staff training

Building your business, one act of exceptional service at a time

By David Swanston

Even though Canadian diners are spending more and restaurant visits are on the rise, operators are faced with a growing number of challenges when it comes to trying to improve stagnant revenues. Whether it’s trying to hold on to fickle customers looking for change or simply the reality of an overcrowded foodservice landscape, operators searching for ways to get that competitive edge can often find the solution in one of the time-tested tenets of this industry – great customer service.

Across the country, the frequency of out-of-home consumer dining opportunities and total foodservice spending continues to increase. According to Statistics Canada, year-over-year monthly receipts were up 5.4 per cent as of August, with all provinces and territories but one experiencing growth. The expanded selection of menu offerings to meet the diverse needs of the market, combined with the convenience of eating out are making restaurant dining more attractive for time-starved Canadians.

Times are good. So why then are so many operators finding that they’re struggling to maintain flatlined revenues? Regular patrons return less frequently as they seek variety in their dining choices and more intense competition is making it difficult to attract new customers. Highly fragmented consumer markets and the complexity of communication technologies are making it challenging for firms to reach and impact potential consumers.

Industry evolution

The competitive landscape is evolving as firms seek new markets for expansion. Traditional category boundaries are blurred as quick-service moves casual and upmarket, mid-market concepts upscale their brands, and many fine-dining operations relax a little. Grocery stores offer fresh food markets while traditional restaurants expand their take-home selections. The homogenization of the industry makes it difficult for consumers to perceive any real difference between the variety of foodservice suitors campaigning for their dining dollar.

Success today and tomorrow will be contingent on an organization’s ability to stand out from the multitude of options available. Updated menus, modernized décor, and prime store locations help, but with the competition doing the same these amount to little more than maintaining parity. For operators looking to truly differentiate themselves, there is one proven and sustainable approach: Service.

Outstanding service is often discussed, or even promoted by management teams, but is rarely truly delivered. Most restaurateurs deliver good service, acceptable to their customers and not a major cause for concern. But for those few who are able to delight their guests in consistent and unexpected ways, the benefits are plentiful.

Service no-nos

Some common areas where restaurant service falls short include unfriendly or rude staff, slow or inattentive service, mistakes with food and charges, unclean facilities, and staff appearance. Directly or indirectly, customers are made to feel that they are not important enough to look after properly so they seek another provider that will.

Distinguishing your operation based on providing engaging experiences will strengthen customer relationships and can lead to greater loyalty. Persuasive guest referrals will create the positive word-of-mouth marketing that is very effective at attracting new consumers. Repeat visits and guest check averages will increase as patrons seek out new opportunities to participate.

So how do operators deliver this type of best-in-class service? It starts with a sincere commitment by senior leadership and a guest orientation that permeates the entire organization.


Management must go beyond merely stating their goal of delivering outstanding service. Guest service must be part of their DNA. Every decision, every interaction, and every move must demonstrate their passion for creating epic guest experiences. This behaviour needs to be consistently visible to both staff and customers. The leader’s mindset must be that a healthy bottom line, both now and in the long-run, can only be achieved by exceeding every guest’s expectations, one table at a time.

Not only must management behaviour demonstrate their commitment, but so too must the budget. Operators must consider every guest point of contact as a moment of truth that can impact their satisfaction. Financial resources should be earmarked for initiatives that will ensure these interactions are positive and memorable. Consider the statement that would be made if a budget line item was labelled “Guest Experience Enhancement,” and the use and results of these funds were regularly reviewed with management and staff.

Businesses should initiate a program to solicit guest feedback, with management responsible for review and follow-up. Post-purchase support is critical for guest retention and to strengthen relationships. Customers feel valued when you ask for their comments and listen to their opinions. When service falls short, managers have the opportunity to correct the problem and earn another chance with the guest, while at the same time learning important information that will help improve the operation.


Incorporating a guest focus into the firm’s statement of values is a good start, but for success these values must be shared and adhered to by all team members. You can only create a service-oriented culture over time by constant delivery and reinforcement of guest service objectives. Strong culture acts as an informal way to guide behaviour which is ultimately much more effective than any human resource policy.

Instead of striving to deliver outstanding service, it just becomes the way things are done. Prioritizing the impact on the guest experience will guide employee actions, become the measure used to assess any situation, and help improve decision-making. Great service requires a team effort and managers cannot monitor and control every employee at all times. Staff must be able to think and act in a manner consistent with the guiding service principles, even when nobody else is watching. Building a strong service culture is the best way to achieve this buy-in.

Writing the story

Creating an environment that is not just functional and attractive, but also has meaning will help develop a richer guest experience. People don’t buy what you sell, they buy the reason you sell it. A concept has more integrity when there is history or a story behind it. This narrative could be literal or by design, but it adds significance to all the conceptual elements that guests interact with.

The market is stocked with restaurants utilizing attractive colour schemes, carefully selected décor, exotic names for menu items, and attractive staff in appealing outfits. From a customer’s perspective, they all begin to look and feel the same. But the businesses that manage to deliver those unique and memorable guest experiences, while providing many of these same elements, are able to do so in a more coordinated and impactful way.

Think of the family owned restaurant that has been passed down through generations, where the atmosphere is replete with history, lore and a sense of community. Possibly it’s the local boy who returned home to open his own pub and can be found nightly tending bar, swapping stories and knowing every customer by name. Perhaps it’s the explorer who spent time in South America and fell in love with the culture, people and food, and decided to recreate a taste of this experience in a new quick-service concept.

The story can even be more abstract, recreating an emotion or attitude. For one project, I created a new concept based around a single song giving the entire operation a sense of energy and focus. During a trip to Bogota, I had the opportunity to experience probably one of the most memorable restaurants called Andres Carne de Res. Every aspect of the concept was unexpected, brash, and over-the-top fun.

What do all of these concepts have in common? They are unique, they have an underlying sense of purpose that binds their elements into a cohesive whole, and they provide sincere and superior service to guests by delivering memorable experiences.

Attention to detail

Customers interpret an operation’s concept and culture through their interaction with the multitude of elements, both large and small. The quality and consistency of these details signals the organization’s commitment to guest service. Patrons feel assured because if the restaurant can take care of the little things well, then they must be able to take care of the big things well.

This attentiveness demonstrates that an operation values and is committed to their guests, wanting to make their entire experience perfect. Delivering on these goals becomes easier when there is a strong culture and story to guide decisions. The choice of background music, cleanliness of the floor under the bathroom sink, alignment of tables, hygiene of staff, presentation of meals, and condition of the parking areas are just a few of the details that affect guest’s service experience and require management’s attention.

People (us)

By its very nature, the service industry is a people business. It’s about people looking after people. Superior service is achieved by having the right people doing the right jobs in the right way. Unfortunately, building a strong team takes time and can only be achieved by committed management and a strong supporting organizational culture. Several considerations will help organizations improve their human resource management initiatives to develop top-performing, service-oriented staff.

Start by reconsidering the traditional job descriptions. Realigning roles within the organization allows firms to expand the breadth of responsibilities each person and position must carry out. Consistently providing outstanding service requires a team approach. Customers have various and, at times, unpredictable needs. One contact person cannot adequately and effectively fulfill all of a guest’s demands. All staff should consider themselves to be service agents and seek out opportunities to enhance customers’ experiences. This approach deviates substantially from the silos of traditional job responsibilities.

When recruiting candidates for these newly expanded positions, priority should be given to those who possess important soft skills. These aptitudes can include empathy, interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, communication and teamwork, just to name a few. Yes, technical skills are still important and the candidate must at least demonstrate the capacity to learn the required job skill, but these duties can also be taught. Finding candidates with traits that prepare them to better deliver on service expectations by enhancing the guest experience is critical. The competencies also align the new employee with the organization’s values and priorities which will facilitate a smooth orientation and integration into the team.

Training should be designed to ensure that new hires are not just taught what to do, but also the right way to do things in a manner consistent with the firm’s guest service focus. Training is the first substantial time period where the organization can on-board new hires and indoctrinate them into their service-oriented culture. Operators must commit adequate resources to develop and utilize a rigorous training program to prepare new employees to succeed in their expanded roles.

Once on the job, leadership teams must manage employee performance. With a clear guest service focus, supervisors should recognize when employees commit exceptional acts of service. At the same time, when service opportunities are missed, they should be treated as learning opportunities to make further improvement. One of the key challenges is that most managers are not skilled at managing either positive or negative performance. Learning how to provide timely and relevant behaviour reinforcement is a critical for managers trying to change the firm’s service performance.

People (them)

Finally, the most important stakeholder to consider is the actual customer. Superior service will deliver greater value to the organization if it is able to strengthen its relationships with patrons. Loyalty is a critical pursuit but many firms compromise their ability achieve this objective by not selecting the right guests.

Yes, operators should select their guests. Being able to provide outstanding service and memorable experiences depends on targeting the right consumer, who will respond to the firm’s unique offerings. A strong concept cannot be everything for everyone, but longevity requires that it the right things to the right people.

Too often, financial objectives demand that businesses cast a wide net and attract as many customers as possible. Focusing on trying to meet the needs of this diverse market will make it difficult for the operation to carve out a unique identity that will set them apart in the market. Instead, focus on identifying and delighting those that would most appreciate the unique aspects of the organizations concept, story, and culture.

Researching your markets and identifying attractive segments to target provides management with several benefits. First, their marketing efforts can be more focused. This will help to avoid wasting part of the marketing budget try to reach the wrong people. It also means that the communication message can be more specific and highlight the unique concept points of differentiation that will resonate with this group. As a result, response rates should be much higher driving more of the right type of customer through the doors.

These guests will be easier to service and satisfy as they are more likely to respond favourably. The impact on customers can be magnified if the operation can then go even further to exceed their expectations. A key part of being able to achieve this objective is to under-promise and over-deliver.


Memorable service experiences do not occur when patrons’ expectations are being met or when service is merely consistent. These are just basic requirements for operators to stay in the game. Winning will hinge on the service team’s ability to find ways to personalize the experience and deliver exceptional service at each point of contact by going above and beyond what the guest would have expected.

These opportunities occur at random times during customers’ interaction with the operation, making it difficult to plan for and script strategies to address these situations. This is where a strong service culture, talented and well-trained service teams, and service-focused leadership will pay dividends.

Everyone in the organization will seek out opportunities to thrill guests with exceptional and customized service. In return, the restaurant will be rewarded with loyal customers who care about the success of the concept and will become ambassadors within their communities.

Achieving this level of support will strengthen an operation’s reputation, distinguishing it from the competition and gaining a key service advantage.

About the author:

David Swanston is a Hospitality and Foodservice Consultant, Principal of Focused Industry Training Seminars and is an instructor at major Canadian university business schools. Since 1997 he has helped a wide variety of organizations develop and launch new concepts, turn around troubled operations, and improve sales, profits, controls and efficiency. To learn more about how he can help you improve performance, contact David directly at 905.331.6115 or

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