“I’m on your side”

An Impeccable Service Strategy from a Famous Restaurateur

The other day I was waiting for some to-go food from a local dine-in/carryout restaurant. I was standing near the counter when a fellow patron – having just finished his meal – approached the counter and asked, “Do you guys have to-go cups?” The owner’s response was a quick, unfriendly and very matter-of-fact, “No.” Of course there are a dozen other (kinder) ways that owner could have responded to the request (or better yet found some container with which to improvise) … but no such luck.

Too often our frontline product and service providers are quick to say no. Sometimes, we’re even left with the feeling that they get some kind of satisfaction out of taking on this sort of can’t-do attitude. Below is one famous restaurateur’s answer to this all-too-common failure to serve.

Setting the Table

While 80 percent of New York City’s restaurants fail within the first five years*, there’s one restaurateur who’s “batting a thousand.” His name is Danny Meyer and his successes include Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and three cafes inside the Museum of Modern Art. The thoughts Meyer shares about hospitality/service in his book Setting the Table are innovative and refreshing. Here is one of my favorites:

“I’m on your side”: A little empathy goes a looooong way
“Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel … It is a process of making people believe ‘I’m on your side.’ ” –Danny Meyer

While reviewing customer feedback, Meyer realized his diners’ #1 complaint was not being able to secure the reservation time they wanted.

Think back on your own experiences of making restaurant reservations – especially in the pre-Internet days, when the only way to do it was by telephone. There usually isn’t a problem solver on the other end of the line, is there? Instead, you’re often on the receiving end of a cocky, can’t-do response (or a least an unhelpful tone) when the reservation book is full.

Before becoming an owner, Mr. Meyer worked in a busy, high-end restaurant. He took an “I’m on your side” approach to inbound calls for reservations. It went something like this:

“I understand how you feel and I wish I could just move you to the top of our list. 8:45 p.m. is the earliest slot available, but if you can provide a ‘window’ that might work for you, I’ll be rooting for a cancellation so that we can move you to a more suitable time slot.” Simple … yet impressive.

This is the very first time I’ve heard that question

I believe one of the main reasons front-line staff react the way they do is because they get so many of the same (seemingly stupid) questions over and over again. If you can get your team to return to their “beginner’s mind” and act as if every time is their first time fielding a client concern, I believe they’ll naturally express more empathy. It’s so important to remind ourselves that while we may be saying something for the hundredth time … it’s the customer’s very first time hearing it. We should always be sensitive to that.

By the way, this works from the other side of the counter, too.

A few days ago, I was trying to book award travel with United Airlines. My representative was not particularly kind or helpful in the beginning. But once I took an “I’m on your side” stance – expressing empathy for her and the antiquated process she must undergo in order to book travel with partner airlines – her tone almost instantly took a 180-degree turn for the better and she began offering ideas and solutions.

Buy the Book

I first read – or, more accurately, listened to – Danny Meyer’s book, Setting the Table, about five years ago. Clicking the link will take you to the Amazon.com page for the audio version, which is read by the author. At about $15, I think it’s an incredible value.



  1. I think this post is great! However, I still feel that many companies or businesses still do not “get it”. I know that may sound offensive or condescending but I believe what’s going to happen in the next few years up until 2016-ish, there will be many who go down.

    Yup, I think many are getting it, but it’s not always permeating through out the whole company’s culture. The 110% customer service needs to be felt & practiced right down to the Host/ess or Cashier. See Zappos.

  2. Employees are most valuable when they first start a job. They are eager, alert, compassionate, etc. I totally agree with Danny’s “beginner’s mind” for ALL employees! If I feel I’m slipping in some way I will, among other things, “shop” my competition just to see how it feels to be on the other side. In short order, I’m back in line!

  3. Reading it a second time, I’d be remiss if I didn’t correct my previous comment…..Hats off to you, Steve, for such creative terminology – “beginner’s mind.”

  4. After reading “Setting the Table”, I found my expectation were heighten and my disappointments more profound. I caught myself wanting to give copies of the book to errant servers or clueless establishments. This book should be a “must read” before starting any job or business … or relationship for that matter.

  5. @Dan: I feel your pain. P.S. Zappos rules!

    @Masoud: “Beginner’s Mind” is a great term that I cannot take credit for (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoshin)

    @Gayle: Agreed. It certainly puts things into perspective and could serve as a wonderful guide for anyone interested in providing #ImpeccableCustomerService

  6. John Linderman says

    I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life. THE BEST BOOK EVER on hospitality. It is a must read for every restauranteur, and highly recommended for any business owner/operator that interacts with the public. BTW – I “tested” Danny Meyer’s reservation call center. It more than lives up to his approach. Try it for yourself. Call 212-333-1220. I took a group of my managers to New York and we ate at one of his restaurants, “The Modern” and it was fantastic. They knew we were coming, who we were, why we there and took great care of us. When I e-mailed Danny, he responded himself, not his assistant, himself. He absolutely “Walks his talk” and his front line staff does too.

  7. @John: That’s so cool to hear (not surprised by his *integrity*). I thank you for turning me onto his book 5 years ago. I think it’s time we had Danny on our TV show (http://wemeanbiz.tv/)


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  2. […] Your thoughts? (Look for “Leave a Reply” below, or simply click here) […]

  3. […] Your thoughts? (Look for “Leave a Reply” below, or simply click here) […]

  4. […] delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel.” -Danny Meyer, Setting the […]

  5. […] customers and clients want/need to feel “taken care of.” What are you doing, currently, to have them feel that […]

  6. […] to, and paying a restaurant; tipping its staff? Sadly, the staff at this restaurant clearly was not on our side. Instead we felt like they were on an opposing (elitist) team – they were “over there” and we […]

  7. […] “It’s human nature for people to take precisely as much interest in you as they believe you’re taking in them.” -Danny Meyer, Setting the Table […]

  8. […] Partnership: You and your staff would demonstrate an “I’m on your side” approach to customer service. Servers would follow through to make sure guests are pleased with […]

  9. […] Give customers the benefit of the doubt. Just because others have tried to take advantage of you or your company in the past, doesn’t mean everyone has that same agenda. Enter every situation with a “Beginner’s mind.” […]

  10. […] When you must deliver unfavorable news to a customer, at least do so with empathy. By expressing (through your words, tone, and body language) your wish that things could have been more favorable, your customer will still feel that you’re on their side. […]

  11. […] example: if you want your team to develop a sense of partnership with your customers, then this “on your side” manner of conducting business must be reflected in everything you say and […]

  12. […] better prepared to handle whatever comes their way while leaving the customer feeling a sense of partnership. And it’s that sense of partnership that generates […]

  13. […] When you have to deny a customer’s request, at least come from a genuine place that says, “I’m on your side.” […]

  14. […] for your customers and let them know you’re doing so. They should never be made to feel that it’s them on one side and you on the other. Instead, […]

  15. […] their frugality. Instead of judging their intentions or behavior, simply demonstrate a sense of partnership in their quest to […]

  16. […] “Just make sure that when you do what you do … you give people eye contact, ‘cause people want to be seen. Make sure you smile, ‘cause people want to know you’re happy to see them.” –Danny Meyer, Setting the Table […]

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