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Tipping Point: Service Industry Revisited

Rick Coates - September 17th, 2012  

Recently, I was asked what I thought about service in Northern Michigan and I responded, “it depends on the day.”

One day I experience exceptional service, the next day I have a less than satisfactory experience.

I wrote an article five years ago giving Northern Michigan a C-minus grade for its service industry. The grade was based on personal experience as well as input from others I know who dine out on a regular basis.

The article became fodder for discussion around Northern Michigan, from restaurant break rooms to coffee shops to local talk radio programs. Two talk radio shows even brought me on their programs where callers either felt I was way off base with my grade or right on. Interestingly, both radio shows did online surveys and their listeners agreed with my assessment of a C-minus grade for service in Northern Michigan.

STANDARD NEEDED

In that article I pointed out some things that the region might want to do to improve its level of service. One would be to create a “Service Industry Standard,” as some communities have done elsewhere. This “Service Standard” would be incorporated into all businesses that service the public (including governmental agencies). Typically, it is the chamber of commerce, local college, a visitors bureau or a collaboration of businesses and organizations that oversees such a standard.

I even went so far as to inquire with community leaders at that time about the possibility of a Service Industry Standard being created for the region. It was apparently discussed, but no action has been taken to date to create such a service standard.

In the five years that have passed since my article appeared I see our service in the region remaining just below average. Sure, some establishments and individuals are excelling, but many are failing or simply providing mediocre service.

Northern Michigan is receiving national, and even international recognition for our restaurants, wineries, breweries, distilleries, accommodations, art galleries and golf courses. We just can’t afford to be average when it comes to our service standard.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

Okay, before you start firing off a letter to the editor that I don’t know what the hell I am talking about because I have not worked in the “business,” you would be wrong at the least on the latter assumption. For the past 35 years I have worked in a variety of positions in the hospitality industry, from golf caddy, dishwasher, bartender, server, chef, restaurant manager, general manager and a few tours of duty as a food and beverage director. I know how hard this business can be and have come up short a few times myself when serving others.

Outside the obvious, here are some reasons why our Northern Michigan region needs to create a service standard:

A few years back, I heard from a community leader who was showcasing the region to a business owner looking to relocate his corporate headquarters. A Northern Michigan community was one of three cities in the country this company was considering. The move would have meant 300-plus well-paid professionals relocating here and all of the spinoff business as a result of that move. Unfortunately, a bad service experience resulted in this company not choosing the region.

SOME EXAMPLES

I dine out on average 10 of my 21 meals a week. Recently, a server bumped my feet with a vacuum while I was still eating. Another place was spraying chemicals that had a strong aroma at the table next to me. I have heard this a few times, “the kitchen wants to close early we need to get your order in now.” Another favorite is, “I have been cut loose and will be leaving in a few minutes and need you to cash out with me and then so-and-so will take over.”

All of us have had similar types of service faux pas. Servicing customers is tough work, especially in Northern Michigan where the hospitality industry is somewhat seasonal. I hear all the time from business owners that this seasonality issue plays a major role in offering consistent service, with one manager stating, “by the time we get them trained the season is over.”

Look, we have a lot of great people working in this business of hospitality in Northern Michigan. I personally have had exceptional service that is equal to anywhere in the world and wonder why it can’t always be that way.

HERE ARE SOME SUGGESTIONS:

SMILE: It is amazing how unfriendly some of the service is here at times. I have been to places and know others who have said the same thing: that they “don’t feel welcome,” or they felt like they were an “inconvenience” to the waitstaff.

I was entertaining the food and wine writer from the Chicago Tribune a few years back and he asked, “doesn’t anyone around here smile?” Our server never once smiled and seemed frazzled most of the night. As this writer was heading back to Chicago, he left me with this: “Northern Michigan has great wineries and the food at the restaurants is exceptional, I however, can’t recommend the service.”

LOCAL, LOCAL: During the past year only one establishment that I have visited encouraged me to try a local product. Just a couple of weeks ago I was dining with a friend from out of town. He ordered a vodka martini and while the restaurant had two vodkas made in Michigan, the bartender never suggested either one. I have had this happen with wine and beer, as well. The traveling public wants to try local. We have award-winning products to promote; please recommend them as often as possible.

BE HONEST: Look, we all have bad days and if your establishment is having one, just be honest. Sometimes you are just busier than you expected, or a couple of staff didn’t show up. Whatever the reason, just communicate that to your guest: “We are busier than expected and it is taking longer than usual for us to get meals out this evening, so I apologize in advance.” This lets the guests know what to expect. If they are in a hurry, they have the option to leave and go elsewhere, or stay and take their time and relax.

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE CREATE A NORTHERN MICHIGAN SERVICE STANDARD: The bottom line is no one sets out to give “bad service.” Typically, most “bad service” situations are a result of a lack of training. Most hospitality businesses that have impeccable service standards have intensive training programs and that training is reinforced on a daily basis.

It is time for Northern Michigan to create a region-wide “Service Standard.” We are no longer able to afford inconsistent service. As locals we deserve it and our economy depends on it. As a server, retail clerk, front desk staffer or establishment, if your service is of the highest standards that is great; but what happens if a visitor goes somewhere that is not up to the standards you have established? They may never return to experience your establishment.

We are able to get grants for all sorts of things; why not one for improving service in our region? Will Rotary, the casinos, the chambers, the colleges, or some other granting organization step up and make this happen? Maybe all of the above could consider working together.

The time is now and this Service Standard must be uniform and adopted throughout Northern Michigan. Let’s not wait another five years, please.

 
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