Re-Visiting Customer Service at The Linkery

June 3, 2010

Recently we posted about [intlink id=”2879″ type=”post”]customer service and how it relates to tipping[/intlink] in the hospitality industry. That post generated a bunch of comments around the place and since it was in part driven by an almost four year old New York Times article about The Linkery, a San Diego restaurant, we thought it worthwhile talking to the establishment in question.

The Linkery took the, at the time, unheralded step of banning tipping in its establishment. The theory went that by removing both customers and staff from the bind that tipping was, The Linkery would be able to reach new levels of excellent, and most importantly genuine, customer service.

Four years on then, I contacted Jay Porter from the Linkery and asked him a bunch of questions relating to their, now well-established, no-tipping policy.

Everyone says they’re a customer focused business, whether or not they mean it. How do you think an organization can ensure that it’s genuinely customer focused? Especially in the hospitality industry where authenticity is hard to measure…

I don’t know that we would say that we are a customer focused business. I think that our business has a vision (community, food, craft) that we partner with our guests to achieve. We demand a lot out of our guests in order to realize this vision, and we also demand a lot out of ourselves. Service is part the vision, within a certain context, but we do not exist to serve the existing needs of our guests — we exist to work with our guests to create something better than previously was happening.

Many people have talked about friendliness in relation to customer service – what do you think about the balance between friendliness and professionalism? Think snobby French waiters…

The problem with snobby waiters isn’t that they’re unfriendly, but that they’re not connected to their guest. Our whole raison d’etre is to establish a meaningful connection with our guests and conceive new, more felicitous ways of existing. If we do that well, a certain natural friendliness will occur on its own.

How does one ensure that your customer support staff are genuine with their customers – what can you do to keep them fresh?

All we can do as a managers is create and maintain context where, for our team, doing things the right way is easier and more rewarding than doing things the wrong way. And try to hire people who are in tune with the thing we are trying to create.

It always happens, the customer is always right but there’s times when they’re simply wrong. At which point does your duty to be reverent to your staff overcome the duty to be reverent to your customers? How do you deal with this seeming conflict?

My slogan for this is, “the customer is always right, but not everybody is our customer.” If someone comes here wanting something that is outside of the bounds of what we do, we encourage them to go to a place which is built to serve that need.

What place do tools have in delivering great customer service. My contention is that good systems and tools take drag out of the system and make it easier to give customer exception experiences – do you agree and do you have any specific examples in your case?

Good tools help with my answer to #3, creating an environment where it’s easier to do excellent work than mediocre work. We continue to try to develop simple spreadsheets our managers can use, for instance, to track their costs. Since we’ve given them good ones, we don’t have surprise periods where we get outside of our tolerable limits for costs. That’s their job, but without good tools they were more likely to have missteps. Similarly, the tools on our service floor serve the same purpose — something as simple as a pour line on the bar backstop, or as high-tech as world class beer faucets, can make a big difference.

In your case you famously banned tipping four years ago – now, down the track, how can you reflect on what this has done for your staff’s authenticity, their overall friendliness and service as a whole?

When we replaced tipping with a service charge, it was the start of our phenomenal growth over the last 4 years. Within a few weeks our service was better than it had ever been, because we were creating a context in which it was easier to do a good job than a bad job — because teamwork was made easier by eliminating competition for tips, and creating a marvelous guest experience (which brings return visits from guests, benefiting everyone) was rewarded more than “working” a guest for tips.

Once that context had been created, we started (and are continuing) a run of having a lot of excellent people come to work for us, in large part I think because they were (are) more interested in working at a place where they are likely to do great work, than they are looking to absolutely maximize their income — we are competitive with most places in terms of income, but the highest earning servers and bartenders in town are in a much higher income bracket than our team.

There have been times when we have struggled with service, but that has been related to our rapid growth (and my personal management shortcomings in those conditions) rather than tipping. Over time, our team continues to improve. When we were in our smaller location, by the end of our time in the small restaurant I think our service was at the highest level in town (though not fine-dining in style). Now, in our big restaurant I can see us approaching that level again. Which is really a joy to be a part of.

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