Don’t Blame Me. I Just Work Here.

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I can’t make this “stuff” up. It really happened! The other night I was at a very nice – and very expensive – steakhouse restaurant. This place was top rated for their steaks and seafood. We all ordered a salad. As the server was setting down the salads, we noticed that one of the salads had a tiny portion of salad compared to the others. It was less than half the amount. The salad didn’t even cover the entire plate. So, my friend spoke up and mentioned it to the server, who replied, “I don’t make them. I just serve them.” And, then he walked away.

We were stunned by his response. I broke the silence by stating, “Well, it looks like I have material for my next article.”

I was hoping that he was joking when he gave his excuse, but unfortunately, he wasn’t. So, let’s talk about what happened.

  1. We all have two jobs: Our server didn’t recognize his most important responsibility, which was to take care of his customer. He just viewed himself as the guy who delivers the food. Everyone must recognize that they have two jobs; to do the job that they are hired to do and to take care of the customer.
  2. Be an ambassador for your brand: Our server didn’t realize one of his very important responsibilities, that he was an ambassador for his restaurant. More than just doing his job as a server and taking care of his customer or guest, he is also part of something bigger. His actions reflect on all the other employees. After the dinner, our friends made comments like, “They really have bad service.” The reality is that the restaurant usually has good service. Most of the other employees, if not all of them, are very good at what they do. Yet, one employee ruined the reputation of everyone.
  3. Don’t blame others: Our server played the blame game. “I don’t make them. I just serve them.” He was blaming the chef and his staff for the mistake. It may not have been his fault, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t accept the responsibility of managing the experience. A simple apology is a good start. And, making it right, in this case, would have been easy. Just bring the guest a new salad.

Nobody and no company is perfect. There will always be mistakes and problems. Some are small, and some are large. It’s how they are handled that is the true test of excellence. A problem is an opportunity to show how good you are. A complaint is a gift, allowing you to respond in a way that proves to the customer that they made the right decision to do business with you.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Shep: thank you for this post. My comment here is not intended to minimize or discount the annoyance you experienced. I, too, would probably have found the waiter’s response off-putting, to say the least. But I’d like to share a different perspective.

    A few years ago, I had a similarly bad experience at a restaurant. Something went wrong, and I felt the waitperson didn’t handle the situation well. I was offended, and I complained to the waitperson, and to the manager. The manager was contrite, but shared with me that the waitperson had just received some very bad personal news (specifying what it was) and as a result, he/she was not up to their usual performance. Whether telling me that was appropriate is beside the point. Given the gravity of what the person waiting on me was dealing with, I felt like an [idiot] for my behavior. And I never forgot the lesson.

    In your final paragraph, you acknowledge some important issues. I think they belong at the forefront. As customers and consumers, we’re habituated to reinforce our sense of entitlement. After all, we’re paying for something, and dammit, we should get it – and more! Delight me! Our self-imagined “bill of rights” always includes expectations for impeccable service. But the more we listen to these voices, the more prone we are to losing our compassion for the employee on the other end of the transaction. And that bothers me, a lot.

    My economic situation allows me to work one job – not two, three, or more. It also allows me discretionary spending which I sometimes use for dining, entertainment, etc. When I’m stressed or having a bad day, I knock off for a while and head to the gym to bang out laps in the pool, ride my bike, or whatever. Mostly, I come back refreshed, and my head is clear. I’m human again.

    I consider myself very fortunate. The person delivering the services I consume (i.e. serving me) often has a very different situation. They must show up for work, or they won’t get paid. Having a bad day? Tough! You’re waiting tables anyway. Need to let off some steam? There’s no foozball table. No breakroom. We’re paying you to work, not play. Many of us have such amenities. We have flexible hours or salaries that provide mental health shock-absorbers when we’re not feeling – how do you say – 100% friendly. It’s easy to forget that millions of people work under drastically different conditions. And pathetically, they don’t dine in the same “fine restaurants” because they can’t afford to. They’re sending a sizable chunk of their income to help family living in a dangerous part of the world survive. And my biggest gripe is that the restaurant service is slow, my food is served cold, or the waiter is surly? Hell, compared to the person who clears my table, I’ll take those problems any day of the week! In our consumer-oriented, high-service-expectation world, we hold a horrible myopia that inoculates us to understanding the difficulties others face – especially low-wage workers.

    As customers, how we respond to bad service presents a conundrum. In a perfect world, it’s great to expect waiters, cashiers, “Associates,” etc. to be “brand ambassadors.” I offer the waiter and the restaurant no help if I fail to call out problems. In many circumstances, it’s helpful for everyone involved to point out issues. How else can people and staff improve? But we live in societies with complex social problems. Is it fair to hold service people to a standard where they must always “take care of the customer?” Or, do we cut them slack, and accept that too many times, employees are thrown into situations where, for many reasons not of their own making, they are required to put on their best face: “Hi, I’m Jillian, and I’ll be your server today.” Her name tag, pinned to her neatly pressed polo shirt embroidered with the chain restaurant’s logo, tells me the same thing.

    Call me soft, but if Jillian fails to make eye contact, or seems distracted when she stops by my table, I try to think about what’s going on in her life, too.

  2. Interesting article from Shep and comment from Andy. There are restaurants where this type of scenario would be extremely rare and those where it would not be unusual. While I understand the point about having empathy for wait staff, this was not an acceptable situation. We all have bad days, but it is not an acceptable reason for treating customers shabbily. If an individual cannot perform to the minimum standards of the position (e.g. treat customers with respect), they should be allowed to step aside until they can do so. Management should also be on hand to provide backup. It’s all part of creating and reinforcing a systems approach to customer service.

    My wife and I visited one of the finest restaurants in our part of the country and halfway through the meal, our server disappeared. We found out later that she was having a personal crisis and just left without telling anyone. After being ignored for 20 minutes or so, we had to almost grab someone to complete our order. While this dampened our evening – when the restaurant management found out, they comped our meal, with no pleading or excuse-making – and this turned around our perspective. This is a great example of the “Service Recovery Paradox” where you turn a service lemons into CX Lemonade. As Shep stated in the last line of his article, “A complaint is a gift, allowing you to respond in a way that proves to the customer that they made the right decision to do business with you.”

  3. Andy, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect consumers to read minds or ask the server “are you having a bad day?” It’s none of our business.

    We all have bad days. But still have jobs to do. When serving customers, if a personal crisis is impacting basic job performance the employee should not be working.

    I had a horrible restaurant experience quite a few years ago on vacation — so bad that for the first and only time in my life, I left a $0 tip. The waiter followed me outside to ask “why?” I said, “because your service was terrible” and then learned she was sick. To which I said, “then go home!”

    Everyone has “stuff” going on in their lives. Rich people get cancer, divorce, have accidents, etc. If you can’t do the job, then don’t go to work. Employers should be empathetic, not customers. If employers don’t allow time off for illness or personal factors, then find another job!

  4. Hi Andrew – I see your point, and I appreciate your compassion. That said, people are allowed to have bad days. And, maybe they “perform” some days better than others. Yet, they should focus on doing their best, regardless of what’s going on in their lives. That’s what pros do. Be it on the athletic fields, on the theatrical stage, or in the world of business. Sometimes it’s the effort that counts. The other day I was at a restaurant and the server made several mistakes. We didn’t have to point them out. He did, and he apologized for them (more than once). He got a huge tip.

  5. Christopher, I like that line… service lemons into CX Lemonade. The first point your comment is exactly how I feel. (See the comment I left for Andy.) Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  6. Hi Bob – Your points are well taken. Yes, if the server is sick, he/she should go home. If the service is terrible and it’s obviously the server’s fault, you shouldn’t feel obligated to leave a tip. A good manager will spot some of this and do what’s necessary to make things right. Yet the employees have to take responsibility, too.

  7. Hi Shep: My position is probably in the minority here (it’s not the first time), but I’ll press on with my case. Your commentary appears directed at the waiter – what he needs to understand, what he needs to do, how he needs to behave – and my objection is that you could be blaming the victim. From the information given, we don’t know the deeper circumstances of your interaction and the waiter’s behavior. It’s plausible that the waiter could have been put in the position without adequate training, mentoring, or development. He could have been exasperated with his boss or with the restaurant after repeatedly bringing up problems with inconsistent portions in the past. All of us have a tendency of impugning the person most proximate in our bad experience. Rarely, do we ask, “why did this situation occur in the first place?” That’s wrong.

    Many people sincerely try hard, but I think “focus on doing your best” is possibly simplistic. Many service workers are thrust into situations where their ability to provide the level of service you are advocating is severely compromised. In great measure, their employers are directly to blame, but also by other circumstances that are often not well understood or acknowledged.

    The voice that’s missing from this conversational thread – and one that I believe is badly needed – is from the people you are directly talking about in your article. I’d love for them to weigh in, and would love even more for them to call me wrong and just tell tell me that the reason that customers have bad experiences is because left to their own skills and intuition, front-line workers are simply too lame or apathetic to ever do the right thing. My hypothesis is that if service workers – low-wage workers in particular – were invited into this conversation, the points I’m making would not only be corroborated, the response would be overwhelming. Having a bad day might be an acceptable reason for treating customers shabbily if the environment in which you are living and working is stacked against your producing a positive outcome. And regarding the idea that a “complaint is a gift,” that can be true in some circumstances, but in others, it can get you fired, as reported in The Washington Post recently where an hourly Dulles Airport worker got fired for a seemingly minor transgression. She works two separate jobs at the airport. Her offense? She was accused of soliciting a (meaning one) $20 tip when her work rules prohibit doing so.

    To check out the conditions under which hourly and wait-staff workers work, read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. https://www.gradesaver.com/nickel-and-dimed-on-not-getting-by-in-america/study-guide/summary. Please let me know what you think.

  8. Hi Andrew – I hear you, and I think for this one we may have to agree to disagree. The “comment” the waiter made about “don’t blame me” was just one of a number of flaws. Maybe his head wasn’t in the game. Maybe something was going on at home and impacting his attitude. Even if that was the case when my friend complained he didn’t handle it well. He didn’t offer to bring him another salad, and he didn’t apologize. Those are pretty basic moves at a restaurant. I appreciate your compassion for the server.

  9. Hi Shep: to be clear, my comments are not motivated by compassion to the employee you have called out in your article. They are based on the importance for practitioners to consider the possibility of deeper, systemic issues. My questions:

    1) if the employee bungled the service as badly as you described, was it anomalous? Or, did it reflect an overall attitude that the waiter had seen at the restaurant, which were tacitly endorsed or accepted by the restaurant owner or manager?

    2) if it was inconsistent with the service normally provided in the restaurant, what was the employer’s role or responsibility for your bad experience? Nothing at all? That’s possible. Maybe the restaurant had a rigorous vetting and intake process, and this employee was clever enough to spoof it. Or, maybe the restaurant perfunctorily offered him a job because they needed someone to start work right away, had few candidates, and put the waiter to work without adequate due diligence to learn whether he possessed the requisite interpersonal skills. During job interviews, there are effective ways to find out.

    These issues are widespread, and they are often exposed through what appear one heinous transgression committed by one employee. Several years ago in the DC Metro area where I live, a transit system employee chased a customer out of a subway station, and threatened to hit the customer with a broom. (The incident was precipitated when the customer complained about the service, and the employee was a station manager). It would have been simple to excoriate this employee for this assault – and many people did. But on further examination, it turned out that the employee’s actions were a manifestation of a widespread culture at WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority) that denigrated customers. That attitude traced all the way to the top. That incident catalyzed a company-wide employee re-training program to re-architect WMATA into a more effective customer service operation. That could never have happened by simply reprimanding the employee, urging him to improve, and then firing him when he appeared to fail.

  10. Andy, I’m confused.

    Your first comment seemed very clear that you advocate consumer compassion for the employee:
    “Call me soft, but if Jillian fails to make eye contact, or seems distracted when she stops by my table, I try to think about what’s going on in her life, too.”

    I’ll repeat myself and say that it’s not the consumer’s job to try to ferret out the underlying problem. Yes, it could be due to employer issues, but it could also be a deeply personal situation. In either case, it’s none of our business — as consumers — to intrude into workers lives.

    Now, as practitioners or consultants, it’s certainly worth exploring the root cause of poor customer experiences. I think you’re on solid ground there.

    There’s a downside to consumers “cutting some slack” to employees having a bad day. If they don’t complain or leave feedback in some way, how will the company know that a problem needs to be addressed?

    If the company culture is actually the source of the problem, then consumers complaining — rather than showing compassion and staying silent — is a better path to driving change. Eventually management will have to act because it will lose the trust of its source of revenue.

    I do have compassion for employees caught in the crossfire. Our family recently changed banks due to issues beyond our rep’s immediate control. I sent a personal email to our rep explaining our decision, and asked that it be forwarded to management. Still, I can’t be sure that there won’t be repercussions. That’s life.

  11. This has made for some interesting conversation, and even a little debate. Bottom line is I had bad service. The one piece of the evening that was worth writing about was the comment. So, let’s not try to read the minds of the server or the manager about what was happening in the server’s life that evening. My conversation with the manger was very positive. He hoped that I would come back to his restaurant during my stay. I did and the experience was exactly as it should be. In my discussions with him, he mentioned that my thoughtful critique of the experience was the topic of conversation the next night when they had their “pre-open meeting” with the staff. All ended well.

    I am always on the lookout for experiences we can learn from. And, I think we’ve learned quite a bit from this – not just from my article, but from the very thoughtful comments left about the article. Thank you for that!

  12. Bob: you are correct that my argument has pivoted slightly. It’s presumptuous of me to expect others to hew to my particular (or some might say, peculiar) sense of fair play or compassion. As consumers, I advocate that we maintain our humanity and accept that those who deliver service are fallible. I agree that ignoring problems isn’t the answer, and I’m not advocating that anyone does that. And my intention isn’t to dictate to others when complaining is “right” or “wrong.” Note that in the penultimate paragraph of my first comment I said, “I offer the waiter and the restaurant no help if I fail to call out problems.”

    So make no mistake – I’m not under any delusion that keeping quiet about service issues is preferable, or even helpful to the vendor or employee. What I am saying is that as consumers, a condition of our role in the transaction is that we must always pick and choose our battles, and I offer no rules for determining when a line has been crossed that needs to be called out. It all depends on context. By “cutting employees slack,” I’m saying that as customers, it’s probably better not to expect perfection. When a line has been crossed, we’ll know it from when we see through our personal lens, and when that happens, it might be best to say something to someone who can take action – might being the operative word. I’m not qualified to tell anyone what they should be pissed off about, and what they shouldn’t be.

    I don’t believe it’s an intrusion into an employee’s life to consider their circumstances before judging (or confronting) them. I agree that I shouldn’t feel obligated to do so, But I’m not asking an employee to share with me what might have caused their brusqueness or indifference. I’m not demanding they explain themselves to me. I’m just thinking, “oh – right now, they’re probably having a crappy day. I’m with you, because I’ve had them myself. And yes, I’ve unintentionally projected my poor attitude on others.” I see that as much different from intrusion.

    Regarding my pivot: If being human means our senses of fair play and empathy differ, maybe it’s possible to gain consensus that when dissecting service problems, it’s more effective to examine the entirety of the situation, rather than simply condemning the person most proximate to the problem.

  13. Andy, sure it’s fine to think about what might be causing the problem and have compassion. If that works for you, fine.

    However, I don’t see how you can ever really know what is going on without engaging the employee in a discussion. Unless the consumer has a real relationship, I just don’t think that’s ever appropriate.

    I feel like you’ve trying to find an excuse for the employee’s poor service. It may be the company’s fault, an off day, or something else. Maybe, they’re just doing a bad job. It’s hard for me to have an empathy for someone saying “that’s not my job.” As a consumer, I really don’t care and shouldn’t have to analyze this.

    Shep handled it perfectly. His feedback to management helped make the poor service interaction a teachable moment.

  14. It’s hard to know whether for Shep, the worse outcome was the bad waiter interaction, or the debate about it! Shep – This conversation probably wasn’t on your mind when you made your post, so I appreciate your being a good listener, and for considering my point of view. Your incident surfaced a number of issues that are very important, and I appreciate the opportunity to provide an opinion. I don’t have enough information here to know whether Shep handled this “perfectly”, and I can’t really make that assessment anyway. I might have responded the same way – or not. It would depend on what I saw, felt, and perceived at the time. Overall, I’m OK not knowing the exact circumstances of an employee’s less-than-excellent behavior – or any circumstances whatsoever, for that matter. My main point is that in many circumstances, I accept a range of variability in service quality, and if events exceed or broach the downward limit of that range, then I may choose to call it out. That’s my approach, and it works for me because it allows a certain level of disappointment without driving me batty. I make no recommendations that other use the same approach, or that they look at things the same way.

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