Montreal has a mixed reputation for service. We are not the Deep South, where waiters always tell customers their names, followed by “and I’ll be your waiter today.” Neither are we Paris, where the help sometimes makes you feel as though taking your order is like giving you a kidney. This week, our friend Julien Smith
talks about the nature of good service.
About the author:
Julien Smith is a New York Times bestselling author of Trust Agents. He is also a consultant, and speaker who has been involved in online communities for over 15 years– from early BBSes and flashmobs to the social web as we know it today. His blogs at inoveryourhead.net.
Nothing leaves a bad taste in your mouth like arriving at a great shop, or a great new restaurant, and then receiving horrible service. Expectations are high, you’ve heard good things from friends, the mood is perfect. Everything is just so until the employees open their mouth (or don’t, as the case may be). From there on in, the experience disintegrates rapidly.
But it doesn’t always happen this way. Sometimes you arrive, and it’s great. Or, it depends on who you’re speaking to– some of the staff are charming in the way they upsell you while others are blunt and obvious. They had a good day, or a bad one. Whatever table they served before yours may have rubbed them the wrong way, who knows.
In other words, service is really subtle, and easily missed.
Not everyone gets it wrong, though. Some do it amazingly well, leaving you with a memorable experience for years to come. Take Joe Beef, for instance.The casual atmostphere makes everyone feel welcome. The informality is a part of the charm, and the impression that you’re taking part in a kind of secret Old Boys club somehow adds to the experience. Our waiter taunted us, practically dared us to be able to finish the sizeable dishes he’d bring, egging us on in a kind of mock-challenge we were more than happy to engage in.
And until our favourite butcher in town, our friend Ms. Hecht
, opens up her place, is among the shops at the Atwater Market, where you are often greeted with a smile and casually chatted with as you make your choices.
In other words, every time great service happens, it trumps even the quality of the goods the store itself sells. It makes us so happy that we return to these venues, again and again. These things matter more than we are able to admit to ourselves.
You might say it has something to do with a feeling of belonging, or a sense of nostalgia. We like being recognized, treated well and appreciated. Yet, amongst all the things establishments think about: inventory, wages, or concept, what is most human is often overlooked– a shame, considering it can be the most valuable thing a business presents– and often the most profitable.
The truth is, the human element is the only thing that cannot be mechanized or scaled. It requires sacrifice and actual caring; people cannot be duped. They know when it is being faked and when it’s the real thing. You cannot train people to do it; they either know how, or they don’t.
The best, most memorable experiences for us as a couple have been the places where they’ve been the least expected. Salle à Manger, during a recent Plateau supper, left an amazing impression on my girlfriend when the hirsute waiter described how he and his friend had themselves caught the fish she was about to have for supper. When added to his character and amazing wine recommendations, it became an experience that will be remembered for a long time.
M sur Masson is another out-of-the-way place, a great restaurant that is not well-enough known due to its distance from the downtown core. Sitting quietly by Iberville, the proprietor shakes everyone’s hands as they leave and thanks them, making everyone feel welcome. This, along with charming descriptions of the chef’s daily meals, leaves you with a sentiment not unlike arriving back at your own hometown after a long voyage.
Onto the conclusion. Why is this important? Why does it matter that you are served well and treated warmly? Because, in an age of mass production, scale, and franchising, focus on the human still matters. Even as we gain access to the whole world’s knowledge with the tap of a button on our new iPhone 4S’s, what really makes us happy isn’t the digital, or the industrial, but the analog– the feeling that someone else is noticing and appreciating us. This isn’t going to be disappearing as the digital age moves forward. It’s actually going to become more important. Watch for it, you’ll see.