Valuable brand lessons the 23 year-old waiter didn’t know he was learning back in 1984

When I was younger I worked in restaurants. Waited tables, bartended, and supervised a staff of 50+ waiters. Waiting, in particular, taught me a lot of lessons. For instance:

  • the kitchen can kill your tip by botching an order;
  • the host/hostess can kill your tip by double-seating you when you’re already “in the weeds”;
  • the bartenders can kill your tip by taking too long to get your drink orders up;
  • the lowly bus boy can help your tips or hurt them, depending on how you treat him;
  • a difficult low-value customer can damage your ability to serve high-value customers;
  • weak managers assure that even the smallest hurdles burn out of control;
  • even the architect who designed the restaurant 10 years ago can cost you money; layout and setup are critical to your efficiency, and the 10 minutes an inefficient floorplan costs you in a shift can be the difference in 15-20 percent in tips by the end of the night.

All of this, in addition to the numerous things I was doing on my own to kill my tips…

Being young, confused and frequently angry, I thought I was learning lessons about how the world was out to ruin my life. It wasn’t until years later that I began to understand how my time in the restaurant industry had actually taught me lots of valuable lessons about marketing, organizational structure and behavior, operational efficiency, integration, and the critical branding role played by a company’s front line employees. As my good friend and former boss Anders Gronstedt has so effectively demonstrated, the people working across the customer touchpoints are the face of the brand.

So, viewed through the lens of 20 years professional experience, what lessons about brand was I really learning during my restaurant days?

Lesson 1: Integration is critical. Duh.

Unfortunately, very few of us are integrationists by nature. While we’re taught, as members of an individualistic culture, that we’re responsible for our own actions, etc., the truth in the business world is less about independence than it is interdependence. No man is an island. No woman, either. Somebody on the far end of the operation, somebody I may not deal with closely or directly, can exert a major impact on my ability to do my job, on the customer’s satisfaction, and on my compensation and reward structure.

To this end, it’s important for managers and leaders to know as much about the system in which we work as possible. Our plans, policies, strategies and tactical maneuvers have to be conceived and executed with an informed understanding of the whole.

With each passing day, I become more and more convinced that it’s impossible to talk about brand without also talking about the fundamental organizational issues that enable or hamstring the enterprise along its front lines.

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