The miseducation of a service professional

“You have to educate your guests,” the new manager had said smugly.

“Educate them?” I asked.

“Yes. It’s your job to teach them better,” he said before turning and walking abruptly away.

He had a habit of doing things like that. In fact, many of the guests had come up with a nickname for him: Stiffy.

The job had come to him the old-fashioned way, through the friend of a friend of an investor in the restaurant. And what he lacked in experience he more than made up for in attitude.

If you’ve never done customer service then you really can’t understand how it works. Sure, some people will say, “But I have been a customer many, many times, so I know exactly how it works.” But trust me, you don’t.

“Nobody will steal,” “nobody will lie” and “nobody will try and cheat the system” are three wildly ignorant things that get said all of the time. The fact is that people will do all of those. And it won’t be the people you’d think.

“Father, can I get my pen back?” I asked the priest I was waiting on, after the pen I had inherited from my grandfather disappeared.

“I’m sorry,” he said, reaching into his cassock. “It was just so nice.”

I was lucky he admitted it, but after all, he was a man of the cloth.

Another time, the attorney who was threatening the hostess with a lawsuit about some perceived slight opened her purse to get a business card, exposing the brass teapot that we used for our tea service.

“That’s not yours. I brought it in,” she had argued — unsuccessfully.

Obviously, she was not “of the cloth.”

Another couple walked in past three other couples and strode up and down the bar peering over people’s shoulders, assessing where they were in their meals or beverages. I didn’t need to be educated; I knew what was happening.

“Are you two looking for seats?” I asked.

“We are,” they replied in unison.

“Great, just bear in mind that I have three couples waiting for seats in front of you.”

“We aren’t trying to cut in front of anybody,” said the man indignantly.

“I didn’t say you were,” I said. “I am just making you aware of the situation.”

After which they immediately left, suggesting to me that they were in fact trying to cut in front of everybody.

Granted, there is only a small part of the overall population that does things like this. But in customer service, you will spend an inordinate amount of your time dealing with them.

Take the host trying to tell the three customers at the front door that we aren’t open for another 45 minutes.

“Your website says you are open,” says the man, holding up his phone.

“That’s not our website.”

“It has your name listed.”

“That doesn’t make it ours, sir. We don’t control the internet.”

The argument continued for much longer than an argument under a sign with the posted hours should have. As if all of a sudden, the host would just say, “You know what, you are right, come on in.”

But people with no experience in the business will say, “Those things don’t happen,” only they do, all of the time, and sometimes right next to the person who doesn’t realize that it is happening.

And the novelty of educating your guests is the slipperiest of slopes. No one ordering white zinfandel wants to hear that Riesling has high residual sugar and is a good substitute because frankly, it isn’t. Just like white zinfandel isn’t a good substitute for Riesling.

People want what they want. They want one big ice cube, not because they understand the science behind heat transfer and melting ice, or because they understand dilution and its effect on high-proof spirits, or because they know that over-filtered, “pure water” ice doesn’t actually freeze solid. They want it for a whole host of other reasons. And they sure don’t want to hear why those “other reasons” aren’t valid.

And what of the educator? What if they don’t know? Then, you have people telling you copper Moscow Mule cups make the beverage colder (they don’t) or that you can “bruise” gin (you can’t) or a whole host of other patently untrue things. And then they will twist themselves into knots trying to explain how they are right.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn,” wrote the physicist Albert Einstein.

• You might be certain, but are you sure?

• “The worst thing is not being wrong, but being sure one is not wrong,” once wrote noted Swiss physician Paul Tournier.

• I did finally get to educate someone. I educated that manager. I quit.