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.


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.