Counter intelligence

Jan. 12, 2006

During a recent stop for breakfast, Janelle Barlow noticed the woman serving her had "the look" — Barlow's condensed description of the perfect customer service person.

"She had a look of eagerness and she wanted to help me," said Barlow, a customer service consultant, speaker and author of books on service. Her latest is "Branded Service: A Complaint is a Gift." "That's fundamental in the service business. You want to see a look of almost-innocence about the world, not one that says, 'Gosh here comes another customer.'"

And "the look" isn't something always spied by a trained eye like Barlow's. Customers sense it immediately, she said, and they attach either a positive or negative feeling about that person and their experience to that restaurant.

"You can

What's Important

For optimal customer service, operators should put their best faces forward.

In a tight labor market, finding people who really care about serving others is a challenge.

Experts say learning about a job candidate's personality during the initial interview reveals a lot about whether that person is naturally wired for customer service.

pick that up in the body language by how they look, talk and stand," she said. "Some simply don't have it, so maybe they're not good at frontline service."

Most any restaurant operator will tell you finding and hiring personnel with "the look" is one of the greatest challenges facing the industry. Some blame modern culture for what they believe to be a shortage of service-minded youth who can meet and greet the paying public.

Barlow disagreed, saying the talent is out there, but operators often are so desperate to fill a slot they'll unwittingly place in service roles people who just aren't good with people. Kristel Whitty-Ersan, agreed, saying her company's interview process is designed to spot quickly those people "wired" to work either with customers up front or with processes in the back of the house. The atmosphere at 65-unit Happy Joe's Pizza & Ice Cream is one of fun for kids and families, and that means having a "glass-half-full" optimist out front entertaining guests.

"We try to have the most dynamic personalities in the front of the house; we believe exciting people are the best hosts and hostesses," said Whitty-Ersan, "Queen of Marketing" at the Bettendorf, Iowa, chain. She said the company categorizes job candidates two ways: they're either a "Mickey," a happy-go-lucky people lover like Mickey Mouse, or an "Arthur," analytical, realistic detail persons like Arthur the Anteater. (In its own hiring materials, Happy Joe's spells each term "Mickee" and "Arther" to avoid copyright infringement.) "It's a very simple approach to putting aces in their places in the restaurant."

Whitty-Ersan said too often restaurateurs concentrate on what skills a person might have that apply to a specific job rather than uncovering what he is naturally inclined to do. When they need cooks, they hire cooks, and when they need servers or counter workers, they hire them. Problems can arise, she said, when Mickees are plugged into the repetitive motions of the kitchen and Arthers are forced to smile at screaming children at a birthday party. She said Happy Joe's works hard to avoid that mistake in the interview process.

"We'll have them audition for us in the interview. (If they want to be a server), we'll say, 'Stand up on this chair and sing Happy Birthday as if you were doing it at a party," said Whitty-Ersan. "If they bounce right up and do it, and you can tell they're having fun, they're a Mickee. If they're totally embarrassed and say, 'Here? Now? In front of everyone?' They're probably an Arther. It works for us to figure it out quickly because the last thing we want to do is make someone do something they're not comfortable with or be somebody they're not."

You can't fake caring

Paul Paz, a self-dubbed "professional waiter" turned service consultant and book author, said the mechanics of great service aren't difficult to teach. But what may be impossible to teach is a deep desire to serve customers.

"You can

Multiple personalities: The Whitty family, owners of Happy Joe's Pizza and Ice Cream, know the importance of "Mickees" and "Arthers" to the success of their 65-unit operation. Kristel, the self-dubbed "Queen of Marketing" is clearly a Mickee, Larry, president, is an Arther, and Joe, their father and the company's founder, is a Mickee.
     Photo courtesy of Happy Joe's.

teach the behavior of this business, but you can't teach people to care," said Paz, founder of "I know waiters who are astonishing technical people, but behind the scenes, they curse the customers."

Like Whitty-Ersan, Paz believes most times you can spot good service candidates in the interview process. When they speak, they're animated and engaging. Such people are positively enthused about their jobs because they get to talk to and serve people. "These people are engaged with life, but I don't think you can teach that."

Paz and Barlow said a person's body language provides one clear window into their true personalities. An "engaged" person, said Paz, will be bright-eyed and smiling, as well as alert in speech and step. Barlow told a story of the exact opposite person.

"I've seen people come to a counter to fill out a job application and put their head down on the table while they were filling out that form," she said. "That speaks of zero energy and that's not the person I'm going to hire for any job."

While many service positions in the pizza industry are filled with younger workers with little or no work history, asking for a resume might be a bit much. But Whitty-Ersan said the interviewer should at least learn about each candidate's background to find clues about whether they're a Mickee or Arther.

"If they're a cheerleader and member of drama club, there's a good chance they could be a Mickee," she said. "If they like to stay home and play their guitar in their spare time, they might be an Arther."

But even Witty-Ersan warned pigeonholing teen and young-adult job candidates based on outward personalities isn't always a sure-fired tactic. "They're 16 years old, so in a lot of ways they're just becoming what they're going to be. So try to find out what they enjoy doing. Ask them, 'Would you rather be out talking to guests, or would you rather learn how to make pizzas or drive a delivery car?'"

Paz, however, wants to see a resume from more mature service people because it allows him to learn a lot about a candidate.

"I want to know how many jobs that person has had before applying for this one," he said. "If you have an applicant who's had multiple employers in the same industry and in a relatively short period of time, you have to ask yourself whether all those employers were rotten or whether that's just a bad employee. Ask the candidate why they liked this job but not the other."

When Paz wants to test their mettle, he startles them during the interview.

"I like to role play with a candidate. I ask, 'What do you do when a customer is unhappy?'" he began. As the interviewee gives his answer, Paz might surprise him by becoming the angry customer and slamming something on the table and saying, "'I didn't ask for that! Get me something else!' The point is to see the look on their face, see their gut reaction and learn how they react to

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If the candidate is shocked, he might only need training in how to handle angry customers. But if he looks peeved, that's a bad sign, said Paz.

"Psychologically, we 'hang up' on customers who seem difficult or who we don't care about," he said. "You see the server shrug the shoulders or roll the eyes, and that conveys the message, 'You're really bugging me and I don't care.' That's not the person I want to hire."

While even the best service personnel can get rattled in such a situation, they're typically resilient and able to return to their post because they don't take conflict personally. Barlow said people who have a heart to serve believe that the majority of people are good-natured and will treat them well. Paz agreed, saying when he coaches servers, he reminds them that at most "about a half percent of all your customers will be difficult. The rest are good to you." Servers with a positive outlook will know that, shake off the bad experience and then move on to the next customer.

At the London-based high-end sandwich chain Pret a Manger, Barlow said managers approve candidates for service positions, but their coworkers make the final call. And how do they make their evaluation? By testing them in the field.

"They send them out for a day with the team they'd work with, and ultimately the team decides whether they get hired," Barlow said. "Pret a Manger takes only 5 percent of its applicants, and they only promote from within. That's how serious that company is about service. And if you've been to one of those locations, you know the people are excited about working there."

Topics: Operations Management , Service

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