Lessons in Action, Part V: Seamless Systems

Every day I think of Michael O’Grady and the creative ways he coached and mentored so many to new heights. In this new series, Lessons in Action, I share my insights, breakthroughs, tools, and techniques that honor Michael’s legacy of helping others grow.

Last summer, I stopped by a Washington Harbour café in Georgetown with my wife and three kids. With no host in sight, we struggled to put two tables together, when a server pointed to the far side of the eatery, “You have to check in at the host stand first.” After winding our way through a maze of tables, umbrellas, and side stands, the hostess dragged us back to where we started. The poorly designed arrival had us take our $70 to the Sequoia Restaurant a few steps away. When we experience poor service, our first inclination is to blame the staff. But the real culprit behind most service failures is the systems, not the people.

1. Listen to your front line. Uncover service barriers from those closest to the action: dishwashers, servers, hosts, bussers, and bartenders. We asked our staff, “If you owned this restaurant, what would you do differently?” says Kathy Stewart, former director of training for Great American Restaurants. “We gleaned fantastic ideas on how to improve service as well as insights into our company culture. The staff didn’t hold back. They told us everything in graphic detail—how they felt about their jobs, their managers, and the company.” Listening, whether in an all-staff meeting, pre-shift, or one-on-one, uncovers service failures for both guests and staff. Encourage employees to share issues without fear of reprisal. Remember, internal as well as external complaints reveal ways to improve and innovate.

2. Reframe policies. While working with the View Lounge, the tallest revolving rooftop bar in New York City, I overheard a server policing guests “Sorry, folks. It’s against our policy to seat groups larger than five by the window.” Servers were put in the unfortunate position of playing the bad cop. I worked with the team to create a different approach, “Ladies and gentleman, it’s important for your safety to sit on the second tier. I’d be happy to help you move your drinks and snacks, and I’ll buy you a round.”

3. Reengineer. It was bad enough when groups flying from Newark to Aruba had to endure security lines, a Miami stop-over, customs, and a bus ride to the Aruba Marriott. By the time the bedraggled guests arrived, they shoved and elbowed their way to the front of the check-in line. Guests revolted. “Your front desk clerks are pathetic. They’re rude and incompetent.” I worked with the management team to fix the problem. First, we had the bus drivers greet guests at the airport with bottled water and cold towels. When the bus arrived at the hotel, we had our hospitality super star hop on and say, “Welcome to the best resort in the Caribbean. I have great news. There’s no need to rush. Greeters will direct you to tables in the lobby where you can pick up your key packets and be on the way to your rooms. And then stop by the pool bar for a complimentary Funky Monkey Pina Colada.”

4. Make work easy. “How can you work in that nut house packed wall to wall with a three-hour wait?” friends often asked when I waited tables at Paolo’s back in ‘87. GM Michael O’Grady’s well-thought-out systems created a salesperson’s paradise. Our service bar was set up with red wines in a rack and whites in a cooler for easy access. Michael hired only ace service bartenders. He orchestrated a cadre of Thai-busser worker bees who could clear and reset a table in less than 10 seconds. When food came up, it was on its way in a nanosecond. Our hosts could pack the room tighter than a drum. Michael’s brilliantly crafted systems freed us to concentrate on serving and selling.

Poorly designed systems create incompetence, demoralize staff, and make for angry defecting guests. When you lay the groundwork for seamless service, you boost morale, build sales and guest loyalty. In the end, you make the right thing the easiest thing to do.”

About the Author

BOB BROWN, president of Bob Brown Service Solutions,, was the #1 speaker at the 2017 National Restaurant Show. He has worked with hospitality icons such as Disney, Hilton, Morton’s of Chicago, Nordstrom, Olive Garden, and Ritz Carlton and works internationally with the prestigious seven-star Burj Al Arab in Dubai. He has appeared on the Food Network and is author of The Little Brown Book of Restaurant Success, selling over 100,000 copies worldwide. Contact Bob for keynotes, breakouts, and workshops at 571-246-2944 ©Bob Brown Service Solutions 2016.

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