“Nice” School, Part 3: Mabel Management

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

Last month we discussed that we consistently saw the behaviors of respect, consideration, kindness, and patience when we watched the superstars deliver service to a customer. We also had an active conversation with our troops about what it was like to extend those positive behaviors when they were delivering service in the street. Those discussions were very interesting to me because the positive five-star service guys and gals were a little surprised that the crazy old fire chief and his gang were asking them about how they did what they did so well.

Many of the firefighters we talked to have never consciously or deliberately thought much about these behaviors. When we had the discussion and asked them why they treated Mrs. Smith so well, many times they said they were “just doing their job.” Many others would say that if you work for Captain Nice (as I called him/her), you just naturally were nice to everyone you encountered. They added that if they were nice, Captain N would commend them, which was a big deal to them.

If they were out of balance with a customer and there was a problem with being nice, Captain N would quickly and directly get the situation into balance and then, back at the station, you would get to sit on the front bumper of Big Red with grumpy Captain N and visit about what happened on the call. That was never a positive experience. They said that Captain N was their favorite boss and they would rather die than disappoint that boss.

Through the years, I have interacted with firefighters who talked about the bosses they have worked for. A lot of those conversations also included how those bosses influenced the service the firefighter extended to the customer. How bosses manage the workers under their command is a very critical factor in the service the customer receives—simply, positive boss inputs become high-quality customer outputs.

I have noticed that as we expanded the discussions about delivering better customer service, we all became more critical about how we were treated when we were on the receiving end of the service process. In our fire service lives, we deliver service; but in our regular lives, we continually are the customer and not the server, so in that way we are all very special “customer service schizophrenics”: We both give and receive service. We have the opportunity to evaluate how an organization does when we receive that service and then incorporate the good stuff in our system and avoid doing the negative.

For many years, I have done an extensive amount of highly scientific customer service research—I eat in diners (a lot!). A diner is truly a beautiful thing. It is small and compact, you can generally see the whole thing from one place, and the service delivery feedback loop is quick. The whole operation has a quick response time—that’s why they call it “short order.” Many times the place is named after a person, and usually it’s a real simple name like “Mom’s,” “Al’s,” and “Doc’s,” and most of the time there is actually a Mom, an Al, or a Doc.

I have noticed that there is a huge difference in the quality of the service and the food if that person (boss) is present and paying attention. I also notice that wherever and whenever there is a delay, a hitch, any confusion—or if I don’t look like a happy diner—Mom, Al, or Doc reacts (like Captain N) by directly engaging whatever is out of balance. They typically talk in nice short sentences and use real plain language that they apply right where the problem exists—this is what “directly engaging” really means. Many times, just their presence and their body language solve the problem.

The diner routine also creates a particular type of worker. The people who cook have names like Melvin and are generally guys who wear paper hats and look as if they would be well suited to be assigned to a truck company and, like a truck company, they generally don’t say much but work very quickly. Old-time diners still have the lazy Susan where the waitress (Mabel) puts the order ticket in one side and the cook spins it around to read it. This was a very clever invention developed because there was a classic organizational disagreement (true story) about who outranked whom—the waitress or the cook. The spinner sufficiently separates them. Now, modern diners have computers where Mabel inputs the order and Melvin reads it and, like virtually every other part of our lives, everyone is both electronically connected and emotionally separated.

Mabel is the typical diner waitress; having her serve you is a great part of the diner experience. She is a picture of food service effectiveness. She delivers service a lot like we do. She has a short response time on both ends of the meal: She takes the order quickly on the front end and gets the food to you quickly on the back end. There are not many frills or wasted time; what she does and where she does it are not fancy. Hunger abatement and fire abatement occur pretty quickly when they are effective.

I recently stopped in a diner to have breakfast on my way to teach a customer service class. It was a beautiful example of a classic diner. I (naturally) sat on a stool at the counter and was approached by Mabel to take my order. She was from central casting in her diner uniform complete with bobby sox. She opened up with the usual: “Wadddyahave?” I gave her my order; a few minutes later, she delivered it. Once she got me going, she engaged in the usual interrogation: “Wherreayafrom?” I told her. She then did the next standard question: “Whataydoinin town?” (which meant I wasn’t a regular). I told her I was teaching a customer service class down at the local fire station; she said with typical diner waitress sarcasm that the world was badly in need of a big dose of such training.

I then asked what her approach to customer service was. Almost instantly, she gave me the smartest description I had ever heard from a worker about personally managing quality control in delivering customer service. She said, “When I pick up a plate of food, I look at it; if I wouldn’t eat it, I don’t serve it!” When she answered me, she didn’t stutter or hesitate or waste any words. I loved her answer. She didn’t blame anyone else, do a study, appoint a committee, or take the problem to another level. She simply had empowered herself to make an evaluation of how effective the product was, and if it didn’t meet her standards she took care of it herself right where the problem was present.

She was in control of the critical moment of truth in the customer service process. At that moment, there really wasn’t anyone else in place who could respond to and solve the problem as she could. She understood the basic business of her business: People go to a diner to eat because they are hungry. You don’t take people to a diner to impress them. There are no tablecloths and not much “ambience.” Although the food is not fancy, it had better be “basic grub” and be good because that is why you are there. I asked Mabel if she had given my breakfast the “Mabel look.” She said, “You bet I did. I do it every time.”

“How was it?” I asked her in diner language.

“It looked good to me. How did it taste to you?” she replied.

I answered her in diner language, “Damned good.”

I am certain that about now you are thinking that the old guy has truly slipped a cog and is now on a diner ramble. That reaction is not altogether incorrect, except that today in our compressed-time, rapidly changing world, we must expand the places and people doing things that contain lessons we can apply to what we do. Although what we do (physically) is quite different from what occurs at a diner, there are a lot of educational similarities that could contain lessons for us; we have already discussed some of those similarities.

I think that there is a never-ending process of change going on in the very trendy food industry. New restaurants are in a continual state of coming and going. I am an avid reader of the food section of the newspaper and local magazines. The food editors report on the latest and greatest local hit parade chefs and describe their specialties. Many times, these descriptions abruptly collide with my obsolescence simply because they describe stuff they prepare that I have never heard of before—what in the world is “glazed duck pate with puréed rutabagas? That dish has never been cooked in an American fire station in the past 250 years.

I guess the point of all this is that diners are really pretty timeless because they are really good at doing the simple and critical things it takes to successfully feed people. Like us, they are highly accessible, and you don’t need to make reservations. They, like us, have a short, simple menu of what they serve. The items on the menu are the things we all are familiar with (lots of “comfort food”). We have described Mabel who (like Engine 1) is quick and effective and, also like us, is empowered to start, continue, and finish the service delivery process.

There is one difference between diners and us that I would like to finish with. Many diner customers are what are termed “regulars.” Many have eaten at their favorite diner their entire life (as I have). Although I have several places I frequent where I live, I have eaten in diners all over North America. In all my diner time, I have never heard a diner employee use the term “frequent flier.” I have hosted groups of people at diners where the bill was fairly hefty (for a diner). I have also gone to a diner and ordered just a glass of iced tea that Mabel refilled four times. I received exactly the same service and was treated exactly the same way on both occasions. I did not get the feeling in any way that Mabel thought that on my iced tea visit I was engaging in “diner abuse.”

Our service is currently going through a tough time, and a lot of really smart people say we are headed to a “new normal.” I will not belabor the point, but I wonder if we could learn something if we just watched and listened to Mabel. If we did that, we might just find our new normal somewhere in her old normal.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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