It was supposed to be a romantic breakfast at a renovated historic hotel in mid-town Atlanta. It was early, the restaurant was not crowded, yet our waitress had obviously shifted to a low gear before we arrived. My wife and I ordered the same basic meal and intended to order a side of grits to share with our eggs and bacon. But, the distraction of the slow-motion customer service caused us to forget to request the side order.

The meal finally arrived and we realized our side of grits had not been ordered. “Are your grits already prepared?” I asked, gauging how uphill this pending battle might be.

“Oh, yes,” replied the waitress. Her tone signaled the conversation had come to an end. I restarted the dialogue with, “Could we get a quick single side order of grits?” We were hoping the grits would not arrive as we were taking the last bite of our meal. Then, her show stopping line followed.

“I can’t promise anything,” she said. “But, I can put in your order for a side of grits.” We elected not to take a chance on her tentative terms.

We diagnosed the situation as we are often prone to do. The waitress’ message was: “I cannot trust my colleagues in the kitchen to do their part of producing a rushed single serving of already prepared grits. I only have control and influence over the task I am required to do—put in a guest’s order.

Frontline authority is always a popular solution of ho-hum service.
But, empowerment extends beyond the latitude of the customer-facing employee. It includes support personnel with a desire for excellence and the zeal to delight the person funding their paychecks.

The waitress likely got tired of allowing her “mouth to write a check her body could not cash,” as comedian Flip Wilson used to say.

Burned by broken promises, she narrowed her capacity. Her tentative attitude lost the revenue from our side order of grits. She lost our repeat business since we plan to never return. She lost our advocacy when friends heading for Atlanta ask about a good restaurant.

And, the culprit for all this loss? Not, a frontline server without authority but rather a cook with a singular focus on food tasks and not on the paying guests who eat it.


Looking a positive example of customer service empowerment? See my Feb. 4, 2014, post on the Leadership Echo, and read how “Innovative service goes viral when it is echoed from a leader who treats associates exactly the way customers should be treated.

Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash.