Super Service Employees

For those of us who eat out with any regularity, we’ve all had the experience, unfortunately too rarely, of being waited on by what I call a “super server.”  From the moment she approaches the table we know we’re in for a treat.  Sparkling with personality, she overflows with knowledge about the food, beverages, and accompaniments.  She immediately sizes up our interest in engagement and calibrates her contacts accordingly.  She speaks with confidence and authority, questioning us regarding our preferences and without hesitation recommending what she thinks we’ll enjoy.  The best of the best can unerringly take and serve orders without benefit of pen and dup pad – an ability that never ceases to amaze me. Such extraordinary individuals are worth their weight in gold.  Not only do they serve with flair and expertise, but they sell, thereby increasing the average check, while making a distinctly favorable impression of competence and professionalism that brings diners back again and again.  This is true in restaurants and just as true in private clubs where members appreciate the recognition and special touches that a super server adds to the dining experience.

Far more frequently, we’ve experienced the norm of service – undertrained, inexperienced employees who may understand the basics of service, but little more.  Often lacking in knowledge, personality, and attitude, their service may meet minimum expectations but seldom inspire the diner to sample the extras – appetizers, desserts, wines, and specialty drinks – that the kitchen works so hard to create and which enhance the overall dining experience.  If truth be told, these employees are doing no service to their employers and in many cases are doing outright harm by driving customers away.

The often repeated maxim for employers “to hire for personality and train for technique” encompasses a basic truth.  Attitude, personality, and engagement seem to be inborn skills and are difficult to teach.  While training can provide service skills and knowledge, thereby increasing a server’s confidence and maybe even engagement skills, the best service employees posses an indefinable quality that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate.

Given the dearth of these extraordinary service employees, they should be recognized and compensated for the rare skills they possess.  Too often though, their presence on an employer’s staff is viewed as simple good fortune with little or no effort made to differentiate them from the common herd.  The result is that in short order they move on to greener pastures where their talents are more fully appreciated.  When this happens the loss to the establishment is often more than can be appreciated at the moment.  Not only has the employer lost a super server, but a money-maker, an ambassador, and an example for less accomplished co-workers.

And everything said about food servers applies as much to super service employees in retail, activities, golf, tennis, administration, and other areas of the club.

What can clubs do to attract and retain Super Service Employees?  By analyzing and considering the wants and needs of super service employees, it is possible to set up programs to attract and retain them.  In simplest terms it boils down to respect, status, meaningful work, and enhanced compensation.  In particular I would focus on the following:

  • Establishing consistent Service-Based Leadership at your club.  The underlying premise of Service-Based Leadership is leaders at all levels who recognize the essential task of serving all constituents, including employees.  Weak or self-serving managers will drive them away.
  • Implementing employee empowerment which is a natural extension of Service-Based Leadership.  Empowered employees are enlisted as partners in the club’s effort to improve the operation and provide high levels of service.  Super service employees want and need this enhanced participation and contribution.
  • Improving communications with employees.  All employees, but especially the super service ones, want to know what is going on and how the operation and direction of the club affects them.
  • Mentoring employees.  Curious and intelligent, super service employees appreciate the time and effort made in giving them the big picture and a deeper understanding of the workings of the club.
  • Creating “master” service positions that recognize higher skill levels and greater knowledge.  The job descriptions for these positions must clearly lay out those distinguishing skills, characteristics, and duties that warrant more responsibility and higher compensation.  Such master positions can then become the aspiration of new or less accomplished employees.
  • Creating a clear career path of knowledge, skill development, and certification which allows other employees to set their sights on the more highly regarded and compensated master level.
  • Assigning master level employees the task of teaching and training those who aspire to the higher level.  Such tasking serves the super service employees’ need for participation and contribution while improving the overall skill level of other employees.
  • Challenging super service employees to engage in creative project work such as taking a larger role in training, creating more effective training programs, formulating and executing member relationship management strategies, and establishing a “wow” factor program for members.
  • Recognizing and rewarding super service employees.  Ensuring they know they are appreciated.  This not only serves their needs, but demonstrates to other employees their value, thereby motivating others to follow their example.  Rewards should also be tangible, such as:  higher pay based on their higher levels of performance, incentive opportunities, preference in scheduling, and educational opportunities.
  • Providing benefits to all employees based on well-defined employment statuses, i.e., full time, part time, and seasonal or temporary.  At a minimum benefits should include holiday pay for designated holidays, vacation time, personal/sick time, health benefits, and retirement benefits.

As an industry we can no longer view employees as a disposable asset, which is what we do when we view ongoing turnover as a cost control measure.  Operating small, stand-alone hospitality organizations with multiple businesses, high levels of service, and lean management staffs covering long hours and weeks is too difficult a task to do without a stable, competent workforce.  When we view labor as a disposable, easily-replaceable commodity, we condemn ourselves to high levels of turnover with its attendant training costs, turmoil, and loss of organizational continuity.  High levels of turnover must be viewed as a critical organizational and leadership failure that is damaging in all ways to the club’s mission and operation.

None of these solutions is easy to implement and will certainly add costs to the club, but I believe the current employment paradigm is far more damaging to a club’s success and remains a significant “hidden” cost of operations.

Thanks and have a great day!

Ed Rehkopf

This weekly blog comments on and discusses the hospitality industry and its challenges. From time to time, we will feature guest bloggers – those managers and industry experts who have something of interest to say to all of us. We also welcome feedback and comment upon the blog, hoping that it will become a useful sounding board for what’s on the minds of hardworking managers throughout the country and around the world.

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