Lessons from waitressing – sounding like you understand stuff (when you don’t) doesn’t get you a tip.

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We had lunch in our local café last weekend. The waitress had a brilliant, excellent English accent.  Her education had clearly been very thorough in that respect.  However her vocabulary was extremely limited.  A table nearby asked for the bill – she didn’t understand.  Then they tried asking for the cheque. She didn’t understand that either. Then they got up and paid at the counter.

She was otherwise good at her job, and I’m sure she will pick up the necessary language. But the confusion, indeed customer frustration, was undoubtedly added to by the fact that her English sounded so convincing when she did not know the actual terms necessary for her job.  Had her accent been more pronounced then the customers would have spelt out what they wanted more clearly.  Here is a lesson for us all.  When you work with a new client it is often tempting to sound like you understand more than you do about their business.  This can be a mistake as you end up not asking crucial questions and therefore don’t learn what you need to know to really help them.

One thing to watch out for is pretending that you understand a particular language of a client when you don’t really. Marketers famously have a fondness for the three or four letter acronyms.  The SKU is the most common example in the world of fmcg.  (I had to look it up to remind myself what each letter stands for, even though of course I know what it means).  Whilst some acronyms like SKU are the lingua franca of marketing – others are peculiar to the sector or the organisation.  A particular favourite was some years ago when I was discussing a new petfood launch with a team of people.  They kept referring to it as Oh Enn Eee.  It took me a long while to realise it was the launch of Purina One that was being discussed.  It would have been better if I had asked the question the first time I heard it of course.

My personal career as a waitress was a short lived one.  And yet it too had lessons for my subsequent working life. Here is one of them.  When I was a waitress at Georgina’s in the covered market in Oxford I used to delight in handing generous portions to the customers.  Many of my friends, who were impoverished students, used to come in and I would make sure that they didn’t leave hungry.  But one customer changed my mind about this.  She tackled me on the portion size by saying – “this is too much, I can’t eat all this, and I don’t want to waste it.”  She was right.  What she wanted was the right portion, value for money but no wastage.  In my last blog I called for more complete audience research so that we can understand the full audience delivery of TV shows however they are being consumed.  This is also not just about delivery of value for money but about understanding the impact of TV on sales of advertised products, and the ability to buy just enough TV to avoid diminishing returns and not to incur wastage.

Next time – my experiences as a shoe salesperson and how they helped my ability to sell multiple linear regression models.

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One Response to “Lessons from waitressing – sounding like you understand stuff (when you don’t) doesn’t get you a tip.”

  1. Sam Learmonth says:

    Very good point about being comfortable enough with your right to be there that you don’t have to pretend you are omniscient about all areas of your clients business. And if you pretend to understand it, that will not manage their expectations of you.
    I had an English friend in Japan who noticed that as his command of Japanese increased, so did all the expectations that he would observe the myriad, complicated ettiquettes in Japanese society. He was being given leeway as a gaijin that he would make social faux pas’ without causing offence. In the end, it was a balance between managing peoples expectations of his behaviour and always marking himself out as an outsider.

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