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Wouldn’t it be great if you could define “good service” in just a few words? Dream on. Still, a lot can be learned from the attempt.

In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart uttered a phrase that passed into the American lexicon like few others have. Struggling to define obscenity, the jurist declared that he in fact did not know how to define it, “but I know it when I see it.”

A half century later, Justice Stewart’s words have humorously yet succinctly expressed the difficulties in defining many an elusive concept in law and in business: ethnicity, sexual harassment, unfair taxation, and a whole slew of other slippery topics.

For restaurateurs, we might add this one: good service.

Aside from good food (and even that, at times, is debatable), there’s simply no attribute more coveted by operators. And yet, like the harried justice, every restaurateur struggles to define what good service really means.

That’s a problem, because if the owner or the manager doesn’t know, how’s he or she supposed to teach it to the floor staff? If only there were a checklist, a black-and-white manual, some universally agreed-to standard that would tell you if you’ve got good service or not.

Of course, there is no such thing. Making matters worse, the operator’s more frequent brush with the topic occurs in the negative: He hears it when customers don’t get good service much more frequently than when they do.

Nonetheless, the struggle to define good service remains. A number of business schools and consultants have paid a great deal of attention to the problem of measuring quality service and customer satisfaction in recent years. And while many of their treatises are so lengthy and complex as to be virtually impenetrable for your average time-starved restaurateur, it’s interesting to see what happens when they’re broken down to their fundamentals.

So here’s the drill: We’ll take three widely variant models that purportedly define good service, sift them, and see what they have in common. Not only do the same themes pop up again and again, but one aspect is shared by all of them. Think you know this all already? Just in case not, have a peek:

First up is the Service Triangle, developed by John Haward-Farmer in 1988 and used most recently by Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K. in its lengthy analysis of the European Foundation for Quality Management Excellence Model—considered an organizational plan for many European businesses.

The Service Triangle is exactly that—a three-pointed conceptual model for any service organization, such as a restaurant, to achieve its goals. According to the model, customer service excellence depends on these three zones working in tandem:

  1. The Maintenance Interactive Dimension (physical infrastructure).
  2. The Task Interactive Dimension (cognitive skills, training).
  3. The People-Interactive Dimension (interpersonal, attitudes, behavior).

The theorists point out that the type of business in question determines which of these areas resides at the apex of the triangle and is hence most important. For restaurants, it’s Dimension 3. But it’s interesting to note that two-thirds of this model pertains to the training and behavior of employees. It’s a theme that will recur.

Meanwhile, one continent over, at Rai University, the largest private college in India, one advanced marketing course defines good service by identifying three key criteria that customers use in evaluating it themselves.

  1. People (courtesy, credibility,  professionalism).
  2. Time (promptness and efficiency).
  3. Appearance (physical surroundings/tangible aspects of the experience).

Boiled down to its sweetness, the lesson is that good service rests on timely delivery by nice people in a pleasant environment.

It’s important to note that “service” in this context includes not only the speed with which it’s delivered, but also the physical surroundings, which is something not always considered when one thinks of the guest interactive experience. Here again, however, the main emphasis rests on employees—how they behave, how they look, and how well they know their jobs.

Finally, a definition of good service according to American businessman and consultant Kurt Hughes, who runs Quality Service Assurance, a mystery-shopper firm based in Billings, MT. Writing recently in the Western Business News, Hughes distilled what he believes are the main components that answer the question “What is good service?”

Boiled down, they are:

  1. A quick and friendly greeting.
  2. An employee’s expressed willingness to assist you in a timely, thorough, and knowledgeable fashion.
  3. Delivering up a product that meets or exceeds expectations.
  4. Quick and accurate check out.
  5. A company that stands behind the product if something goes wrong.
  6. Providing that “extra little something”.

With the exception of Nos. 3 and 5, which deal with the product itself and a company guarantee of its quality, four of these six rules pertain to employee behavior.

On the surface, what these definitions have in common isn’t all that new. The notion that employees create the customer-service ex­perience is taught in Restaurant 101, right? But a closer look shows more than that.

These theories stress that good service goes beyond good training and well into an intangible area that’s defined by personality. If “good service” is delivered by a “good employee,” he or she is not just one that’s well trained and knows his job. What’s clearly outlined here is attitude: An ability not just to perform the task, but to customize it and deliver it in an empowered and case-appropriate manner that the customer recognizes as genuine.

This soft-white underbelly of the good-service definition was also discussed by James L. Heskett and Thomas O. Jones, et. al, writing in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review. The authors state, in part: “How do you measure service value? ... Ultimately, service quality is a function of the gap between perceptions of the actual service experienced and what a customer expected before receiving the service. Actual service includes both final results and the process through which those results are obtained. ...Because value varies with individual expectations, efforts to improve value inevitably require service organizations to move all levels of management closer to the customer and give frontline service employees the latitude to customize a standard service to individual needs.”

These days, people in the restaurant business hear a good deal about customization—but usually in the sense of modifying food orders to meet the guest’s desires. In seeking to define good service, these authors are evoking the idea of customization as it relates to the relationship between the guest and the employee.

Despite these works, a succinct definition of good service remains as elusive as ever. But if these theories are to be given weight, the notion is not only that good service is determined by good employees, but how they themselves define it on a customer-by-customer basis, which in turn evokes the old sermon on the importance of creating a company culture that employees like and feel valued by.

That is, of course, another topic entirely. But in the meantime, remember that while we’re busy searching for the perfect definition of good service, your customers, like the good Justice Stewart, just know it when they come across it.

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