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You got served

Liz Feltham discusses what to look for when searching for good service.


Service is a hot topic among those who eat out. Everyone has a horror story and everyone has had great experiences, but unfortunately, it’s the horror stories that are more likely to be repeated and passed on.

As someone who eats out a lot, I have a tale or two of service nightmares, and handful of truly exceptional experiences that I treasure. The bad stories make for good copy, and the great ones are easy to write about, but all I truly expect is good service. And next to “What’s the best restaurant in the city?” the question I’m asked the most is “Just what is good service?” Most of us can identify bad service—if you’re left feeling disgruntled, brushed off, neglected or indifferent, it’s bad.

If you’ve ever had a waiter neglect to check on your food after bringing it to your table, or a coffee shop worker fill your order, take your money and pass back your change without even a grunt in your general direction, you’ve been the victim of bad service. The waiter might be having a bad day, the barista might be working the second leg of a double shift, but you shouldn’t have to be concerned with the motive; you’re the customer and as long as you are paying, you deserve good service.

To be sure, there are customers from hell and just as many stories about evil diners as incompetent service staff. The difference is that guests are paying for service.

It may be subjective, but I believe there are four key elements that make for good service.

Wherever I go, I look for KAOS: knowledge, appreciation, ownership and sincerity.

The server must be knowledgeable about the establishment in general and the menu in particular. Whether it’s about what kind of oil the fish is fried in to what kind of herbs are in the soup, the server needs to be able to tell me. If they don’t know the answer but can and do find out right away, that works too.

The more elaborate the operation is, the more complex the service, certainly. I don’t expect the waiter at a lunch counter to recommend a suitable wine with my daily special. Nor do I expect to eat fine dining and have to wait for my water to be refreshed.

Service staff should be appreciative of my business. I look for a server who seems happy to take care of me, to make my dining experience special, who remembers to say “thank you.” In exchange, I tip my appreciation, usually 20 percent.

I expect service staff to take ownership of the table and any problems that may come up during the meal. I don’t want the server to lay blame because I don’t really care, I just want it fixed. A simple, “I’m so sorry, let me see what we can do” is all I expect. Guest recovery is everything. I’m more impressed by the ability of a server to solve a problem than I am disturbed by the problem.

Sincerity is key. If you’re not happy to be there, it shows. Some people are faking it, and that’s fine too, as long as I can’t tell. When a server asks me how everything is, I don’t want them to blow by expecting me to just mumble “Fine.” I want them to stop, look me in the eye and ask as if they really care.

When I review a restaurant, I don’t set out to “trap” servers—in fact, just the opposite. I engage them in conversation, ask questions, am understanding if anything goes awry, and generally give the service staff a chance to shine. I know that if I’m getting bad service, then most others will get the same service.

As a customer, you can help yourself get better service as well. Don’t be overly demanding—if it’s busy, and your server is obviously doing the best they can, don’t snap your fingers loudly and call out. Don’t pretend your server doesn’t exist, or that she or he is your personal chattel. Treat them with dignity and respect, and they will most likely respond in kind. Service staff are there to help you enjoy the experience, so let them.

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