EVEN MORE Low-Cost Service Tips for High-Stress Times

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
written for Specialty Food Magazine

As we all know (and as I’ve covered in the last two articles in this series: Low-Cost Service Tips in High-Stress Times, and MORE Low-Cost Service Tips), great service is about getting the big and small things right. In this third installment of basic but useful service strategies that we put into practice at Zingerman’s, we cover the importance of saying the right thing (think positive) and following through with the right actions. I hope these tips help you and your business as much as they’ve helped mine.

Just Say Yes (And Never Say “Only” and “Can’t”)

While this rule may not work in other fields, trying to always say yes to the customer can be awfully effective in our world. It’s not all that surprising—a customer feels better when we start our response to her request in a positive way and staff feels less stressed if they don’t have to say no. Even if we’re not sure we can specifically meet a guest’s request, the language and approach we take to saying so makes a big difference. A simple, “Wow, that’s a great idea, let me get to work on it—I’m sure we can figure something out,” is a positive way to respond without promising anything in particular.

In truth, it’s usually not all that hard to back up that first “yes” with a good resolution for the guest. And the conversation with the customer is much more likely to get to a good outcome when we start by saying “yes” instead of being negative, or launching into the unpleasant-for-all-involved routine of reading them the rules. The same goes for “I can’t do that,” or “you should…”

In line with this philosophy, we also work to take the word “can’t” out of our vocabulary. It is just unhelpful in service settings. Customers can’t stand hearing service providers tell them that they “can’t do” something. It’s especially annoying when the issue at hand is clearly something that the service giver can do but doesn’t want to. For example, you ask, “Can I get a taste of that cheese?” and they say, “I can’t cut into a whole wheel.” Well, they clearly have the skill set and the sharp knife to do it. Perhaps they mean they’ll get in trouble if they do, or they don’t want to, but it doesn’t mean they can’t. The same thing goes for “I can’t let you in yet,” “I can’t give you your money back,” and other common instances. The bottom line is that linguistically, saying can’t raises red flags and customer stress levels and I’d rather stay away from both. So, banning the phrase from use on the floor or the phone can only help improve our service.

Elaine Steig, who helps lead our service work here at Zingerman’s, reminded me recently that, “Another overused word is ‘only,’ as in ‘We only serve breakfast until 11,’ or ‘We only have six left,’ or ‘We only do that on weekends.’” Elaine is right. “Just a slight change in language,” she said, “changes the whole tone of the answer.” Instead of those earlier negative examples, switch it to something like, “We serve breakfast right up until 11,” or “We have six left and I’d love to set them aside for you if you’d like,” or “That’s a great special,” can work wonders for a customer’s sense of the service experience.

Sell Everything in the Store

This fits with our just-say-yes approach. If we have something in house and a customer wants to buy it—and it’s not a limited piece of art or an antique that we don’t want to part with—we’ll pretty much be glad to sell it. I mean, it’s a sale right? Over the years we’ve sold breadbaskets, cutting boards and the kitchen knives we use. We can always get more and if the guest is willing to pay us a price that allows us to make money, I say, take the money. It’s better service, the guest leaves happy and we took in a few extra dollars in sales.

Be Careful Where You Say, “I’m Going on Break.” 

I’ve heard this as a customer too many times to pretend it’s not an issue. The rule is simple. Never say the words, “I’m going on break now,” when you’re within earshot of a waiting customer. I’m not saying that staff can’t actually go on break while there are customers waiting—that’s going to happen on any busy day. It’s just not a great move to announce it while there are customers close by who would rather you wait on them. One day I was waiting in line to pay at one of our own businesses when a long-time, caring and smart staff member uttered those ever-so-painful words to her coworker. I knew that it was time to get this seemingly “obvious” expectation out of my head and into our training work. Save yourself some stress and set this one clear straight off.

When to Lose the Specialty Lingo 

It’s not a great feeling for a customer when a service provider uses insider language or special terms that they don’t understand. And yet, it’s surprisingly easy for us to lose perspective and slide into speaking in insider lingo. It’s not malicious—it’s just easy to forget that words we use without thinking have little, no, or even different meanings to customers than they do to us. (It’s also good to remember to lose the lingo during training as well—new hires don’t always like to reveal what they don’t know.) And it isn’t only about going overboard using fancy culinary phrases, it is also about using terms with customers that only have meaning for the staff. For example, we bake and sell thousands of loaves of farm bread a week, but I’m sure most of our customers have no clue when we say “farm,” what we are talking about. Similarly, everyone who works here learns quickly that Black Magic Brownies have no nuts but that Magic Brownies do—but how would our customers know that if all we do is talk about “brownies” and assume that if they don’t want nuts they’ll tell us?

When to Create Specialty Lingo

Just as it is a bad idea to use confusing language in front of customers, language used within an organization can be confusing as well. Here—and in many other businesses as well—getting everyone to mean the same thing when, for instance, they say the word “sales,” is no small thing. Over the years it’s become clear that the same sort of consistency and clarity is of equal value in the world of service. When people here talk about “extra miling,” or use other Zingerman’s-focused phrases, I know that our staff has successfully assimilated our service teachings and our service glossary.

Creating a service glossary together is of just as much value as the actual terms that are defined within it. To quote Edward Davis, writing about the American educational system in his book, Lessons for Tomorrow, “Language, of all things, must include co-participation.” In other words, it isn’t a great idea to just hand down the glossary from above without consulting the crew that does the work every day. To which point, Davis continues, “Learning language must be immersed in real life, or it is out of context.” Which means that going through each element of the service glossary—in classroom teaching, during shift training, etc., takes the stuff beyond some silly conceptuals and turns it into information that everyone will pretty quickly realize can help them and their customers alike to have much better service experiences at low cost.

As I’ve probably said too many times now, all the techniques that I’ve shared here really work. Every one of these approaches has been time tested—both positively and, unwittingly, also by seeing how we screw up when we don’t use them—here at Zingerman’s for years.

Take note too that all this work will be of just as much help after this economically challenging era has become a subject for history books. Have fun with it. Life is short, service counts and the better we get at it the more everyone involved wins.