Why Server Training Fails Servers

How much do you remember?

I have been reading a great deal lately about training and education models lately for a series on training I am working on.  The conclusion I am coming to is that restaurant training is suffering from far poor design and purpose.  It is based on an outdated and ineffective model.  It is structured in the wrong way and focused on teaching the wrong information.  It minimizes the talents that make someone a good server while focusing on learning information that is superfluous to guests and relevant only to the ego of those administering the tests.  Something tells me that this is going to be a very educational series when it is finished.

The reason for this failure to properly train servers is that most training plans are written from the top down.  They start with a handbook that leads off with a series of topics designed by corporate officers to prevent lawsuits or place them in the best possible position in the event of an unemployment claim.  If you look through most handbooks you will find no less than two dozen ways the employee can be fired that are discussed on their first day.  This is not particularly motivating, nor does it create a loyalty and desire to succeed on the part of the new employee.

After these matters are discussed, there are usually descriptions of the service expectations.  These are described differently by each company, but all outline the times that the new server is expected to check on the guest, provide a service, or attempt to make a sale.  Coming on the heels of the previous topics, these are seen differently than they are intended.  While the author may have intended for them to be perceived as a method for providing outstanding service, they are more often seen as reasons a manager can prove you are not doing your job.  While the authors often believe they have developed a highly efficient method of service, they have often done nothing more than create a patronizing overview of how servers do their job.  A server who needs to be told to check back after a guest begins their meal was probably a poor hiring decision.

Then the new server is handed a stack of information about the food and told they have a test coming up.  On this test they are told they will need to know every component of every item on the menu.  This is sometimes accompanied by the offer to sample some menu items.  Even this type of firsthand knowledge of the food is being cut back as training budgets diminish.  The server knows that in order to pass these tests they must learn this information.  After their shift they draw up note cards and try to quiz themselves to determine which sandwich has bar-b-que sauce and which one has a basil aioli.  They spend their precious time off trying to memorize the information that is most readily available to the guests because it is written on their menu.  It is also the information most likely to change during the next menu roll-out.

If they pass this test, it is determined that they know enough to be trusted with guests.  They know when the company was founded and all of the ingredients in the cobb salad.  They can list all 12 of the steps of service on a sheet of paper and know that they need to declare 100% of their tips.  The problem is that their knowledge is memorized rather than applicable.  This is the equivalent of a math student knowing how to determine the area of a cube, but not knowing how much wrapping paper it will take to cover a box.  They were trained to know what was in the salad, but the guest wants to know why it is better than the salad up the street.  They know that they are supposed to recommend an appetizer, but they are not trained on how to actually sell it.

When you think back to your school days, you can probably remember taking many tests.  Do not feel bad if you cannot remember what was on those tests, most people can’t.  Even stellar students could not pass most of those tests again a few years later without studying.  We know this about our education.  We sat in classrooms wondering when this was ever going to be relevant in the real world.  Now that we have entered the real world, the only knowledge that seems to have stuck with us was what we predicted back then was going to be relevant.  Does that mean that our teenage selves were geniuses?  Not really.  We only committed to long term memory what we felt would be practical one day.

The classes we learned the most in were the ones with the great teachers.  What made a teacher great was that they found a way to make the information they were teaching seem relevant to the real world.  I still remember countless bits of physics that were explained by a teacher named Gary Dais.  He was an oddball, but explained things in a way that made them seem oddly relevant.  He explained heat transfer by explaining how to best insulate and ventilate your house.  I have never actually needed this information, but I still remember it because I could imagine it coming in handy one day.

In spite of knowing this about our own education, it is still the model we use for training the people we hire.  What will your new hires remember from your training program?  Do you think anyone who has been on your staff for more than six months could still pass their menu test?  Even with all of the experience they have, most of them would score poorly.  This does not mean that they are worse servers than when you hired them.  Rather it means that they have replaced this memorization with practical knowledge gained from answering actual guest questions.  So the question becomes: Why isn’t that the information we are teaching in the first place?

Stay tuned for the answer to that question as well as the proposal of a better training model.

Tips²: Tips For Improving Your Tips, the new book from the author of The Manager’s Office, teaches the skills of exceptional servers that will increase customer satisfaction and dramatically improve restaurant sales.  This book is more than a server training manual.  It is the secret to teaching your staff to enjoy selling and give your guests the experience that will create raving fans.  To learn more about the book, visit www.tips2book.com.  Use the coupon code “MANAGER” to save 20% at the checkout.

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About David Hayden

David Hayden is a restaurant marketing and training consultant based in Kansas City, MO. He writes a series of 9 blogs collectively known as The Hospitality Formula Network and is the author of "Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips" and "Building Your Brand With Facebook"

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