When Service Is Two Chairs and a Napkin Short

A few weeks ago, we attended a gala event, and a series of service bobbles reminded me again that even when service people are perfectly nice, the service itself might still be inadequate.

How much does a customer’s response to service results from the communication between humans? And how much of it is caused by the service person’s lack of judgment, discretion, training, procedure, or supervision?

Table Hopping

Table 9 was planned to seat 10 people, but was set for 12. Nearby, Table 11 was planned for 12 guests, but set for only 10. Most likely, both errors were caused by the same mistake. At Table 9, the 10 guests seated themselves quickly, but the conversation across the empty chairs was awkward. A couple we knew was supposed to sit at Table 11, but lacking seats, they came across the ballroom to see if they could fit in with us at Table 2.

Our table, which had been planned for just eight people, easily accommodated the extra couple. As soon as we notified the staff, they graciously brought two chairs and adjusted each of the eight original seats to even everyone out. Finally, they brought our friends two more salads and partial settings of silverware, glassware, and napkins.

The Case of the Missing Silverware

The lack of silverware was easily resolved. Some people at the table had ordered the beef and received steak knives, so there were enough regular knives to go around. And because the full place setting included two forks, the friend next to me, who had no forks, was able to bum one from his wife. But we were definitely short a napkin.

So when a waiter passed by, I asked for another napkin. He smiled and seemed eager to help. I watched him stop at two more tables and then leave the ballroom. I was about to try to flag someone else down, when the waiter came flying back in with a stack of napkins –the paper napkins from the bar, not the cloth dinner napkins from the place setting.

What was he thinking?!? It looked like something like: “Whew! I figured something out to do! Crisis averted! I’m off the hook!” The waiter seemed so pleased to have completed his mission that neither I, nor my napkinless friend, had the heart to say anything to him. The paper napkins had to do.

Nice Try?

Unfortunately, when a serviceperson’s attempt to help or fix a situation is incomplete or ineffective, it leaves the customer wanting to cry out: “Thanks for trying, but you got it wrong!”

And what of the service managers, who did not make a point of checking in at each of the tables — or at least, not at ours? Did they think people wouldn’t notice the inadequate service? The majority of customers may not make a fuss, but they always notice service quality.

Were the service managers even aware that three tables — the one with extra places, the one with too few places, and the one that accommodated the “refugees” — had gone through some experience of disruption? Assuming that nothing else went wrong all evening, almost 20 percent of the people in attendance were affected by the table mix-ups.

Just like my friend who got the paper napkins, the crowd was generally happy and resilient, so it’s possible the management heard no direct complaints or criticisms. And it’s highly unlikely that our unsophisticated server would have gone and reported the problem himself.

A Checklist for Managing Managers

If customers can’t be counted on to make a fuss, how can the management ensure service quality? It starts with providing clarity about which manager performs which job:

  • Who plans, assigns, and trains the work?
  • Who checks the work?
  • Who provides the backup when things go wrong?

If you don’t have confidence in the skillfulness of the people who hold these service roles or provide service functions, then you know you’re in trouble — and that at least some of your customers will end up underserved.

Onward and upward,


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