Michael Maxwell – Partner, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting
It is possible that we have all underestimated the importance of a smile in connecting with others. We spent months craving the experience of dining in restaurants and once more interacting with humans only to discover that it is not the same when all those humans are wearing masks.
But the mask IS NOT the problem, using the mask as an excuse IS. I have seen a variety of dining experiences lately. On many occasions I have felt warm and welcome and on others barely acknowledged. Putting on the mask has made it easy to just go through the motions.
To illustrate let me share last night’s experience. While traveling all day, I decided to grab a meal in an airport restaurant between flights. When I approached the host stand, I spotted the host across the room sweeping toward a dustpan near me. She looked up, saw me, and kept sweeping. When she arrived at the dustpan, she glanced at me, said something through her face mask, swept the dirt into the dustpan, pushed it aside then just stared at me. I guessed that she had asked how many people in my party so I took charge and said “just one for dinner, and I would rather have a table than sit at the bar, but a high-top in the bar is fine.” She led me to my table, mumbled something again while looking at the QR code taped to my table and I assumed that was how I would get a menu. This continued with my server who was very busy and went through the steps of service at my table without ever coming to a complete stop. While timing and quality were good, our conversation consisted of him saying things over his shoulder through a mask as he passed which were undecipherable. I had plenty of time and had planned on at least two courses and a cocktail, what I ended up with was a burger and glass of water because the interaction was just too difficult.
My revelation during that meal was that it does not have to be like this. Some simple practices, which are outlined below, can remove masks as an obstacle and instead make them a positive nod toward the safety of our guests.
Keep Smiling. It may not be visible behind your mask but there are signs everywhere. The sides of your mask pull up higher on your cheeks, your eyes sparkle, and there literally is a “bounce in your step”. Smiling affects our state of mind and that is conveyed to our guests in many subtle but positive ways.
Make Eye Contact. Eye contact was critical even before putting on a mask. It says to our guests, you have my complete attention, you are important, and I want to make you happy.
Speak Clearly. This one takes some time to overcome. You have to force yourself to speak louder, slower, and enunciate more. You are never going to connect with your guests if they cannot understand you. Watch for signs like leaning closer and adjust your volume accordingly. Also pay attention to your tone. Going through a robotic table greet is the same with or without a mask. Varying your tone up and down and allowing yourself to show excitement helps the mask to melt away.
Use Your Hands. If you have never talked with your hands, it is time that you learned. Pointing to items on the menu, waving to people as they enter the building, giving them a thumbs up when they tell you the wine is just as you described it and nodding in agreement as guests answer your questions helps to keep you and your guests engaged in the art of getting to know each other.
Ask Questions. We have always encouraged asking questions to help determine the kind of dining experience our guests are looking for. This is even more important now. Asking questions allows guests to feel that you are sincerely concerned about customizing the experience to their expectations, a feeling that in the past could be conveyed with just a smile and a nod.
Over Do It. More is better. More thank yous, more questions, more affirmations, more descriptions, and more stories allow you to engage your guests and remind them that you really are smiling behind that mask. Do not become a nuisance and know when to give your guests their space but remember polished silent service behind a mask is perceived as service that does not care.
Practice, Practice, Practice. This is new territory and requires new skills. Like any other new skill, it has to be taught. My guess is that many restaurant workers believe they are doing a great job behind their mask because they are behaving as they always have. Roleplay all possible guest scenarios with your team and let the rest of the team critique them. Then practice the same scenario using all the practices mentioned above, talk about the differences in the interaction.
Assuming business as usual with a mask is a mistake. The mask is not only a barrier for disease, it is also a human connection barrier. Your team must first be made aware of the difference it makes and then trained to overcome it. Consumers need human contact more than ever right now. Restaurants that are still able to connect and entertain while wearing masks will create loyal fans in a time that all are struggling to survive financially.