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Defining Customer Service: The Customer’s Perception Is Our Reality

by William F. Orilio, MHS / September 2004
You might not be able to define service, but you know it when you find it, and so do our customers. Countless seminars, books, and articles have been written on the subject of service. Every company touts service as its goal, but as Melvin N. Barrington from the Department of Hotel Research, Travel and Administration of the University of South Carolina acknowledged, “Service is an elusive concept which is extremely difficult to measure and evaluate.“Service is elusive and intangible but it is the life’s blood of the restaurant industry so we must ask ourselves, “What is customer service?” In today’s competitive marketplace service is the most important thing a company has to sell. It truly makes the difference when two businesses have the same product. If service was just smiling or getting food onto the table on time it would be difficult enough, but we know it is much more complex than that.

We’ve been told over and over, every time we come in contact with a customer, that we make a good impression or a bad one for the organization we represent. The gurus have taught us that these are called the “moments of truth”. That being the case, the first moment of truth takes place with a genuine and personal touch as soon as the guest walks in the front door. This sets the tone for the rest of the experience, and if it gets even better, the dining experience will be unforgettable.

If you consider the effect that one person can have on the entire experience, and multiply that by a dozen or more employees, the moments of truth have increased exponentially. The first rule of service is simply to find the right people with the right attitude, and then teach them the rest. Let’s face it, serving techniques can be taught; sophistication has to be acquired. It baffles me that during the interview process more employers don’t ask prospective employees what they think customer service means.

Customer service is difficult to explain, and difficult to understand. The people who know best what customer service is, are customers, because they are the ones who know what they want. And because they are the ones who know what they want, it is the customers we should be listening to. Simply by accommodating the requests of your customers you create a demanding customer. And a demanding customer is not a bad customer. When you accommodate requests and your demanding customers go to another property, they’ll be disappointed if they don’t get the service equal to what you have created. Hence, demanding customers equal profits.

As we continue to try to define customer service we find that there are some basic truths. To understand those truths you have to realize that customer service has to always be defined from the customer’s perspective, not the operator’s. In fact, we need to remember, the customer’s perception is our reality.


We all know that successful service is not a one-time event; you have to work hard at it. It is only as good as your last encounter. It is a production and it goes on stage every day at the same time, and it’s live. There’s no practicing; there’s no rehearsing.

William Orilio is CEO of GRANTHAM, ORILIO & ASSOCIATES INC., a San Diego based hospitality consulting company, which specializes in “Mystery Shopping”. He has been the publisher of “HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY REPORT” for 9 years and has taught restaurant and hotel management at San Diego Mesa College for 19 years. For more information or a free subscription to the monthly newsletter call 800-711-7776 or go to

Ambiance at your restaurant can be overwhelmingly beautiful and your food delicious, but when service suffers the dining experience will be mediocre at best. The importance of customer service is forever clear: even the most delicious lobster isn’t good when service is poor, because poor service leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

I know not all chefs and chef owners will agree with this statement, but I’m a firm believer that a good server can save a bad meal, but a great entrée can’t bail out a bad server. In my many years in the industry I’ve found that when I took care of customers extremely well and made them a focal point, profit inevidently flowed.

Executives around the world recognize service as the most important tool a company can use to differentiate itself from the competition. Therefore, they also realize that the most important people in any company are those who provide service. J.W. Marriott Jr. said, “Service people are the most important ones in the organization. Without them there is no product, no sale, and no profit. Indeed, they are the product. Service is and should be a high calling.”

It is important for us to remember that guests are at our property to spend money, and we should not deprive them of that opportunity. This is an industry where we have to constantly train, and when we’re done training, train again, and then train again. It is human nature to under-learn and over-forget. Hospitality employees will tell you, “I already know that one.” That’s great, but it doesn’t matter if they know what to do, it matters if they do what they know.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” The first thirty seconds sets the tone for the entire experience. The most important first step for anyone in our industry is creating a bond of trust and credibility with our guests. This is what we call rapport. The essence of rapport is commonality. People like people who are like themselves. If it’s true that almost everything you become and accomplish in your life is with and through other people, then the ability to create rapport with other people is the most important skill you can learn. That being said, it is easy to understand why the main challenge in our business is to manage these millions of moments of truth every day. That means managing hundreds of encounters with customers each and every shift, because it is in fact service that determines how much money they are going to spend and how much you’re going to make.

You can’t sell something you don’t know anything about, and you won’t suggest something if you don’t know anything about it. Closing a sale is actually a transfer of enthusiasm. It is hard to be enthusiastic about something you don’t know anything about and you can only sell something to the degree that you believe in it. You impress your guests when you are able to answer all of their questions with authority.

It is important to remember that in every service opportunity there is a sales opportunity, and in every sales opportunity there is a service opportunity. You can have the best product in the world, but if you don’t sell it, you still have it.

In this industry, we throw word “service” around like it’s a basketball. In the writing of this article, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir, but it comes back to that basic premise that it’s not what you know that matters, but doing what you know that matters.

Caring is the golden key. You have to care that your guests get the best service and the best value, and that they have the best time they could possibly have. When the guests know you care about them, that’s when they’re on your team. There is nothing better than having the guests be on your team; it’s a win win situation for everyone.

Service is an intangible product. It’s a commodity that customers pay big money for these days and it’s a word that’s way overused. I recently read where it’s the most overused word in the world.

“At one time in my life I thought I had a handle on the meaning of the word ‘service,’ the act of doing things for other people. Then I heard the terms ‘internal revenue service,’ ‘postal service,’ ‘civil service,’ ‘service stations,’ and I became confused about the word ‘service.’ This is not what I thought ‘service’ meant. Then one day I overheard two farmers talking, and one of them mentioned he was having a bull service a few of his cows. Voila! It all came into perspective, and I now understand what service is all about. Now I know what all those service agencies are doing to us.”—Orionsky (pseudonym for on-line humorist and contributor to

Service, service, service. We spend a lot of time and money on training and retraining our employees about the importance of customer service, but we really never tell them how simple it can be. In fact, it’s so simple it’s mind-boggling. I have what I call the Simplicity Rule of Customer Service and it goes like this: “All you have to be is hospitable.”

Being hospitable is the act or practice of receiving strangers or guests in a friendly and generous way. It’s really that simple. All we have to do is hire people that are hospitable, and the rest comes easy. After all, we all know it’s easier to train the technical side than it is to train the personal side.

In this industry, profits are not made by focusing on the larger details; profits result from focusing on small details and caring about the guests. You need to forget the macro, and focus on the micro. After all, when you really think about it, “It’s the small things in life that are big.”

William Orilio is CEO of GRANTHAM, ORILIO & ASSOCIATES INC., a San Diego based hospitality consulting company, which specializes in “Mystery Shopping”. He has been the publisher of “HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY REPORT” for 9 years and has taught restaurant and hotel management at San Diego Mesa College for 19 years. For more information or a free subscription to the monthly newsletter call 800-711-7776 or go to