and customer-centricity.

2) Know your product – When you go to an auto dealership, you expect the salesmen to know the intricacies of the cards they sell. When you go to an electronics store, you anticipate a representative properly explaining the pros and cons of a specific computer. Why should the experience at a restaurant be any different?

Without hesitation, waiters should be able to talk customers through their menus, highlighting appetizers, sides, pastas, salads, entrees and desserts that suit specific tastes. The waiter should be able to accurately recommend wine bottles while advising flawlessly on portion size.

If part of the motivation for frequenting a restaurant is to escape the headaches of cooking in the kitchen, why should customers feel discouraged from letting the "experts" do the heavy-lifting and make the best possible meal recommendations?

3) Know your customer – Degrees in psychology and sociology are not typical prerequisites for working in food service, but that does not mean waiters are not expected to understand their customers.

From determining how often to "check-in" and refill water to determining which special meals and drinks to hype during the ordering phase, waiters should work to quickly understand who their customers are and how their moods are changing throughout the meal. The dining experience is about escapism, and that cannot happen if customers feel the waiter is not meeting their needs.

Good restaurant service does not entail the waiter providing the experience he would desire or even the one he was trained to deliver. It is about providing the caliber service each of his individual customers wants.

4) "Upsell" for the customer’s sake, Not for money’s sake – If a successful dining experience is about delivering what each specific customer wants, then meals recommendations and "upsells" need to also be tailored for each individual customer.

Waiters are often too transparent with their lust for cash, posing with their best "McKayla is Not Impressed" faces as customers pass on ordering appetizers or sides. Instead of appreciating that the customer’s desired appetite does not include such auxiliary items, they succumb to disappointment and frustration: either the customer is a cheapskate for sticking to an entrêe, or the waiter failed in his attempt to "sell" the customer on more food.

A truly great dining experience comes when the waiter commits himself to making the customer’s culinary dream come true. That means answering questions and advising on menu selections honestly—if a customer is training for an eating contest and concerned about portions, a waiter should not hesitate to recommend a few extra sides. But a customer should similarly not be made to feel awkward, cheap and disrespectful for sticking to an entrêe—if that is all the customer wants, that is what the customer should get.

Salesmen are trained to practice indifference when it comes to a deal; if the customer is wavering, they need to maintain a poker face and avoid revealing their disappointment at the lost commission. Waiters need to do the same—especially since they are far more entrenched in the "customer satisfaction" realm than typical salespersons.

5) "Own" the dining experience – No, waiters are not the ones cooking the food, and they are in limited position to actually transform the culinary element of the dining experience. But as the face of the restaurant’s service effort, they are the ones linked to the dining experience, and they are the ones the customer immediately holds accountable for the quality of the meal.

Waiters need to assure they indeed accept that accountability. A pivotal element of delivering a quality customer experience is "thinking like the customers" and understanding what it will take to satisfy them. Food is important, and if waiters do not sympathize with diners who received a bad plate and share in the ecstasy of those who enjoyed their meals, they will be unable to customize their service offerings to the reality of the situation.

Waiters need to own customers as their own customers, and they need to serve as customer advocates when communicating with the rest of the staff. They might not be making the food, but they are the ones entrusted with keeping the customer happy, and they must do what it takes to get the entire restaurant committed to that quality experience. If the chef drops the ball on a meal, the waiter should not feel immune because he did not make it but should instead demand satisfaction because his customer has been let down.

Waiters must look at their roles not as middlemen between the culinary artists and patrons but as facilitators between a customer’s desire for a great experience and the restaurant’s success I creating that aura of excellence.