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Lisa Earle McLeod: Money not the only motivator

She had that way of looking past you, as if she were hoping that someone better was coming along behind you.

Her demeanor said, “You, madam, are a low-priority customer.” She was the hostess at a South Beach restaurant. As I watched, I realized that it wasn’t just me; she was disengaged from everyone. There were no bigger, better customers getting her full attention. She was disengaged; it seemed that she couldn’t care less.

I recently spent a weekend in South Beach, the hot spot of Miami. While the weekend itself was fun, my family and I experienced lackluster service at several pricey restaurants. We were in a great mood, and I’m a former waitress myself who tends to be very forgiving of service challenges, so it took several incidents before we realized, the overall service was consistently poor. Time and time again, we waited far too long before someone came to our table. Food arrived at different times for different people, forcing you to eat when your friends hadn’t been served, or let your food get cold. At least one order was wrong at almost every meal. Even when we asked politely, there was little done to correct the problems. The response was consistently disengaged blank stares and mumbled “I’m sorrys” with no suggestions for corrections. Of the nine meals we ate in restaurants, we only received good service in two. I’ll unpack the two exceptional establishments shortly, the seven poor experiences, in not cheap places, were quite disheartening.

It was my older daughter, also a former waitress, who finally realized why. Although we were in a small group of three or four, for each meal all of the restaurants added an 18 percent “service fee” to the check. I confirmed with one waitress, sure enough the 18 percent went to the server. Apparently this is the standard in South Beach. We encountered this practice at every single restaurant, including a breakfast place. To be clear, I usually tip 20 percent (again, former waitress). But in this instance, the servers were going to make an 18 percent tip whether they provided good service or not. They had no incentive to care about customers, and they didn’t.

On the surface, this experience supports a theory that many believe to be true: People are motivated by only money. But that brings us to the two exceptions. Two service experiences were excellent. The hostesses were engaged, the servers were knowledgeable, personable and prompt, and every element of our order was right.

While the other places had lethargy oozing from every person, the two exceptions – Cuban and Italian places – were humming with energy that said we’re glad you’re here.

So what was the difference? It wasn’t the money; these places added the same 18 percent. It was the management.

Yes, money does motivate people, but it’s only one motivator. The exceptional servers were trained, and they cared. Their leaders created a culture where customers mattered. Their people didn’t need the extra incentive of more money because their managers had set the expectation that this is how we treat customers. It was the combination of no incentive and low expectations that resulted in bad service.

The excellent employees made their 18 percent standard, and we even added a bit more, proving that when the focus is on serving customers right instead of gouging them, you wind up making even more money.

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