I was getting a grits fix in a Waffle House recently and struck up a conversation with my server, Chris. I wanted to find out the secret behind Waffle House’s customer service, which I have always found to be consistently good, so I asked him several questions about training and management. Chris didn’t have many concrete answers for me until he made reference to “The Magnificent Seven.”
When I stopped Chris and asked him what “The Magnificent Seven” was, he used his fingers to count off seven statements, which I realized halfway through were service standards, although Chris, himself, never used that term. He also recited ten steps of service just as deftly, although he didn’t give them that official title.
Out of respect to the company’s intellectual property, I won’t list them all here (although I did ask Chris to write them down for me, which he was able to do without peeking at any operations manuals). But I will reveal a few things which show up on both lists, and are therefore, obviously considered essential to the Waffle House experience.
The first item on both lists is a ”friendly greeting.” That explains why, when you walk in the door of a Waffle House restaurant, you are greeted stereophonically by employees who seem to have seen you enter through the eyes in the back of their heads.
Number seven of the “Magnificent Seven” is “Never ever ever hold orders.” Number eight on the service steps list is “Deliver hot food.” This explains why my eggs are always cooked correctly and my grits are never just a pasty cold blob on my plate.
“Pre-bus” appears four times between the two lists, which explains why, even though the furnishings and dishes look like they have been in use since the sixties, they are always clean.
Interestingly, nowhere on either list was there a mention of asking customers how they liked their meal. And yet, every time I’ve ever been in a Waffle House restaurant I am asked that repeatedly, even by employees who didn’t have anything to do with my meal.
I asked Chris why that happened even though it wasn’t on the list, and why it seemed so sincere. He said he really didn’t know, except that most of the people who worked there were just naturally friendly people. This reminded me of a brilliant hiring strategy I learned while working for the Walt Disney World Resort. That is, the best way to get your employees to be friendly to the customers is to hire friendly employees.
Even though I haven’t personally read them all, I am certain that every retail chain in the U.S. has a written set of service standards – somewhere. But I am also equally as certain that if I walked around any mall or strip shopping center, most retail employees would not be able to recite their service standards as effortlessly as Chris did. If employees don’t even know what the service standards are, how can they be expected to uphold them?
When I asked Chris why he knew the service standards by heart, his answer was one corporate secret that is too good not to share. (Sorry, Waffle House!) He said, “Because at the beginning of the shift the first thing we do is write the Magnificent Seven on the back of our ticket book.” Whether this is a corporate practice, or just something that the franchise owner at that particular location does, it is brilliant in its simplicity.
When it comes to motivating employees to deliver good customer service, you don’t get what you want, you don’t get what you demand, you don’t get what you think is common sense. You get what you reinforce. If every employee is focused on service standards at the beginning of every shift, the importance of those service standards are automatically reinforced. If those same employees still don’t uphold the standards, at least they won’t be able to say they didn’t know what was expected of them.
Those who consider ambience an important part of the dining experience should never even think about setting foot in a Waffle House. It might seem a little bit scary. The no frills roadside diner chain doesn't pretend to be award-winning in every aspect, and it certainly doesn't set high standards for diner décor. But Zagat readers seem to think that they have some of the best breakfasts and coffee that can be found in retail restaurant chains in the U.S.
As for me, I go to Waffle House expecting only hot grits and eggs cooked exactly the way I ordered them. The engagement of the Waffle House employees, though, rarely fails to exceed my expectations. It’s nice to get solid service from real people who really care.
And the raisin toast with apple butter is pretty good too.