Among the gifts "that keep on giving" is the gift of gab. When it's funny or interesting or helpful, gab is welcome, pleasant and infectious. It's often said that the person who has it "lights up a room" wherever he goes.

But when gab turns into idle or nervous chatter, it's a gift the listener quickly wants to return. Too much talk sometimes can be annoying.

At the tableside, the gift of gab is a handy tool for the server who knows how to use it. It puts customers at ease by establishing a personal relationship that makes them comfortable enough to ask questions, ask for special orders and fully enjoy themselves.

Regular customers to an establishment often prefer small talk from servers who recognize them. It acknowledges their loyal patronage and makes them feel a bit special. It also allows servers the chance to anticipate regular customers' needs. After saying hello to a regular, ask them, "Could I bring you the Pizza Margherita again?" Most love it when you remember their favorites, but even if they don't want "the usual," the door is now open to suggestive sell something else.

Where to start

Though some truly are gifted with gab, the ability to talk it up can be acquired through practice. Think about subjects everyone talks about, like the weather, or a recent sports event. If you apply

Paul C. Paz

Dale Carnegie's rule — "Always look for some reason to compliment the other person you're talking to." — you'll discover endless opportunities for conversation. Compliment people on their clothing, their jewelry, their hair ... if they're parents, tell them their kids are cute.

Keep an open ear for discussions about special occasions, such as birthdays, engagements, anniversaries or business celebrations. If they have a camera, offer to take their picture to capture their special outing.

Look for visual clues that might tell you where they're going. If they glance at their watch repeatedly and they're dressed nicely, they might be headed to the theater. So ask them, "Are you going to see Cats tonight?" If they aren't, they'll likely tell you where they're going, and the conversation can evolve from there.

Perhaps the easiest conversation starter of all is, "Is this your first visit?" This opening not only opens a dialogue, it's key to measuring your customers' familiarity with your establishment. You can help new customers learn how your restaurant works by walking them casually through the menu and making suggestions.

When to back off

Those who are good with conversation also know when to be quiet. If you see a table that's engaged in a deep discussion, interrupt gently, get a drink or appetizer order and leave them alone. If they're not ready to order anything, don't rush them. In that situation, I usually say, "Folks, you own this table until you change your mind. You just let me know when I can assist you."

This initiates a friendly casual relationship and helps them "settle into" their table.

The trick in this situation is to watch the table closely for cues of readiness while not being a hovering vulture. Seek eye contact each time you pass by that table to let them know you're ready when they are.

A good non-verbal cue that customers are ready to order is when they pick up their menus. You may not know it, but there are four stages of urgency diners display with their menus to signal the waiter they're ready.

1. First, they close them.

2. Next, they'll stack them.

3. Then they move them to the edge of the table.

4. And lastly, they'll slide the menus over the edge of the table as if to trip a passing waiter to get their attention.

If they're waving their menus in the air, you've missed those cues and it's time for some damage control.

When to shut them up

Occasionally we meet customers with the gift of gab — who just don't know when to stop. Either they're enchanted by our very presence, completely self-centered and enchanted by their own presence ... or they simply forget you're working and have other tables to serve. Avoiding being trapped at a table by small talk is essential. Here are a few escape tricks I've learned:

* Carry a coffee pot or water pitcher with you so you can excuse yourself gently to serve other guests. Prioritize in your own mind the real reason they are there: to dine, not to talk to you.

* Get the food and beverage orders started before you engage in lengthy small talk.

* Keep an eye out for your fellow servers who might be trapped. If you suspect they can't get away, politely interrupt them and say softly — but loudly enough for the gabby customers to hear you — "Table 20 is asking to see you." That allows the trapped server the chance to say, "Excuse me, but I've got a little emergency, I'll be right back." Customers think you're going to take care of table 20, but you and every other server on staff know that's the signal for, "I'm rescuing you, buddy."

In the meantime, Make It Fun, Make It Easy Make some Money!

Read other Paul Paz commentaries ...
* SERVICE: Does your pizzeria staff know the basic steps of service?
* SERVICE: Wise pizza operators know catering to kids isn't child's play
* SERVICE: We're only as good as our last performance
* SERVICE: Separation anxiety
* SERVICE: 'Bad-apple' trainers will never bear good fruit
* SERVICE: Super Bowl, Valentine's and Mardi Gras present many promotional opportunities
* SERVICE: Boost beverage sales with these simple table-side tactics.
* SERVICE: Whether the holidays are happy depends on your attitude
* SERVICE: It takes a desire to please the customer to deliver exceptional service
* SERVICE: Schedule flexibility is a benefit -- not an entitlement -- of this industry
* SERVICE: Promote the pizza industry as a career choice
* SERVICE: Cheaters never prosper, especially in restaurants
* SERVICE: Say hello or they'll say goodbye
* SERVICE: Treat coworkers as courteously as customers
* SERVICE: What's There to Smile About?

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