No Problem!

Guest:  May I have a small cappuccino?

Server: Sure, no problem.

As both a customer and an operator, this simple interaction makes me want to hit the roof and Homer Screamscream.  OF COURSE it is not a problem to prepare a cappuccino for a guest, it is the nature of the relationship.  A customer walks into an establishment, looks at the menu, orders what she wants, pays for it and the staff makes it.   Implied in the transaction is that none of this is a problem because it is what is supposed to happen.  It is the café’s raison d’etre.

Service staff who resort to this seemingly innocuous and almost automatic phrase are actually copping out.  “No problem” (NP for short) and all of its siblings are used out of either passive-aggressiveness or lack of training of an alternative.  I want to believe it is mostly because of the latter but one can never assume.  If it is because no one has taken the time to suggest a good replacement, such as, “Yes”, “Sure”, “My Pleasure”, “Right away” etc… then there is hope.

If, however, staff uses this banal and off-putting phrase because they are being passive-aggressive it belies an inherent attitude toward the customer that does not originate from a rich history of hospitality and service.  I rarely repeat visits to establishments where use of NP is more common than not.  Why do I call use of this phrase passive-aggressive?  The implication when this phrase is used is that serving the customer was a problem in the first place, but because this server said “No Problem” the server is in control and asserting some power over the customer.  Maybe that is a bit overly analytical, at its least worst understanding is the implication that the customer is somehow interrupting or bothering the server.

What has disappeared in the modern day casual nature of hospitality is the invisible but necessary barrier between hospitality provider and customer. A concept that has gotten lost is that while the customer may not always be right, WHO REALLY CARES? Operators who take the time and invest in their staff to interact with their guests in particular ways succeed.  Managers can’t abide lazy interactions and risk losing customers for a silly reason.  They demonstrate a commitment to the chain of events that yields great results:  Care for the continual enrichment of your employees and they will win customers daily.

Useful readings on the subject:

It’s not about the coffee – Howard Behar
Setting the Table – Danny Meyer


Update to this post:

I am currently in Mexico for a wedding staying at the Rosewood Mayakoba, a fantastic resort near Playa del Carmen.  Every service member here says hello, good morning, good afternoon, good evening, etc… But most importantly, their response to a request for anything and everything is “My Pleasure”.  This is the best response you could ask for.  The French often say “Je vous en prie” which roughly translates to “I beg of you”.  These more civilized and thoughtful responses make a difference in hospitality and also make the world a nicer place.


Find It, Fix It, Prevent It

As someone who has worked every position in the restaurant and my company, I have found myself in far too many situations looking like this.  Some things always break and feel like they always will.  Whether it was a clogged up floor drain, an overheated air conditioning system or even a poor budgeting process , things have a tendency to not work at times, it is inevitable.  As I would watch the water level of my kitchen floor rise or look longingly in despair as customers walk out of the restaurant because it was too damn hot or I scratched my head wondering why we would miss budget, the natural instincts of a good entrepreneur would kick in.  I would spring into action and start to solve the problem.  I would snake the drain, clean the filters on the A/C or recast the budget and start anew.   While these fixes did the trick to solve the problem in the immediate, inevitably a few months later or the following summer or the next quarter, the issues would arise again.

I spent much time and energy getting angry and frustrated by their re-occurrences.  I would task the whole company with the job of solving the problem, of “making sure this never happens again”.  Over the years, I have learned that the energy spent getting worked up or charging the whole company with the job of “getting to the bottom of things” was nothing more than wasted energy and really only anger and frustration with myself for having worked with brawn and not brain.  One day, I was given a great book and I learned that I had done the easy part.  I had found the problem and I fixed it, but I did not do the hard part…..I had not prevented future occurrences of the problem.

Preventing problems is not an easy thing, it actually takes the most thoughtful work.  Fixing a drain, the A/C or getting good with a budget is an easy fix.  You can hire a plumber, an HVAC specialist or an MBA intern to solve them, but preventing the problem takes forethought, process creation and discipline to keep up with the systems you put in place. (HT: Michael Gerber & The E-Myth)


Why are you trying to accomplish that?

At most internal meetings, a few external ones and a lot of advisory meetings, I regularly start by asking “Why are you trying to accomplish that?”  Most entrepreneurs, managers or employees want to get into the how things should get done before asking themselves why it should get done in the first place.  For most of the last 30 years, asking why has been dedicated to ascertaining the root cause of a problem or determining in  80 / 20  fashion whether to do something or not.  There have been management processes established and corporate retreats held to learn how to ask why.

Recently and as I can start to see coming on the horizon, asking why matters intrinsically.  I ask founders who have already baked their business plans, maybe even raised money and in some cases have already launched their ventures or products why they chose to do what they are doing.  Most repeat to me their “vision” or their mission statement or some high-minded goal of saving the planet.  I then ask it again and they look at me like I have three heads .  I persist and ask them if they understand the psychology of why they are embarking on this journey.  A journey that will occupy their mornings, their nights, their dreams, their lives, their capital, all their resources and the resources of others.  Frequently, they have not considered that question, the psychological one.

More often than not, they have not spent a lot of time yet going deeper, going into their own motivations to understand why they are undertaking what lies ahead.  Once they start to think on it, the results are quite profound.  Sometimes they come up empty and lose their place in time and the world and start to question their existence.  Sometimes they double down on their efforts.  And sometimes, they shift their focus to what they now know is most important.  Getting to know why you do something, why you desire something, or why you want to make a difference is the most intrinsically valuable ctivity you can do for yourself and only then can you benefit the people you lead.  After all, if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there (HT: Lewis Carroll)

Challenge every assumption

A long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.

– Thomas Paine, Common Sense

The greatest thinkers, artists, leaders and entrepreneurs have also bucked the norm, challenged the status quo. Think Einstein, Picasso, Gandhi or Branson.  I loathe the phrase “think outside the box.” THERE IS NO BOX, so what is everyone trying to get out of? Once you get comfortable with this notion, you will tap into your ability to create something new, unique and long lasting. You will be able to think of processes, concepts, methods that change not only your model but the model of an entire industry.
When we first conceived of ‘wichcraft, we did not think of it as a better Subway Sandwich shop. We wanted to create a business that changed the way you feed as many people as possible much better food. Better for us was intuitive but not to everyone at the time. It meant food that tasted better, was prepared on site, was made to order and sourced from producers, farmers and vendors who we knew personally who we had been working with for years. These were methods and values of a fine dining restaurant, but not a sandwich shop. Not a place that required us to serve over 500 people in a location per day. We essentially asked, “how do you stuff a fine dining restaurant between two slices of bread?” Achieving this has taken time, patience, fortitude and most importantly a constant questioning of the standards and the process. Being able to iterate on an idea, experiment with tradition and fact, and to challenge the norm is the work of both genius and stupidity at the same time.

Possibly one of the biggest innovations we have developed is in the way we think about leadership and the role of senior management in our organization. In the traditional model of a restaurant or a company, the hierarchy is a top down pyramid, where the hourly staff, the larger group of employees is there to serve the needs of the few. e.g. the middle manager reports to the senior manager, etc… (BTW, did you know that the word company is derived from the latin for one who eats bread with you. I will make the argument that a restaurant is the original business). We have literally turned this concept upside down and think of the corporate hierarchy as an inverted pyramid in which the few report to the many. Our senior managers have changed their mindset and view their primary job as that of supporting those who work directly above / below (pick one) them.

We are not the only ones who have tried this in the food industry. Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield is a perfect example of turning a business model on its head and actually leading an industry into new territory. As Gary likes to say, “In the early days, we had a great business, a great product, just no supply & no demand”. I chuckle every time he says that as it reminds me of the early days of many great businesses, in food and elsewhere. More often than not the graveyard of business is filled with brazen ideas who were ahead of their time. This always gives me hope, optimism and excitement for the possibilities to break molds, change the course of business and develop revolutionary ideas.

Kissing all the cows: A lesson in patience for the budding entrepreneur

As the old joke goes, there is a father bull and a baby bull sitting atop a plateau and they are looking down at a group of cows.  The baby bull is bouncing up and down so excited saying, “Dad! Dad! Let’s run down there and kiss ONE of those cows.”  The father replies calmly and in a deep voice, “Son, we are not going to run down there and kiss ONE of those cows.”  The son, still bouncing, says, “Dad! Dad! Why not? Why aren’t we going to run down and kiss ONE of those cows?”  The father says, as calm as could be, “Son, we are going to WALK down and ksis ALL of them.”

I have repeated that joke for as far back as I can remember; however, it has taken me nearly 20 years to truly understand its meaning.  The value in this joke is something that most young, excitable, creative, confident and over-caffeinated entrepreneurs overlook until they are met with the need to realize its value.  The very straightforward lesson, of course, is that you can pretty much have / get / conquer / win (choose one) anything you want if you maintain composure & patience and if you take your time.  Without getting too philosophical about a joke that is typically told at steak dinners among businessmen chomping on cigars, if you scratch a bit deeper there is more meaning lying there for the wet behind the ear entrepreneur to take advantage of.

Another way to look at this is to think about the negative space of the joke.  Is the father bull advocating walking down because he knows that is one way of getting all he wants or does he also know that running down ensures failure in getting all but one of the cows?  I think of this as the Chinese finger trap problem.  If you’ve tried to get your fingers out of a Chinese finger trap, I suggest you buy some to keep them around the office as both a reminder to you but also to give out to others.  In order to get your fingers out of this simple contraption, you need to relax, be patient and gently & slowly twist your fingers to release them, aka Father Bull strategy.  If you show off your Baby Bull, you will most assuredly be stuck.   Being patient and methodical is boring, slow, unsexy, in fact. If you recognize that the alternative is guaranteed failure or its close approximate, all of the sudden poise and maturity are sexy and in the end more effective.    Moral of the story, this is a marathon not a sprint.

Additionally, the Father Bull has an air of confidence well beyond the average.  How can he be so sure that the will be successful in kissing ALL the cows?  I mean come on, is he not going to miss one of them?  The value in having done something before is priceless.  The legendary story of Joe Montana in the 1989 Super Bowl illustrates this clearly.  As legend has it, Montana, down 3 with 3:20 to play, pulls into huddle starting a drive on his own 8 yard line and points out to his very tense, amped –up teammates that John Candy was in the stands.  Clearly this is not the type motivational speech typically reported in the annals of sports history.  But, Montana, having been there before (3rd Superbowl, 2 time Superbowl MVP and come from behind legend) knew he had to break the tension enough for everyone to relax and play their best, play without pressure.  Montana subsequently led the team down the field to a John Taylor touchdown with 34 seconds to go to win his 3rd Superbowl and 3rd Superbowl MVP.  Clearly, not every time you face a challenge will you have had experience with it before.  I suggest you have to be proactive and create multiple scenarios where you role play through outcomes.   If you put yourself in potential situations, when you are faced with potential pressure situations in the future you will feel like you have been there before.