"Table for two?", "Have you booked?", "Is everything OK?" Do you use the same old robotic phrases, day in, day out? Tom Vaughan offers his guide on how to give guests a warm, genuine experience that epitomises true service
"It's only words, and words are all I have," sang the great Barry Gibb, and while it might have afforded him and his falsetto brothers a top ten smash, it's not technically true. "Verbal communication is only 7% of what you say," says Peter Avis, restaurant manager at Babylon at Kensington Roof Gardens in London. "The rest is down to how you say it and any â¨non-verbal cues your body gives away." Avis is right: at least 7% of communication is words, 38% is tone of voice and 55% is body language.
But mastering the art of service is to master all three, which is why Holmes has banned the phrases "Table forâ¦?" and "Have you booked?" from his restaurants. "We felt it was becoming robotic," he says. "People come to a restaurant not just for the food and to avoid the washing up, but to take five from the world. They don't want to be treated in a functional way. â¨So rather than tell waiters what they should be saying and making it robotic from us, we treat them with respect and, as a steer, just tell them some phrases to avoid."
Blacklisted phrases Throw those sentiments out into the hospitality industry and every restaurateur, hotelier and consultant will admit to having their black book of over-used and robotic phrases. For Philip Newman-Hall, managing director at â¨Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, it's the expressions "no problem" and "OK".
For Avis, it is simply the word "no". "It holds so much negativity, and that's not what we're here to convey," he says. "You should always give the guest options - you should never just say a simple 'no'."
For Simon Girling, restaurant manager at London's Ritz Hotel, his bÁªte noires are "voila" when removing a cloche, "bon appetit" when food is placed and the term "enjoy" used on its own. And for hospitality consultants Mark Harris and John Davey, it's the collective term "guys" and the phrase "is everything alright?", respectively. "Whether you're paying £30, £50 or £70, it had better be a lot better than 'alright'," says Davey.
Body talk Getting the words right and eliminating these ingrained phrases in front of house staff is important, but it is far from the be-all and end-all to good communication - body language is key. "There is a psychology to making someone feel more at ease in the way we communicate and, interestingly enough, it's not all that complex," explains clinical psychologist â¨Dr Siri Harrison.
"If you hope to make the person you're speaking with feel at ease, you have to be at ease yourself. Lower your tone of voice, speak clearly and confidently, stand with a sense of dignity, use language people can understand, stay calm and, most importantly, be kind. â¨A smile also goes a long way."
At Le Manoir, they work on this a lot, says Newman-Hall. "It's about standing up straight, looking straight at the customer and smiling."
Avis helps run a monthly customer service training session at Babylon, with 20 minutes spent on mastering body language. One aspect they work to eradicate is pointing. "Hands should always be open when dealing directly with customers, as it is more inviting and friendly," he says.
Eye contact is absolutely imperative, says Sam Harrison, owner of restaurants Sam's Brasserie and Harrisons, both in London. â¨"I went to a favourite restaurant of mine the other day and they were noticeably off their game," he says. "And I noticed it because no one would look at me for long enough. Waiters had their heads down when they were walking across the floor. It's not only friendly and polite to be looking around, but obviously if you do that you spot problems. At my restaurants, waiters work big sections, but half the skill is using the short time you have with each table to make the customers feel at ease."
Eye contact is key, agrees Dr Harrison, but don't forget the rest of your body language. "Gesticulate and be expressive with your face," she adds. "Don't refuse eye contact, cross your arms across your chest, turn half your body away or slouch."
Confidence tricks Words, tone, body language - all easy in â¨theory, but in practice, less so. Of course, it's all about confidence, says Holmes. "Confidence is a seriously attractive trait. Confident people and confident businesses are much more attractive. And where does confidence come from? Knowledge."
A waiter who knows what he or she is talking about will exude a lot of this body language naturally. At Ask, this knowledge runs deep. Rather than teach the waiters didactically about the menu, they teach them about â¨the Italian seasons. "It's about an Italian â¨education. They learn all about the food and the seasons and then we encourage them to use the stories they have learnt - say, about buffalo mozzarella - when it is appropriate," Holmes adds.
Again, it's about being yourself rather than a robotic waiter, which is why Holmes is averse to bringing in any of the over-the-top psychological tricks waiters are trained with in America. In a 2004 paper, Dr Michael Lynn, associate professor of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, scientifically tested a handful of psychological tricks on diners to see how much they increased a waiter's tips.
Some of the results would certainly help hotels and restaurants of all types in the UK. Smiling - a genuine smile - saw a 100% increase in tips. Briefly repeating customers' orders was also a 100% rise (which is a bit of advice Newman-Hall uses among front of house staff at Le Manoir). Calling â¨customers by name saw a 10% increase.
However, others, such as crouching at eye level, briefly touching an arm and introducing your own name are all too much for more reserved UK audiences. "Yes, at a local restaurant we can get to know customers' names, and them ours," says Harrison. "But when I'm working the floor, I never â¨introduce myself by my name. If it comes â¨up naturally, then fine. It's the same as crouching beside a table - I'm not there to be a â¨customer's mate."
Service isn't about saying and doing what you're told, it is an intrinsic skill that comes from experience. "It isn't just about waiting on someone, it's about communication and connection," says Harrison.
"Human beings are social animals and, deep down, we love to connect with another. For a waiter to perfect his or her ability not justâ¨to communicate but to connect with customers will definitely affect the â¨success of their restaurant and probably provide that waiter with a sense of â¨confidence as well."
THE DO'S AND DON'TS OF COMMUNICATING WITH CUSTOMERS DON'TS
•Use robotic waiter language: "Have you booked?", "Table for two?", "Is everything alright?"
•Rush - it will come across as lack of care and attention. If you are working a big section, use your time wisely.
•Use closed body language, such as slouching, putting your head down, folding your arms or turning away while standing at a table.
•Point. It is seen as rude and aggressive.
•Introduce your name to the table. You are there to give great service, not make friends.
•Be afraid if you don't know something.
•Greet someone as if it were your own home, while still being polite.
•Lower the tone of your voice, speak clearly and confidently, stand with a sense of dignity and use language people can understand.
•Stand up straight, make eye contact, gesticulate and be expressive with your face.
•Keep your hands open when dealing directly with customers - it is more inviting and friendly.
•Use the customer's name, especially to greet them, but only if you know it already - don't go chasing it.
•Make sure you know as much about the menu and restaurant as possible. With knowledge comes confidence.
•Smile - it goes a long way.