On Having Flair: The Lessons I Learned as a TGI Friday’s Waitress

by Jennifer Vides on June 27, 2010

in Blog Posts,My Soapbox (AKA My Blog)

I was a TGI Friday’s waitress. For years, actually. And what you see pictured here? That’s my “flair” – some of it, anyway.

I still have those suspenders, an old menu from when I started working there in college, and the ID card we used to log in to the cash register.  Kinda geeky, I know, but I enjoyed working there. I also learned a great many lessons about interacting with people — which are the foundation of my philosophy on client service as a public relations practitioner.

Really? Yes, really. My time as a waitress taught me critical customer service lessons – which you simply don’t learn in college. Following are the top six:

Listen to the order. Nobody wants to be surprised with the wrong food or beverage, just as  clients shouldn’t have to endure a strategy that’s off the mark. The best servers actively listen to (and write down) their customers’ orders. And the best PR professionals listen to (and write down) their clients’ business challenges, opinions, wants and needs. They also listen to the tone of their client’s voice and look for nuances about their situations and organizational politics – because these are very telling. And then when it’s their turn to talk, they make recommendations that are sound – based upon everything the client has said, plus their professional knowledge. Sometimes that will include recommendations the client didn’t expect (that dish is not looking great tonight so I suggest this other one instead). And even if they don’t take all of your advice, your clients will appreciate the PR pro actually listened.

Always be candid. *Gasp* – be honest with a client? I say yes. Always. Sometimes what clients say they want (e.g., a hit on the Today Show) doesn’t make sense for their business, just like sometimes a customer’s favorite dish just isn’t looking very good tonight. And if a program isn’t going as planned (the results just aren’t what you’d expected, the kitchen is bogged down so food is coming out slowly) it’s always in your best interest to communicate that fact at first signs of trouble. You earn points for honesty, plus you give yourself time to work with the client to come up with a good Plan B (if you didn’t have one already).

Show some respect: Fact: at a restaurant, the busboy, cook and dishwasher are just as important as the hosts, servers and bartenders. Sadly, many forget this fact and treat them badly. When I worked at TGI Friday’s, I was always greeted enthusiastically  by the “back-of-the-house” staff because I treated them with the respect they deserved. Then, on Friday nights when all hell was breaking loose and I needed a ramekin to serve the Fried Mozzarella, the dishwasher would stop what he was doing to wash one *for me.*

It amazes me how many people in business don’t consider or – worse – are rude to interns, IT people, receptionists, facilities managers and myriad others that are critical to a business running effectively. Even a simple “how are you today?” can go a long way towards making everyone in the organization feel valued. And I guarantee attention to that detail doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated.

You have to have flair: Yes, the movie Office Space had it right. TGI Friday’s required you to have flair in the form of a hat, tights, and buttons on suspenders that were reflective of your personality. Some of us understood and enjoyed it – others not so much. “Flair” is equally important in the PR business – particularly if you are involved with social media. But I don’t mean being flashy, using over-used jargon or calling yourself a “guru.” What I mean is very authentically living your philosophy on communications, and vision for yourself as a professional.  Doing so demonstrates you have conviction in the effectiveness of your skill-set and approach and ensures that you are engaging with like-minded organizations, which will improve your success rate as a professional.

Be prompt, up-front and meticulous in money matters. Let’s be honest. By the time the check is dropped at dinner, you’re usually ready to just go. Right? There is nothing worse in my view than a waiter/waitress who drops the check and then waits too long to come back to collect your card and return your receipt for signature. Or the servers who deliver the check too late, too soon, or with errors. Typically, such transgressions result in a smaller tip.

The same rule applies in the PR business. Proper billing is almost as important to the client/agency relationship as are service and results. This means invoices should be timely, fair and properly backed up with activity reports. It also means that clients should be made aware early on of any budget overages or agency write-offs. If my team over-bills because of our own inefficiencies, I’m quick to write off charges, but I always tell the client I’ve done so. Clients appreciate this and the payoff comes when I have to go to my clients for additional funds because the work required exceeds the allocated budget. I have no problems with money conversations. And done correctly, candid money conversations are a win-win for client and agency.

Be ready to make (and clean up) the mess:  One of my pet peeves as a waitress was servers lying to their customers who asked for crackers for their young children. Fact 1: crackers are great for kids in restaurants because they keep them entertained and happy (and in turn make the parents happy).  Fact 2: crackers are messy and always end up on the floor, which means the server and / or busboy have to clean up the mess. Fact 3: parents appreciate it when you bring their kids crackers and don’t complain about cleaning up the mess. It makes their experience is more positive, and they appreciate the help with the “messy” work. Think about crisis situations with clients. Clients are appreciative when you go above and beyond with them, working nights and weekends and at a moment’s notice to help them through their most difficult times. Our actions in these situations can make or break a client/agency relationship. So bring out the crackers, already. And smile while you clean up the mess.

I’ve always said that the world would be a better place if everyone had worked in a service industry at some point in their life, because the experience teaches empathy and understanding of human nature (good and bad). Both are critical to success in businesses that depend on interpersonal relationships, and generally make us better people.

Yes, I was a TGI Friday’s waitress. And the experience made me a much better professional.

What experiences have made you a better professional – regardless of what you do?

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