Watch waiters to glean clever marketing strategies

Waiting tables should be required training for entrepreneurs. Sales, customer service and people skills abound in those who perform this job well. The next time you’re stuck trying to figure out how to get people to embrace what you sell, watch a server. You might be shocked at how much you learn to help bolster your marketing strategies.

Waitressing offers some great small business marketing strategiesArtful waitressing is a dying skill. So is good customer service in any industry. As with most things, it’s easy to be exceptional by paying attention to the little things.

Still, it’s incredible to witness the truly dumb things people do. Sometimes just being adequate makes you shine.

Recently, I was dining at a mid-range chain restaurant. My eyes rolled as I watched the scenes unfold. One server insisted on presenting a long and detailed monologue to a customer/stranger concerning her cancer issues. Good move to relax the diner and spur the appetite. Another badgered a customer with idle, meaningless, self-absorbed chatter. This patron was trying to read. She was clearly frustrated with the noise, but the server didn’t notice. Food orders were getting backed up in the kitchen and nary a manager was to be seen delivering orders. At the register, nervous customers now past their lunch hour were pacing and looking at watches as two employees tried to figure out how to handle a bevy of bills already cashed out by a waitress who didn’t bother to confirm she was putting the right bills on the correct tables.

Imagine the difference a single aware manager or hostess could have made that day. Even if it was merely to solve bottlenecks immediately and redirect employee behavior by noticing customer angst.

Lessons learned waitressing in my youth carry over to almost everything I do in business today.

During high school, I had a blast making a boat-load of money working at a Friendly’s in a suburban mall. Our manager was 25. He was the oldest. We all became friends partying together at shift’s end and supporting each other in the hustle to turn tables every fifteen minutes as lines formed out the door. While each server covered a bay consisting of about ten stools and four six-person booths, anyone who had a moment to lend a hand would do so if another got behind. Customers sense d and appreciated the camaraderie, rewarded the effort (just about every stool occupied for a cup of coffee meant a $1 tip – booths netted much bigger rewards) and ate quickly to accommodate others waiting. The formula was simple – keep water glasses full, memorize who ordered what so plates were placed properly, offer a pleasant smile, have a bill on the table before the last bite was gone, check back after food had been tasted and notice if a customer was looking for something more. I was bringing in more than $300 a week in tips working part-time (big money for a kid in the late 70s) and certainly wasn’t one of the best or prettiest servers.  Not rocket science – but a feat so few seem to be able to master these days, mostly because people don’t pay attention.

Entrepreneurial takeaways from family fare restaurants:

  • Customers notice when you’re having fun and will pay more to experience the joy you share.
  • Rewards are greater for all when no one is worried about protecting turf.
  • Good, quick and consistent service for affordable experiences can pay higher dividends than expensive offerings designed for a more demanding clientele.

After cutting my teeth with fast-food, I figured fine dining would net a finer paycheck. Was I wrong! Stations became three small tables (doubles or four-tops) with two-hour turns. Patrons spent $100 on a bottle of wine and left less than a 10% tip. Servers were viewed by most as lower-class servants. Pleasing patrons often included a round of belittlement designed to elevate the status of the customer (really?) and justify reducing the tip. Oddly, the gay guys seemed to do pretty well in these jobs. They’d chastise the customer for their lack of wine acumen, confront patrons with a superior air and flit around delivering drinks with fanfare, courses with finesse and condiments with culinary chatter. Patrons seemed to enjoy a good dose of push-back and the entertainment of the dance.

Fine dining lessons learned to help spur small business marketing strategies:

  • Exclusivity and perception can be more important to those pursuing expensive experiences than kindness.
  • Higher price tags don’t necessarily generate more income.
  • Revenue is more telling about delivery approaches than what the customer claims they want (the cavalier men bought in double the wages of the more polite and attentive servers).
  • Most people who flaunt money are often cheap and broke (the humble wealthy are great tippers).

Later, I explored a mid-range restaurant with a fine dining air, but affordable food (and chefs that were more about churn than attitude). Clientele was all over the board. We all joked about the Shrimp Ladies (there were many who fit this bill, but this regular elderly couple was one every server had encountered). The pair would come in during early bird special hours and split a meal (always shrimp). Sadly, the owners at this particular restaurant offered some popular features in relish trays and roll baskets that came back from the tables to the kitchen for recycling with the belief this would shave costs (it ultimately cost them dearly in closure when a disgruntled employee called the Health Department). Servers weren’t given the opportunity to taste specials or even standard fare (another dumb cost-saving strategy), which created a customer service disconnect. Tips were decent, but policies involving bad ethics and poor engagement undermined employee buy-in and morale, so this experience served more as a lesson in what not to do from a management standpoint.

Dodgy restaurant small business management faux pas:

  • Trying to be all things to all people isn’t a good marketing strategy.
  • Shaving small costs with short term thinking (recycling product illegally and failing to give your salespeople enough information to effectively sell your product) brings big long-term losses.
  • Your most frequent customers are rarely your most lucrative ones when the incentives make loss-leaders more appealing than primary offerings.
  • Unprincipled tactics will bury your business.

I worked at a lot of restaurants over a five-year period during high school and college before I burned out. You couldn’t beat the money with a part-time job requiring no schooling. The engagement of the employees and the success of the restaurant usually centered around having the right managers and policies in place. Great servers shined even under the worst of circumstances.

Good servers (no matter what business you’re in – and if you’re an entrepreneur you’ll propel your business by perceiving yourself as a server) pay attention to the proclivities of their clients rather than forcing patrons to adapt to a single communications and/or delivery style. Figuring out how to deliver to each of your clients in a way that’s compelling for them is the best way to achieve quick success – and a healthy bottom line. Watching someone who’s skilled at securing high percentage tips in the food service industry is a great way to gain insight into simple ways to impress beyond expectations. Think about it. How much more do you appreciate the experience you have at a restaurant when a server responds to your personal ideals? The same holds true for good business building strategies in any industry. Why not gather creative approaches the next time you visit your favorite culinary haunt?

Forget about all the hype surrounding information products and template social media techniques. Think minister. Powerful communicators customize how they deliver to others in a way that makes each feel special. If you really want to touch your prospects and clients, craft marketing strategies and deliver in a way that shows you’ve taken the time to get to know those you purport to serve.


By Nanette Levin

Writer, author, marketer, public speaker and small business advocate with more than 25 years of experience. Check out some of our affordable introductory deals designed to make it fun and easy for new clients to test results with small projects.


  1. Great post. I could relate to so many of the scenarios. I definitely don’t care for an overly talkative server. I’m there to enjoy the company of the people I’m with – don’t they know that?

  2. I like the fact that you rightly point out small business owners and entrepreneurs should view themselves as servers. We can’t lead others until we know how to serve others and this is something missed by those who only want to “be in charge” in their organisation.

    I used to work at a supermarket collecting shopping carts, but sometimes I was expected to work the checkouts. I never liked it and did not feel comfortable when there was a huge line of irritated customers. An old guy I worked with once gave me a great piece of advice.

    He said, “When you’re serving customers, just pretend he or she is the only one. The rest can wait their turn!”

    I was more effective and enjoyed the job more when I looked at it this way. It was real “service” and something I take the time to do now in my internet marketing business. It pays to not rush people – but having said that, I have a quick turnaround on my services!

  3. Thanks for stopping in and commenting, Darren. What a great tip from your older colleague. Of course, the only way you can provide excellent results is if you’re focused on the person you’re serving. I still shake my head in meetings when phones are answered, text messages are responded to and interruptions are permitted. I get around this with clients by taking them to lunch. There’s no excuse with vendors (or when you’re interfacing with a customer). Seems silly so many don’t get this simple courtesy. If I’m hiring someone to do a job and/or paying them a considerable regular contractual fee, how they respect my time is a big factor in how I assess quality of service. Old school, I realize, but being polite isn’t dead yet :-).

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