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“Service with a smile”… ?

Posted by Big John on July 25, 2011

For many years during my travels, both for business and pleasure, I always noticed how the service differed in hotels and restaurants in mainland Europe, the USA and the United Kingdom.

In countries like Italy, Spain and France waiting on tables always seemed to me like a ‘proper’ profession, mainly carried out by mature men in an attentive and polite manner, give or take the odd ‘Gallic shrug’ or an occasional … Bof !” or even a .. “Zut alors !”. Nothing was ever rushed and you were allowed to enjoy your meal without being disturbed.

In the United States I found that I was mostly served by waitresses who had been trained at the ‘robot’ school of … “My name is Jolene … I am your waitress for this evening” (Blimey! .. What did she think that I thought she was there for ?). Meals were usually served at lightening speed, often with one course ‘overtaking’ another and the constant enquiry .. “Is everything OK here folks ?”… I always expected after a positive response to this question to hear … “Then don’t forget to leave a big tip !”; and although the US dining experience tended to get more refined and enjoyable the further up market you went, I could never quite get used to all those false smiles, and those … “Have a nice day!”s.

Well, of course, “Have a nice day !” and American style service soon “crossed the pond”, and I found myself being waited on served by poorly trained young people in restaurants up and down the country, such as the young waiter in a fairly expensive chain hotel who did not know what I meant when I complained that the wine was “corked”, so he called his boss who also didn’t understand what I meant, even after I explained the problem to him in detail. I don’t think that my keen, but inexperienced waiter had ever expected to hear the word “No” after he enquired .. “Is every thing alright, sir ?”. Still I did get my bottle of wine, which was unusual at that time, as it would, more often than not, turn up on the table when you had finished your meal.

Now, it’s worth remembering that I am recalling experiences from a few years ago, and although I can’t comment on service in the USA today, I know that it has remained much the same in Europe and improved to some degree in the UK, as I noticed when staying recently at a hotel owned by a large international group. The service, from the largely foreign staff, was first class. The head waiter was polite and efficient, and his staff of waiters were attentive but not intrusive. In fact it was a very pleasant experience. Perhaps this was one time when I could say that …

… “I had a nice day”.     😉


7 Responses to ““Service with a smile”… ?”

  1. Having worked in a bookshop and in a public library, I have strong opinions on customer service. If the service provided by waiters has improved, there is plenty of room for improvement in other sectors. It is a frequent experience for me to go into a shop and complete my purchase without the assistant pronouncing a single word. Not even “Thank you.” In my book, that is unpardonable. There are shops I will not use because the sales person (often the boss or manager) behaves in a brusque and miserable manner as though I were an intruder disturbing his other tasks.

    Many businesses provide a script for their assistants but this doesn’t really help because it has a hollow ring. When I am asked ‘How am I today?’ I know the assistant really doesn’t give a toss and so it jars rather than improving the atmosphere.

    Customer service is an art and when it is practised well, with due attention paid to the customer’s mood, it makes a huge difference. I think many businesses who are struggling would do well, before blaming “the economic situation”, to consider how they treat their customers. Treat your customer rudely and he can and will go elsewhere. Your business will suffer as a result.

    That is not to say that I think the customer is always right. From experience I know just how offensive some customers can be. But that does not excuse poor technique or a lazy attitude to customer service.

  2. Dick Klade said

    I don’t think current restaurant service in the U.S. is much, if any, better than what you describe. Forgive your waiters, though, for ignorance about wine. Only recently has wine become popular in American dining circles; we still don’t know a whole lot about it.

    Perhaps pertinent to your other recent posts, my beautiful wife and I have taken a half-dozen cruises over the years on several lines. The best service by far was on Holland-America ships. Dutch officers were super-efficient, Filipino cooks and bartenders were excellent, and Indonesian waiters were attentive and skillful in pleasing diners.

    A ship with British officers and Portugese crew and service people had the best entertainment, but absolutely the worst service in all other areas.

    Just barely a step above the British vessel was an American ship we took through the Panama Canal. Although the staff was first-rate about providing information about the canal, they were deficient in most other areas.

    I don’t know if any of this has a bearing on service attitudes in various countries, but it might. We’ve spent much time visiting in Germany, and found the dining service there rather good. Germany, however, hasn’t seemed able to launch a significant fleet of ocean liners in recent years.


  3. Big John said

    Yes, ‘Tiger’ … “and how is sir today ?” .. I always feel like saying that I’m terminally ill and in terrible pain, just to see if they are listening to the answer to their question. I also know from my limited experience of dealing with the “great British public” that I could never be a waiter.

    Dick … I must say that all the Filipino waiters on our recent cruise were 1st class. I’ve also spent a lot of time in Germany, and you are right, the service was good. Re. American dining habits. I could never get used to the way Americans would drink coffee all through lunch and dinner. I’ve seen many European waiters cringe at the cry of … “MAW KAWFEE HERE !” 🙂

  4. Ginnie said

    Lighten up, you guys. The type of service you’re speaking of can only be found in the really expensive places … I don’t care what country it is. Here in the good ol’ US of A if it’s a medium priced restaurant you’ll get mainly college kids working for spending money or not overly educated ones trying to make a living…and they do what the management tells them to do. I rarely eat out in either type of place and much prefer something like Panera’s where I can get a good cup of coffee, salad, soup, bagel or goodie and not have to worry about a waiter or waitress … and they smile a lot there too. Can’t ask for much more.

  5. Big John said

    Ginnie … Like you I rarely eat out these days, unless it is a pub lunch at the ‘local’. I don’t think we have ‘Panara’ here in the UK.
    As I said, my experiences in America were way back, but I still maintain that the service in Europe in a humble village taverna, a back street trattoria or a modest bistro, makes the experience of dining in such places far more enjoyable than in those “medium priced” places where half trained staff try their best to please.
    I have to say that I do admire all the “kids”, the ladies who work ‘part-time’, and those “not overly educated ones” who get off their arses and earn what is probably only ‘minimum wage’.

  6. Rummuser said

    Total customer service was a mantra that became the buzzword in the late eighties and like all fads faded away. Airllines, restaurants and hotels and now retailers spend fortunes training their employees to provide the effect that you describe, but the less swanky ones, make do with the help that is available and as the saying goes, when you pay pea nuts, you get monkeys. I hardly have occasion to eat out now a days, but when I do, I don’t expect much and am never disappointed. Similarly, despite all the fancy advertising, retailers too employ from the bottom of the barrel and the less said the better about the attitude to customers there.

  7. Grannymar said

    I express my satisfaction in a restaurant by my tip – bad service no tip.

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