How to train employees to be nice

Can you train employees to be nice? Earlier this year, it was reported that McDonald’s was encouraging its franchisees to train workers to be less rude to customers. But several operators we spoke to feel that hiring the right kind of people from the start is the best way to ensure your staff has the gift of customer service. Walking workers through the steps to resolve guest problems will ensure they have the confidence and skills to address issues that arise. And incentives and rewards go a long way toward letting employees know that they’re valued. “We believe a happy employee is a happy guest,” says Debra Fay Fox, vice president of training for The Palm Restaurant in Washington, D.C. “Treat your employees well, and you’re going to treat your guests well. We really believe that, and that ends up on the plate,” she says.

It’s a worthy investment: A recent survey by Zagat found that service was diners’ No. 2 complaint nationally (second only to noise). Restaurant Business spoke to five operators to gather their tips for finding nice employees and encouraging existing employees to be (and remain) nice to customers. 

1. Encourage a dialogue. Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City seeks out natural caregivers. “That’s not a teachable skill,” says Richard Coraine, senior managing partner. Interviewers ask situational questions to spot empathy and good conversation skills. “We believe that hospitality is a team sport. When a problem happens ... customers are more forthcoming when there is a dialogue.”

2. Practice plus-one service. At the 150+ locations of Dallas-based Corner Bakery Cafe, the focus is on empowering employees to handle problems. Says Cherie Neyrey, director of training, “If you can, fix it and then give [the guest] something extra, like a cookie, as part of plus-one service.” Also key, Neyrey says, is to rewarding employees when their service meets the company’s promise. “[Our] awards recognize the aspects of the business that we want to drive, instead of focusing on what people don’t do well,” Neyrey says. “We have very low turnover—under 50 percent at the hourly level;  that speaks to our culture.”

3. Let employees be themselves. “We have no interest in molding our employees to be meatball machines,” says Michael Chernow, co-owner and general manager of The Meatball Shop, with five units in New York City. The culture is all about allowing people to be who they are, he says. “We want to create the most fun place to work for our staff with no managers looking over their shoulders. When the employees are happy and having fun, they will take care that customers feel the same.”

4. Spell it out. While you can’t teach nice, Jason Lyon, CEO of The Common Man family of restaurants in New Hampshire says you can talk about it and encourage it. To bring out the nice, the group teaches employees to practice L.A.T.E. (listening, acknowledging, telling the kitchen or management and execution). The goal: to remain humble and respectful of the guest and meet expectations with sincerity, Lyon says. 

5. Treat them like family. On the first day of training at The Palm Restaurant in Washington, D.C., trainers talk about all the things the company offers its employees, says Debra Fay Fox, vice president of training. “Full-time employees get the same benefits as our managers.” Recognizing achievements also is part of treating employees like family, Fox says.

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