Effective service management

One night early in my career as a manager, I passed one of my new servers in the dining room and heard him responding to a guest’s question about our beers. “We have Heineken and um… Budweiser and um…Becks and um…” After service, I met with him and explained that he had told the guests we had two brands that we did not, in fact, carry and forgot three that we did serve. In addition, we did not have any “and um…” beer. He defensively replied that he couldn’t help it—he was an actor, not a waiter. I suggested that he approach the situation like an actor in the role of a waiter: go home, learn his lines and be prepared to recite the beers to me the next day in groups of imported and domestic without any pausing utterances, or he would be removed from the schedule until he could perform. I could not get angry with him because ultimately it was my fault. I had not set the standards and confirmed he met them before allowing him to serve my guests.

As a businessperson, if you were selling a product other than food and beverage, such as appliances, computers or widgets, you would make sure everyone on your sales force was knowledgeable about the product, had all the supplies they needed to do their job and was familiar with established policies and procedures. While most restaurant chains have adopted this concept, individual restaurants often drop the ball. We often blame the servers for bad service when the problem really lies with the management.

To reach the level of service where guests rave about their experience, managers need to ensure servers have these five tools:

  1. training and continued training,
  2. clear standards,
  3. knowledge of the products,
  4. supplies,
  5. and efficient facility design.

#1—Training and Continued Training

We usually intend to train new servers for three to four days before sending them out into the dining room to wait on customers. But the reality is often that three other servers call in sick on the new server’s first day, so we toss him or her an order pad, assign a station and say “go.” Later, we rarely get or take the opportunity to provide the proper level of training—at best, we may have the newbie cross-train with a more-senior server for a day. Hey, the new guy survived the first day, so why bother doing any more? You bother because cross-training can be the least-effective method of bringing someone new on board. It is the telephone game of training—we may not have trained the first server properly, and he or she subsequently trained another server and is now training the new one. Proper employee training is crucial to the success of your business, so managers must take an active role. You need to provide ongoing training and be diligent about observing your servers on the floor.

#2—Clear Standards

One of the first steps in establishing clear standards is to create a training manual. This document should describe exactly how service is to be conducted in your establishment and the manner in which you want your business represented, and not simply outline the sequence of service. It should include all the details of service, such as:

  • how servers should greet the table,
  • whether servers should pour water automatically or if they should offer bottled water and, if so, how to present the choice,
  • when (before or after taking the order) and how to offer bread,
  • the need to review the day’s specials and any menu changes before leaving the table to get the beverage order.

Make sure every server, bartender and bus person gets a copy of the training manual and signs a document stating they have read it. Then, quiz them on the information and continue to hold them accountable by observing the servers’ performance. Most people have a bit of a lazy side—even us workaholics—so short cuts will start to develop and be copied by fellow servers if you don’t correct things immediately.

#3—Knowledge of the Products

Part of initial and ongoing training is making available to servers the detailed descriptions and, ideally, photos of the dishes. These, of course, must be provided by the chef. Unfortunately, chefs sometimes express their disdain for waiters for not having knowledge of the products when they never provided the information the servers need in the first place. Pre-service meetings conducted by the chef and dining room manager about specials or special requests for the shift are informative and signal the importance of working together as a team. The meetings can help servers who may have been off for a day or two to get up to speed on changes made to the menu. As a manager, it’s your responsibility to keep your staff informed.


Inadequate inventory of china, glassware and flatware is frequently the cause of bad or slow service and often results in breakage when employees are rushing around gathering supplies mid-service. A host or hostess pre-service checklist should include items such as order pads; kitchen dupe printer paper; check printer paper; beverage trays; staples; sufficient quantities of menus, dessert menus and wine lists; brochures and giveaway menus; and any other supplies used daily.

#5—Efficient Facility Design

Service staff need organized work stations to perform efficiently. There needs to be ample space in the servers’ station for coffee beans or grounds, milk products and the like so that re-stocking is only needed before the shift.
I once consulted for a new restaurant (after it had been designed and built) in which the POS system was planned to be placed behind the dish room, which was behind the kitchen. This would have forced servers to leave the guests’ table, pass through the kitchen and dish room to place the order, and then reverse the trip to go back through the dining room to the bar to get the guests’ cocktails. Besides wearing the servers out with extra steps, it would have slowed down service had they not re-wired the room prior to opening to accommodate a more efficient location for the POS.

Managing for Success

Your service staff and sales representatives will be much more comfortable—and successful—in their work environment if they understand your expectations and know you have supplied them with the tools they need to perform their jobs at the highest level. If you have trained your servers properly, correcting them will not come off as a reprimand and be detrimental to morale, but more as a gentle reminder.

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