Come on customers, give us a hand here

As a teenager, I got a job with this new American organisation called Safeway who were building a big shiny supermarket in the town where I lived. It was my first experience of a professional corporate organisation with rules and systems. Working for the slave driver at the local paper shop didn’t compare. And the car washing business my mate and I started didn’t have any rules at all (but it had plenty of arguments) even though it earned us quite a bit of money.

Anyway, the recruitment process for Safeway was an eye-opener but was as nothing when compared with the training. I thought, because I was being employed as a part-timer, that I’d be treated fairly casually and would learn the job on the go. But no, they paid us to turn up for a number of days training and an education into the culture of the company. They sat us in a classroom and taught us how to speak to customers and how to provide them with directions around the store. I was to work in the produce section and for a day or two I hadn’t a clue what that was. It turned out to be what Americans called green groceries. Ah, you live and learn.

And one thing I did learn was that this new company thought that some of their most important employees were the checkout operators. In those days the girls, for they were nearly all female, didn’t wave a barcode in front of a them and wait for the beep. Oh no, they were a lot more skilled than that. They had to key in the item code and price of everything and that took training and practice and concentration. But, and this is the important bit, they had to be really nice to the customers. They weren’t just employed to process the shopping basket. That might have been important but not as important as being the last person the customer encountered before leaving the store. And Safeway realised that the last person you saw as you left was the most important part of your journey through the store. If they upset you when you’d just started shopping, all could be recovered by a friendly checkout operator. But if that person ruined your day, it stayed ruined until you’d got home and kicked the dog. And you may never go back to the shop.

It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me through to today because I know we make mistakes in the restaurant; we’re only human after all and every football team has its off day. But we have until you leave to try and put things right. Once you’ve gone, it’s too late. That’s why waiting staff are always interrupting you with “Is everything alright” just as you’re about the tell the punch line. Lovely.

But customers could also help here; particularly those who are organising large parties. It’s not the most enviable of tasks and sometimes my heart goes out to the secretary given the job of organising the office party as it’s slightly more difficult than herding belligerent sheep. However, there is one thing that he or she can do that’ll make everyone’s experience so much better, and that includes the restaurateur’s, and that’s to sort out the money side of thing before the end of the meal and make sure everybody agrees with what’s happening.

Check to see if there’s an obligatory service charge, which there often is on larger groups, and let the whole party know the total amount including this. Who’s paying for the drinks? We don’t mind who but we don’t want to see a fight at the end of the meal when it’s found that the sales team have been drinking the typists’ share of the booze

It’s a bit like a marriage: it doesn’t matter what’s gone on during the day but you don’t want to go to bed angry. So, no matter who knocked the wine over or who had soup poured in their lap, finishing, kissing everyone Merry Christmas and leaving the restaurant should be a nice experience.

Not like the company party I experienced when I had a restaurant in Darlington. There the boss, a lovely guy, had promised everybody the same amount to spend on Christmas lunch. Anything extra they had to pay for themselves. They had a lot extra, an awful lot, mainly booze. And when it came to the bill they almost came to blows arguing about who’d had what and how much. The boss was so exasperated he lost patience, slammed the company’s money down on the table, shouted at them to sort it out themselves and stormed out of the restaurant without so much as a Merry Christmas.

Let that be a lesson to you.

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