My final year of college was a bit serious/lame. I was a commuter, so most of my classmates assumed I was 40, working to rebuild a wasted life (that's actually what this blog is for). I also worked about 30 hours a week as a "server" for The Macaroni Grill at the local mall. I was sincerely proud to get this job - this was a real restaurant, with computers and actual checks and alcohol and a vague superpower referred to only as "corporate." We greeted every table by writing our name upside down in crayon on the paper tablecloth, regardless of whether or not children were seated. It was an appropriate introduction to the type of experience The Macaroni Grill offered - a bit juvenile and trying way too hard.
Speaking of corporate, as graduation approached, I couldn't ignore the reality that soon I'd be starting my big shot career. It was time to give my 2 weeks notice and trade in my order pad for the biggest, slowest, desktop computer money could buy. When I quit, my manager was surprisingly surprised and disappointed, somehow oblivious to the greatness inside me that The Macaroni Grill just wasn't equipped to tap.
A few days later, as I scooped up a dish of Penne Rustica from the head chef's station, he locked his fiery-cocainey blue eyes with mine and said, "I can't believe you quit." The chef rarely spoke to me, so to hear this stopped me in my tracks. "Excuse me?" I said, awaiting some chefy brand of sarcasm that was ultimately too scary to be funny. "I can't believe you quit. You were born to do this - this is WHO YOU ARE. You could have opened your own Grill. You're the best server we've ever had and you'll never be as good at anything as you are at this."
"Oh. OK. Sorry."
Here I was, about to wrap up a decently successful college education at a little known all women's college that would eventually go out of business (true story), and he's suggesting my destiny is to open my own Macaroni Grill? Sure, I hadn't actually secured a new job yet or even applied to one, but I knew the life that was ahead of me, and it wasn't this.
Or was it? Looking back, 20 years later, I can see he actually had a far better understanding of my skillset than I did at the time. I was a great waitress, er...server. I had waited tables since I legally could and even illegally for a few months at a pub in Dublin, Ireland, where I'd say things like "that guy needs a rocky candy and two apple ciders" to the bemused bartenders.
What do you do, though, when you've borrowed nearly $60,000 for a mediocre college education and your best trait is serving people? You go into hospitality, of course.
When I turned 26, after a few years of doing things I'd quickly learn weren't right for me, I landed an incredible opportunity at Tablet Hotels, a high-end online hotel booking site, and stayed there for 14 years before launching this blog. I started working as their sole customer service representative (and sole employee), eventually taking on other various roles but always somehow anchored to the customer service department. Most of the time I loved the customers - they were open, excited, and often very funny. I once helped a group of Ivy League professor friends plan a trip to Canada, and I titled their summary email, "YOUR MANCATION." It was a risk that my boss let me feel comortable taking, and it worked. They'd loved it, telling everyone in Toronto that they were on a mancation made possible by Tablet Hotels, and they'd continue to book through Tablet as the years went on.
It's possible I was born with an enthusiasm for other peoples' excitement and joy. At the Macaroni Grill, I once had a lovely family from India at one of my tables. All of a sudden in the middle of their meal, the father enthusiastically gestured for me, so I raced over, assuming I had forgotten something. "Do you know who that man is?" he said, pointing to another table also hosting an Indian family. "That is the Tom Cruise of India!" he exclaimed, with a smile so big I was immediately thrilled to be a part of this memory he would no doubt cherish forever. "Are you sure?" I asked, "I have to say, I don't really see the Tom Cruise of America eating at the Macaroni Grill of India." "I promise you, that is him! I want to pay for his lunch - can you arrange that please? Please tell him I am honored to be dining here with him."
I told the other table's server that she was currently serving one of India's most famous men and she could not have cared less. On its own, that's fine, but I feared that my diner's unique experience was in jeopardy. My inner control-freak prevailed and I asked if I could take the table over, giving her the tip, and she more than willingly obliged.
"That gentleman over there is going to cover your meal. He's very honored to be dining here with you today." The Tom Cruise of India gave a celebrity smile, stood up, and bowed graciously to the man and mouthed "Thank you." My other diner BEAMED, glancing proudly at each member of his family while most of them giggled.
When I went home that night I told my dad that I had helped a man buy lunch for the Tom Cruise of India. Without glancing up from his newspaper, he simply said, "Wow - that's big time." Big time indeed.
The pub in Dublin where I worked was huge and a popular spot for rugby watchers and players. Often the only "barmaid" on the floor (which consisted of two large rooms, one the "new pub" and the other the "old pub"), I was atypically shy because it was such a hard job and I had to focus intensely. I managed my own cash - I would be given 30 pounds (it was the 90's!) by the bar to start and then exchange that cash for drinks with the guests. If I messed up, and somehow ended the night with less than the 30 pounds, I had to pay the bar back. Anything I made beyond the 30 pounds was mine to keep. At the end of the night, once we were closed, it was my job to roll new sets of silverware, vacuum the floors, and refill the condiments bottles. When it was all said and done at around 3am, I'd hop on my friend's bike that I borrowed indefinitely and rode about 5 miles back to the college. It was all so very hard but also so awesome.
One day, there was an especially rowdy crowd and someone threw a pint glass that smashed against the wall about 2 feet above my head. As I ducked, shards of glass became stuck in the elastic band holding my ponytail. Miraculously, I wasn't hurt. The bar went quiet and I stood up and shouted, "Jesus Christ!". With pure Irish charm and timing, one of the bartenders put a stunned look on his face and shouted, "Sweet Jesus, she does talk!" and everyone cheered. Seconds later, we all went back about our business as if the whole scene had never happened.
Later, as I was finishing vaccuming the "new pub", that same bartender told me I was going too slow and to speed it up so I could finish the "old pub". When I walked into the old pub, right in the middle of the room was a table set with 2 bottles of Seven Up, a pint glass with ice ("because you're American"), a bag of potato chips, and a ham and cheese sandwich. The bartender smiled, pulled the chair out for me, and said, "Don't get used to it, all right?" The bartenders all finished what was left of my work while I ate my hard earned dinner. It's a night I'll never forget.
Not long after this I overheard the owner of the pub tell a regular, who called himself "The Badger", that I was a great barmaid. I felt overwhelming pride, more than any A on an exam could have earned (I assume). When my tenure at the pub was up and I was returning home to New York, The Badger gave me a mission. He asked me to go to Annie Moore's pub by Grand Central, an establishment I was well acquainted with, and to "Tell Jerry* that I want my money back." A few weeks later, on a sunny New York summer afternoon, I walked into an empty Annie Moore's and asked for Jerry. "I'm Jerry, what can I do for you?" said the sole bartender. "I have a message from The Badger. He wants his money back". Without so much as batting an eye, Jerry replied, "Not a chance. Now, what can I get you to drink? It's on me."
Of course, not all customer service experiences are so warm and fuzzy, sometimes you have to manage the totally irrational. Just like every comedian has their own technique for handling hecklers, members of the service industry have their own approach to customers who are "very particular." I'm not talking about people with a right to be upset, I'm talking about the people who call from a hotel in the jungle to complain about bat poop on the ground by the pool. Jerry Seinfeld uses an approach he calls "Heckler Therapy" and that's my preferred method as well. These people are desperate for just someone to acknowledge them and a little bit of totally insincere empathy can go a long way.
One reason I started Weekends Around is so I can remain helpful to travelers, hosts, hotels, businesses, and even the community at large. Being an Airbnb host uniquely offers a creative outlet for those of us inspired by hospitality but unable to open a hotel. The great hosts of Airbnb don't simply have a room to spare, they have an experience to share. Right now, there are people arriving at a complete strangers house and sleeping in their guest bedroom for a reasonable fee. This is both revolutionary and yet also like something from the days of the American Revolution. The fear now, with Airbnb specifically, is that they will destroy the very culture that made them special and become a site to book homes that look and feel like hotels. Judging by this Facebook ad that was supposed to demonstrate new opportunities for hosts, the Airbnb customer service culture is in dire need of some soul searching. They also might want to consider putting the burden of a PM (Private Message) on themselves more often. The customer service for the platform has to be at the same level as the final product, if it's not, the parties involved will find another way to connect.
I hope this post reminds you of a great customer service experience you've had and the memory brightens your day. Why not give a shout out to whomever made it happen in the comments below? I bet it will bring a smile to them too.
Happy Travels and Tribulations, my friends.
*Names have been changed to protect the potentially innocent.