By Jim Sullivan, CEO and Founder of

All right. Enough already.

I’m ordering breakfast at a chain restaurant on a rainy Thursday morning near San Jose, California. The hostess pours me a cup of coffee, and eventually my server saunters by, her face no doubt the inspiration for the Whiskey Sour. I close my menu. “I’ll have the Country Omelette,” I said, “with wheat toast, please.” Without looking up the server automatically replies: “Would you like to try a 6 oz NY strip steak with that?” I pause, staring straight ahead. “Is that extra?” I venture. Her expression was colder than the other side of the pillow. “Only $5.79,” she says, suggesting the $6 “upsell” to my $3.79 omelette. I decline. “They make us ask,” she mutters with a shrug.

Two days later I’m sitting in on a server meeting at a large casual theme chain’s Orlando-area unit. Midway through a lengthy agenda, The GM exhorts the waitstaff and bartenders to improve their “service” because customers “want it” and it’s “important.” Next topic. The staff, hearing the word “service” once again and lacking specifics in either desired behavior or corrective action, begins to look down, away, or discreetly checks the number of voice mail messages on their cell phones. “Maybe if we had enough people,” grumbles the bartender next to me under his breath, “we wouldn’t have a problem with ‘service’.”

Two incidents a continent apart that spin a cautionary tale for operators: the words “Service” and “Upselling” have become, respectively, both meaningless and dangerous. Service is not Hospitality, and treating customers as if they’re a face with a pocketbook attached, is neither hospitable, nor smart business.

I’m privileged to be able to consult with dozens of successful restaurant chains and independent operators on the topics of improving “service” and “profitability”. The programs we’ve mutually designed have been, for the most part, extremely successful in generating measurably improved customer feedback and significantly increased sales. But I prefer the term “hospitality” to service since the s-word has become watered down and something of a commodity term due to its overuse and lack of specifics. And I’ve always preached “helpful suggestions” over pre-scripted and forced “upselling”. Done right, it makes the customer feel great. Done pre-scripted and pushy, it raises the guest’s hackles. Now maybe you’d argue that it’s just a word game, but the distinctions can make a significant difference in your customer counts, employee retention, and bottom line.

Some will argue that the word “service” refers to the mechanical part of the concept (serving from the correct side, hot food hot, etc) while contending that “Hospitality” engenders the emotional side of the guest’s experience (smiles, friendliness, remembering names.) I like it.  But no matter what you call it, service, hospitality, or caring behavior, it’s our invisible product, and we should continuously look for new ideas to make our guests feel good about doing business with us. The meaning of customer service is always changing because customers are always changing. As always, I’d prefer examples over theory, so here are a few good ideas to consider:

Be specific about hospitality in your mission statement. Here are two of my favorites, and neither is more than five words long: The DeRosa Corporation in Milwaukee, operators the Chancery Pubs and several other cool concepts, keep their objective simple: “Every guest leaves happy.” The first line of the Great Harvest bread company employee manual sets a tone for hospitality that is as clear as it is brief: “Be loose and have fun.”

Smile when you answer the phone. It may sound silly, but hospitality begins on the phone and your guests can hear the friendly difference in a smiling voice on the other end.

Adopt the two-person rule. Mistakes happen. Problems occur. And a guest should never have to talk to more than two people in order to resolve a problem.

Touch Every Table. Don’t spend too much time with being friendly and hospitable with your “regulars” at the risk of ignoring your “unknown” new guests. Seek out a stranger very shift and make every guest feel special.

Ask the right questions. If you’re serious about identifying your hospitality (or culinary) goals, pose the question Walt Disney World managers use with their cast members: “What do we want to be famous for with guests?” Ask these questions every six months about your business: “Is it easy for customers to do business with us? If it isn’t, why? Change it. Is it easy for us to do business with ourselves? If it isn’t, why? Change it.”

Define the heroes, symbols and rituals. Who are your heroes? Which employees are held in esteem because of caring behavior toward the guest or fellow employees? Why? Which employees have the greatest success selling? What behavior of theirs can be taught or repeated? It’s also important to identify and reinforce the success symbols in the restaurant’s culture. What does your company do to recognize achievement relative to hospitality, suggestive selling or education? Pins? Certificates? Different colored aprons or shirts or hats for certified trainers?  Awards? And finally, what rituals in your company reinforce and recognize caring behavior and incremental sales? Pre-shift meetings are a good place to do just that.

Never Lick Your Fingers at Work. Nuff said.

Be hospitable to your “internal” customers (employees) first. Where you have the highest level of employee satisfaction, you have had the highest increases in sales and market share. If you’re not serving the customer directly, you’d better be serving someone who is.

Hospitality delivery is dependent on staffing. All the best intentions and hospitality focused training may be for naught if you’re nagged by a chronic labor shortage. If you’re under-staffed, even excellent training is wasted and the customer becomes the shock-absorbing system. If the quality of the customer experience is poor there is a strong risk of permanent customer loss.  If the quality of the experience is marginal, the visit frequency will be less than it should be. In all cases the average check is lower because the server does not have the necessary time to read the guest or suggestively sell. The good employees become dispirited because they cannot provide good service by getting to the tables as often as they know they should and the marginal employees are completely swamped. Morale sinks, turnover rises, and you end up focusing too much time on filling a schedule instead of providing hospitality to both the internal and external customer. So staffing is the nail, and training is the hammer.

Jim Sullivan is an award winning speaker, author and consultant. If you’d like to see his training catalog, apps, videos or leadership  e-newsletter, check out the website. You can follow Jim on Twitter and YouTube @Sullivision.