Eric Weiss, founder/president of Service Arts Inc.
magnify Click image to view more.

Service Station: Assumptive Service

Eric Weiss - March 14th, 2014

Service consultant Eric Weiss (founder/president of Service Arts Inc.) remembers how to spell a-s-s-u-m-e, and reminds the hospitality industry to do likewise lest you bear the consequences of shocked and dismayed guests.

Last night it happened again. There was a bit of sauce on my plate I was about to wipe up with my crusty baguette, and the server, like a vulture poised for the kill, started to remove my dish. It became a tug of war. I told him I hadn’t finished yet. He gave me a look like, “Come on, you're not really going to finish those few drops, are you?”

I responded with a look that inferred, “This is my sauce, my plate, and my dinner, and I can do with it what I want!”

Assumptive service is the enemy of great service. Too often, people in our industry, as well as other industries, make assumptions that get them into major trouble. Once, when working with a luxury property in Hawaii, I had invited a friend's young cousin to lunch. The maître d’ greeted us warmly as Mr. and Mrs. Weiss. She was horrified, as we were meeting for the first time. I was in disbelief. When the tuxedoed server saw our expressions, he, too, realized that something had gone wrong.

Too often, servers neglect to ask questions about the order in which guests would like their courses served, the temperature at which they would like their wine served, the person who would like to order the wine. Oh yes, there is still the assumption that the man at the table makes the wine selection. Fortunately, it’s happening less and less.

And then there's the assumption that the person ordering the wine would also like to taste it. It’s always a good idea to ask, “Who will be tasting the wine?” Perhaps it might even be two or three people tasting.

Some restaurants assume that actually placing a napkin on a guest’s lap is a gesture of sophisticated and refined service. Quite frankly, I personally don’t like the idea of someone I don’t know putting something so close to something so private.

Plus, the idea of having a server touching my napkin, from a hygienic standpoint, is not a positive. Let the guest put their napkin wherever they want and at the time they chose.

In a previous article, I spoke about the constant refilling of water and wine glasses. Not everyone wants their glasses filled to the top at all points of the meal. Gesture or ask the question. Don’t assume.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in assumptive service is placing the check on the table before the guest has asked for it. Not only could this be interpreted as rushing, but from a sales perspective, there is a missed opportunity for a glass of wine, a digestif, a dessert, or a hot beverage. Whenever I experience this in a restaurant, my impression is that the server is just doing a job, looking to finish his or her shift and then meet up with friends afterwards.

Another potential missed opportunity is connected to the question, “Would you like to see a dessert menu?” Why should one assume that a diner doesn’t want to see the dessert offerings? Even if it's the possibility of a shared dessert, not only does it end the meal on a sweet note, but also adds dollar value. If there’s a pastry chef who works in your restaurant, you can bet that he or she would not be happy with that question. Creative service is all about planting an idea in your guest's head without going for the hard sell: describing a dish so that it becomes irresistible. It also gives the server much more credibility, showing how one can communicate the flavors and textures of an item, hopefully with excitement and conviction.

Judging guests by their appearance or by their speech is one sure way to do yourself in. I’ll never forget the time when I was the sommelier at the 21 Club in New York City, and a middle-aged couple arrived, looking as if they had just stepped off the plane from Plainsville, Kansas without an ounce of sophistication in tow. Boy, was I mistaken. After they ordered the magnum of Château Lafite Rothschild 1961 and finished about two-thirds of the bottle, they kindly offered that I share the rest with the kitchen staff. Lesson learned. Never assume.

As purveyors of hospitality, it’s our responsibility to keep an open mind. Use your intuitive skills, inquire with specific questions, confirm the information given. You’ll be much closer to the never-ending quest for service excellence.