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Whether you are behind the bar or out on the floor, learning the art of great service is the key to providing the ultimate experience for your customer. Paul Mathew, owner of various bars such as The Hide Bar, has been working in the industry for over twenty-two years and has been served at tables in over 50 countries. He looks at the subtleties of great table service and how to execute them in your venue, wherever you are on the map.

It all comes down to great service

Look at any of the world’s best bars, or just your favorite local bar and chances are they will have been awarded that status because of the service they provide. It’s the human interaction that makes a venue great and keeps people coming back.

Great service is difficult to quantify. It is a combination of friendliness and familiarity, balanced with professionalism and knowledge. It’s about reliability but with the capacity to surprise, and it’s about delivering a product, but also an experience. That might include being on first name terms with the regulars and having their favorite seat and drink ready, or it could be introducing a guest to their new favorite drink. Great service goes beyond a simple transaction.

There is no "I" in team

Great service can be trained. For example, by role playing service scenarios, learning two or three things about every product, or having a house style guide of standards so that everyone knows what is required of them. In our venues, we like the team to work all the positions so that servers are also bartenders, enabling them to make informed recommendations. It’s also important to learn about the responsible service of alcohol—you and your venue might legally depend on it, and your guests will certainly thank you in the morning.

Of course, great service also comes from honestly enjoying this industry too, so it’s important to create a healthy working environment for the team. It’s profitable as well, as good service brings in a loyal regular crowd, positive reviews and leads to better staff retention.

Service etiquette around the world

The rules of service etiquette differ not only between styles of venue (from hotel bar to dive bar, for example), but also around the world. When I moved to Beijing, I noticed how formal the server-guest relationship was after London’s fast-paced banter. I discovered not everyone likes ice in their drink, and that cocktails might be shared out communally among a table. Closer to home, I know Parisian bartenders who have been taught never to clear a glass until everyone at the table has finished their drink. While in London, empties are swept up in the blink of an eye. In New York, I’d expect a good chat (repaid with a healthy tip), while in Milan, I’ve had a more restrained and formal reception. I’ve found Japanese bartenders like to offer their favored (and precise) method for a specific drink, while Australians might ask how you, the guest, would like it prepared (neither of these approaches is better of course—I like to experience what a bartender has perfected, but also like the interaction of tweaking a drink to my specifications). I have stereotyped hugely, of course, but it pays to realize that good service also means adapting to suit the needs of your customers.

That said, here are my top tips for improving your service:

Top Tips:

Learn to Read People: Try to pick up as many clues as you can from the moment you see guests enter—or earlier if you’ve had an exchange during the reservation process. With experience, you can almost magically lead guests through a series of drinks they’ll love.

Be in Control: Know how everything works, know the products you’re offering and know what to do in any scenario that might crop up, from suggesting alternatives when something is out of stock through to dealing with a customer who isn’t drinking responsibly. You’ll gain confidence from knowing you have everything covered and your guests will relax.

Take Pride: Your tables are your personal guests for the duration of their visit. Do everything you (reasonably) can to look after them and be proud of your work.

Go Out More: When you do, make a note of what you enjoy about the service. It’s easy to be critical, so try to pick out the positives and introduce them to your own style of working. You might be surprised at what little things really make your evening great.

Have a Trick or Two up Your Sleeve: Whether it’s an interesting snippet of brand information, a perfect low-alcohol serve, or your tableside Blazers made in true Jerry Thomas style.