Mayo's Clinics

Jul 11, 2020, 11:21
Strategies for Teaching Customer Service

Strategies for Teaching Customer Service

30 January 2019

Assignments like student-created customer service training manual or role playing help instructors teach customer service excellence.

By Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT

Last month, we discussed the elements of customer service. This month we will focus on how to teach customer service and next month, how to evaluate it. Hopefully, this information will provide new ideas for you those of you that are chef instructors, dining room instructors and managers, and everyone else who teaches culinary arts and hospitality.

Topics to teach
When considering what parts of customer service to teach, remember there are many dimensions to service. Those mentioned last month included: welcoming customers to a kitchen, restaurant, or other dining situation; paying attention to customers; serving customers with accuracy and care; remembering that adequate is not good enough; respecting customers’ perceptions and needs; admitting and taking responsibility for errors; and honoring the reality of serving others. However, organizing mise en place, monitoring tables, paying attention to guests’ statements and meanings, managing requests, and cleaning up are also critical aspects of waiting on tables. And, there are other aspects of good service important in the culinary and hospitality worlds. The challenge becomes how to teach them most effectively.

Methods of teaching customer service
There are many strategies to use in teaching customer service in general and, specifically, table service (an aspect of customer service). Some of them include the normal range of teaching strategies such as lecture, demonstration, role modeling, and reading, all of which are useful, important and effective.

Often we forget the power of role modeling. When learning to welcome patrons to a hotel or restaurant – or any hospitality organization – students learn to follow and copy what their supervisors or teachers do. They pick up, often unconsciously, what their faculty members do, which puts the onus on us to consistently show them the right way to do things. Sometimes, they learn the right way and sometimes they learn short cuts that we did not intend to teach.

The more powerful teaching strategies, however, include active learning by role playing with an observer, observing and analyzing the performance of others, and creating a training manual.

Role playing with an observer
Most often we use a demonstration – in person or on film, CD, or DVD – to show how to do some task, whether it is greeting customers and walking them to a table, serving from the left and clearing from the right, pouring wine, or operating the POS in the restaurant. It is an excellent strategy to show students what to do and to provide yourself as a role model. But, until they practice it is not clear if they have really absorbed all the aspects of providing good service.

As effective as good demonstrations can be, having students role play situations in front of each other and requiring them to give each other feedback can produce more insights and help students integrate the concepts and skills into their daily behavior. Therefore, try to arrange many opportunities for them to practice on each other in trios or small groups, with at least one fellow student watching and observing to give feedback after the task is done.

When using this strategy, it makes a difference to provide four things:

  1. Clear instructions for each person playing a particular role (server, servee, and observer or host, guest, and observer)
  2. Clear information about the situation and directions of what to do
  3. Explicit time frames for each part of the activity (for example, 10 minute role play, five minute observer report, shift roles and replay)
  4. Time for reflection and discussion. For students to focus on the task and pay attention to all the details, we need to organize the role playing situations carefully and provide explicit information. I often provide observers with checklists to help them focus on noticing what went well, what did not, and why.

After the activity, don’t forget to lead a large group discussion in which the observers share what they noticed. It affirms the insights and improves memory when students have to take notes and report on them. It is always a good idea to open the discussion to comments from the servers and servees as well after the observers have reported.

Observing and analyzing the performance of others
Creating an assignment – or just the expectation – for students to observe service in other contexts within the school or where they work or in the community helps them stay alert to watching for good and bad service. That focus will help them internalize the lessons you want them to learn. It also increases their attention to noticing good and bad service. This activity can be a homework assignment or a quick report at the beginning of class. If you make it a paper assignment, providing explicit guidelines about what to observe and record will make this more effective.

Student-created training manual for a specific aspect of service
Students writing the standards of service and training strategies for aspects of good service is a third way to encourage them to remain focused on good service and its prevalence (or lack of it). This provides students with a good learning activity because it gets them thinking about what needs to be taught and how best to teach the material. It also requires detailed information about what should be included in such a training manual since many students may not have read a training manual or only seen poor examples.

This assignment lets you see what students think is important and how they intend to set standards and maintain them when working in the industry. It also gives them something that they can later use in any position they find in the industry. It can represent a unique aspect of a students’ portfolio.

Hopefully, this Mayo Clinic encourages you to consider trying some unusual teaching strategies when teaching service. It may also help you understand what works with your students in your school and what doesn’t. Next month, we will continue with strategies for evaluating customer service. If you have suggestions for other topics or teaching practices you want to share, send them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I will include them in future Mayo Clinics.

Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, is retired as a clinical professor of hotel and tourism management at New York University. As principal of Mayo Consulting Services, he continues to teach around the globe and is a regular presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide.