September 12, 2013

What Waiting Tables Taught Me About Running A Decorating Business

Owning a business over the past few years has been a constant learning experience for us.  One of the things I’ve learned (the hard way!) is that to run a smooth business, you need to set your processes into motion and then stick to them.  It sounds simple really, but it’s not.

How many times have you gone into a restaurant and asked to have the side changed?  Special cooking instructions or dietary requirements?  Seems simple on our end when we order, but if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know that these “easy” little changes can get confusing back in the kitchen.  The expediter automatically adds fries to the burger plate because he or she forgot that the side had been switched on the order and as the waitress goes to pick up the plate for delivery, she notices the fries and calls for a switch to be made.  She’s slammed so she needs to deliver another table’s food and by the time she comes back to pick up the burger-with-proper-side-plate and the rest of the plates for that table, everything’s a little colder and it took just a little longer to get that order onto the table.  Maybe the table noticed it, maybe they didn’t.  But the waitress and the kitchen did.  They know it wasn’t smooth and things got a bit more hectic back there.


{Image via here}

Obviously, restaurant sides get switched out easily all of the time and most restaurants have a system set up for that, but I use this example because it happened constantly when I worked at a restaurant at the beach in Corolla, North Carolina one summer during college.  We were regularly understaffed (you never know when a rainy day at the beach will hit and when it does and you’re the only waitress there, it’s INTENSE to say the least) and the smallest changes in the way we did things could result in confusion when we were slammed.

{image via Barb’s Blog}

Being a decorator has always felt a bit like waiting tables to me.  (I loved waiting tables, by the way.  I met great people, the time just flew by, I was excited to go to work, and I was never bored.)  At the time, majoring in PR, I used to think of myself as the PR specialist doing crisis control for the kitchen.  Like I mentioned, we were often understaffed, so it was my job to smooth things over when they were running behind in the kitchen or had overcooked something or whatever.  I’m always reminded of this experience when delivering news of a backordered or damaged product to clients.  It’s just like telling the table that their order is going to be a few more minutes and bringing out  a complimentary appetizer to try to make it better for them, and then going back to the kitchen to wait in a conspicuous spot so the cook sees you.  (And, just like vendors -or pretty much any human for that matter- you have to be patient with the cooks and be kind.  They’re not going to rush for you if you don’t respect them.  You have to be so careful of how  you ask people to “hurry up” because if you do it the wrong way, your table (or your clients) will be waiting even longer.)

Throughout my time in the business, I’ve learned even more about the importance of creating processes and sticking to them.  In the kitchen, if people followed the processes set into place by management, the swapped sides would be noticed and the order would go out just fine.  If we were understaffed though, and there were lots of change orders, corners would get cut, everyone rushed, people made mistakes, and ultimately, the diners weren’t happy with their experience.



{image via here}

In a design business, you’re working with people, and each client or potential client has very unique, specific needs, so you’re constantly faced with requests to do things differently or to “slightly” change your processes to meet someone’s needs.  I’ll be honest, I hate to say ‘no’ to people.  There are times when we get calls from clients who ask us to take on the type of project we don’t do (home consultations at the moment, for example, or “fluffing” or “accessorizing” projects where clients simply need window  treatments, maybe some rugs, a piece here or there) …These are projects I want to say yes too, but that I really shouldn’t.  Our staff, processes and overhead are not set up to handle these types of projects, and if I take them on, we would lose efficiency and ultimately, income.

Because the need is there, and I really try to stay in tune with what people want, a goal of mine has been to be able to work with these clients who are looking for services other than full-service design.   I’ve been working on programs like parcel (our newly launched distance design service) and am hoping to eventually be able to offer services like in-home consultations or phone consultations with a designer from our team.  In the meantime, however, I’ve learned that I have to say “no” to projects that don’t currently fit into our scope of services and hope that people understand… Because trying to “do it all” is a sure way to fail.

{Image via here}

I’ve learned that you have to try to be the best you can be at what you do, but dabbling professionally or spreading yourself too thin is never profitable or good for you or your clients.

Even our full-service clients sometimes request to do things out of our normal way of doing things.  We try to be as accommodating as possible, but I’ve noticed that when we make exceptions, the projects are much trickier to implement smoothly and often result in the loss of income.   For example, maybe we ship an item directly to a client so they can get it as quickly as possible. because they’re having a party.  Should be fine, right?  But maybe the client forgets to open it immediately to inspect it and when she does finally open it, she notices that it’s damaged, but too much time has passed and the company won’t take the piece back.  So what do we do?   Making my clients happy is extremely important, so we’d probably buy the client a new piece of furniture and now own the damaged one.   Because we had to order a brand new piece, the item doesn’t arrive in time for the party anyway.  We all lose.  Not good.

So I’ve learned that I can’t make this type of exception, even if it’s for a good party.  It may seem like “no big deal” at first, but a wrench could get thrown in that can result in everyone being unhappy. We have to protect ourselves and our clients because we have experience in doing this and have learned how we need to do things for the best results.

My advice to any business owner is to figure out your processes and stick to them.  If filet mignon isn’t on your menu, don’t try to serve it.  Don’t let people convince you to change the way you do things or make exceptions.   Work only with people whose needs match what you do, because you’re an expert at making them happy.

{Menu by Mandy Gordon}

Now, updating the menu seasonally and taking requests?  Go for it.

Just remember, it’s your menu.

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