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Chef Laura: The new "Norm!"



“Norm!” cheered the gang in unison inside Boston’s Bull & Finch Pub.

Norm was a regular.  Before his ample derrière touched his bar stool, a mug of beer was already being poured.

Sam Malone knew how to treat his regulars.  Know their name, know what they like, and treat ‘em real nice.

I aspire to becoming a “Norm” someday. I’m not quite there at my local watering hole…yet. But I am a “Norm” at other businesses. 

My dry cleaners have the carousel spinning to my bright white pressed chef coats as I’m walking in the door.  Maybe it’s because I’m in there every week or maybe because my sauce-splattered, monogrammed uniform is more memorable than a wrinkled blue Oxford.  Or maybe it’s because these people are just good at their jobs.

Then there are the other service places that are obligated to make you feel like a Norm.  For example, your kid’s day care.  If they get a quarter of your salary every month, they better know your name.  The beauty industry is pretty good at it, too: folks that tame your tresses and shellac your nails. 

I love being a Norm.  I also love being a Sam Malone.  After I learn my customer’s name, I sprinkle it in when talking to them.  It’s pretty powerful. It demonstrates that I remembered something seemingly trivial and makes them feel special.

But there is a point when being a Norm is not advantageous. As a customer, I’ve had service providers get too familiar with me.  As a sales pro, I consider small talk an art form and fancy myself Monet. I also have a high threshold for “TMI”.  But that’s not where I’m going with this.   

Some employees get a little too comfy with the chain of command.  Their customer service gets complacent because they assume you’ll always buy your groceries, order a cappuccino or get a buzz cut at their establishment. You’ve been doing it for years – why stop now?

Sales is a lot like dating. In the beginning, you are wined and dined before seeing a Broadway show.  A few months later, your idea of “date night” is the two of you lounging in sweatpants with Dominos, PBR and Netflix, wondering what the heck happened. 

After the “customer honeymoon” period is over, you’re a regular, but you start to be treated pretty “regular”. 

Perhaps you’re in the middle of a pedicure, and your usual nail tech whips a cell phone out of her apron and takes a call.  “It will just be a second, okay?”  Or your massage therapist overbooks and stops your hour long massage 12 minutes shy because a new client is waiting. “You don’t mind, right?”

You’re compassionate, so you give ‘em a pass.  You pay the full amount, and because you’re so nice, you tip them to boot!  But then it happens the next time.  “Oh just grab some menus and seat yourselves anywhere, 'kay?” Flo yells over in shoulder as she disappears into the kitchen.   

There’s only so many passes you can hand out before you start to feel like a doormat.  Now what?  How do you tell your favorite bartender that his usual eight-count pour has dwindled to five counts? 

I’m a bit stymied myself, but like “Choose Your Own Adventure,” I offer four scenarios:

  1. “Kiss my Grits!” – Stop going to Mel’s Diner, and enjoy your Denver omelet at a different greasy spoon.
  2. Cool it now – most therapists would call this “passive aggressive”.  Be a little more aloof.  Don’t tip as much.  Skip some of the niceties and get to business.
  3. Give ‘em a time out – put them in a corner wearing a dunce cap while you try out a new place for a spell.  Return to your old haunt and test the waters.  While you were gone, did they “think about their behavior” or did they spend that time scribbling Crayolas on the wall? 
  4. Level with them – this is probably the hardest one.  Summons your inner Righteous Brothers while you serenade “You Lost That Loving Feeling” at the register.  Explain you don’t want to go to their competitor, but at least they close their eyes while kissing.

When “Norm” just feels too normal, it’s time to recalibrate service expectations.  Any business would be happy to have you.  Sometimes you wanna go where everybody know your name…and treats you right.  Cheers to that!

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Laura Cook Newman

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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