“Waiter?” Serving Up a Communications Lesson Over Dinner

By Frances Cox, Principal, The Fratelli Group

I was really looking forward to dinner last night. We were celebrating a friend’s birthday at a restaurant that has long gotten great reviews, and I had never been. I was excited to spend a fun evening with friends over fabulous food.

Let’s just say it’s a good thing we aren’t restaurant critics. But unlike some bad dining experiences, this restaurant could have saved itself from our one-star review if the server had just communicated better with us.

The food wasn’t the problem. The service was. I have been to hundreds of restaurants and have never experienced service that prompted me to write about it. It started at the host stand and continued at the table, where one hour in, we had not received our appetizers and had not even been able to order our entrées. At one point, we ventured into the kitchen to try to find our server — and he was back there cooking!

When he finally reappeared to take our entrée orders, we had reached our boiling point and expressed our displeasure. It was only at this moment that he explained they were short-staffed. Three members of his team had been unable to work that night. One woman was stuck in Puerto Rico, presumably because of the hurricane(s), another had had an emergency with his pet and another had had a last-minute medical procedure. They all had legitimate excuses for not being able to work — and our server (or maybe he was the cook or perhaps the valet) was left to run the restaurant.

We immediately simmered down. We became more understanding. He was doing his best under difficult circumstances.

The communications lesson in all of this is that if you know you will be criticized for something, address it head on in your opening remarks. As my colleague says, go ugly early. We use this technique with clients all the time. If you know your audience has something on its mind coming into the room, use the opportunity to tell your story first. Don’t wait for your audience, your client or your voters to reach the boiling point.

Had he explained the situation to us when we sat down, apologized in advance for this isolated incident of slow service (and perhaps even offered us a round of drinks or a dessert on the house), I would be willing to go back and give the place another try. Instead, he lost me — and probably others — as a return customer.

So next time you find yourself addressing an audience — whether it be an auditorium of 100 or a group of friends — if you know something untidy is bound to come up, bring it up yourself first. Frame the issue on your terms. You will serve yourself — and your audience — the best meal possible.

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