Last week my better half and I made plans to go see Hip-Hop Nutcracker. The show was at 8pm and it was about a 45 minute drive to the theater, so we decided to grab a dinner before we hit the road. There was a seafood place that just opened right next to us, so we decided to check it out, figuring an hour for dinner should be plenty of time.
Looking back, I guess the first (perhaps not red, but yellow) flag that should’ve triggered was that our waiter took ten minutes to come to our table and greet us. On the plus side, it gave us a chance to look through the menu and make our choices, so we were able to order drinks, appetizers and entrees all at the same time. Another ten minutes pass, and our appetizers make it to the table. Then drinks in another five (an odd serving order, but hey, they are new.) It is also worth noting that both drinks and appetizers were brought by different people, neither of whom was our original waiter. But again, they are new, somewhat busy, so everyone’s trying to help each other. At this point we’ve got drinks in our hands, something to much on, so life is good. And then the waiting game began.
Fifteen minutes pass. And then another ten. I am trying to look for our waiter, who is nowhere to be found. I ask another waiter to find ours; he agrees to help, but looks so confused that I doubt his ability to do so. Finally, our waiter makes a brief appearance, gibbers something about our food being ready for a bit and he should’ve picked it up, and rushes of to (I assumed) pick it up. Another five minutes pass. The waiter returns and in apologetic tone tells us that there’s been a mixup in a kitchen and our food is next. Since it’s been close to an hour, I asked him how long would it actually take, as we have to leave at most in the next ten minutes. At that point I am clearly annoyed and frustrated, but still willing to save the evening, even if I have to swallow my crab cake whole. The waiter, says “let me check” and goes back to the kitchen. Another ten minutes pass … At that point I get up, find someone who looks like a manager (who happened to be an owner) and explain the situation. In fairness, she was extremely polite and apologetic, so our (lack of) dining experience ended with bill taken care of, $50 credit and a stop by at a local Chipotle on the way to the theater. And, because it was a 45 minute drive, I went through a sort of a post mortem exercise in my head. Any much like any technical post mortem I’ve lead, I was trying to figure out what the restaurant could’ve done differently to to minimize the impact of their mistakes and, ultimately, their losses.
First of, much like in any other business, communication is key. In this particular case communication failure manifested itself twice – internally and externally. Internally – it is not uncommon for a new restaurant to experience confusion shortly after opening. Hell, it’s not uncommon for any restaurant. But periodic check-ins on the status of order would’ve let the waiter catch the problem early and have an opportunity to remedy it with minimal impact. Which would also help with external communication. Notifying us when the problem was discovered would not only minimize the level of frustration, but could also help with the problem remedy (i.e. if the fish took too long to prepare we could’ve ordered something else.) Ignoring the problem (and the customer) is by far the worst reaction to the situation; it’s a sure way to escalate the problem instead of mitigating it.
The other failure, which is a common trait found in less experienced professionals in every industry, is inability to asses the business impact of decisions made. In this case, the decision to push the order through an hour into service, after having it fall through the cracks, was a wrong one. The waiter knew that we’re in the hurry and, chances are, won’t wait to receive and eat the food. Yet, he has made a decision to have kitchen expedite the order, costing the restaurant ingredients and labor, just to throw it away. On top of that, offering us a round of drinks on the house, half way through the wait, would’ve gone the long way. Not only would the good faith gesture calm the frustrated customers (and trust me, it would’ve), it would also cost restaurant less to give us free drinks as opposed to comping a full meal for two plus $50 gift certificate.
Decision making is perhaps the most valuable skill that is often overlooked in the hiring process. Understanding and solving problems, especially when in a firefighting mode, are highly valued in every industry, technology and food services alike. Assessing when to mitigate the impact of the problem versus trying to fix it is critical in making the right choice at the right time. A few key concepts anyone found in the position to make quick, business impacting decisions should consider:
- really understand the problem
- understand maximum acceptable risk
- prioritize actions resulting in largest positive impact
- see value of incremental improvements
- keep all communication channels open
And perhaps the most valuable tip I can offer – don’t cling to a mistake because you spent a lot of time making it. It’s never about the pride, but always about mitigating the problem with minimal damage. No matter what industry it is.