Issue 30

The Answer is Yes… Unless the Answer is No

The Answer is Yes… Unless the Answer is No

For many in hospitality, Danny Meyer is a legend. His book, Setting the Table, has become the equivalent of a syllabus for many aspiring restaurateurs. At the core of his philosophy on hospitality is a general commitment to the mantra, “The answer is yes…now, what’s the question?”

Danny Meyer writes from an extremely accomplished perspective, which often results in advice that takes the starting place of his readers for granted. I have written before about the distinction between ‘service’ and ‘hospitality’. The abridged version of my previous work is that the word ‘service’ tends to imply ‘servility’ or ‘servitude’, while the term ‘hospitality’ tends to be more effective in maintaining the more powerful imagery of a host figure. If you strive to provide mere service, you seek to be a servant. If you are concerned with hospitality, you are concerned with choreographing an experience. The latter is a far more perceptually powerful position.

We all know the saying, “If you try to please everyone, you will certainly please no one.” So, how does this truth hold up to the notion that the answer should always be, “Yes”? The key is to understand the question within the parameters of brand identity. The idea is not to be a ‘Yes Man’ to everyone, but rather a ‘Yes Man’ to a very specific target clientele. Identification of a target demographic is vital to a successful business plan, precisely because it helps shape brand identity, and draws the line between why we say “yes” or “no”.

To hospitality professionals such as Danny Meyer, it is all but a given that a service environment has a specific target client in mind, and a developed ethos, logos and pathos directing operations for that client. There is a hidden, implied clause that, when exposed, reads, “Within the scope of the brand, the answer is yes now, what’s the question?” This more robust understanding of our beloved mantra is the key to strategic brand development, and the creation of brand loyalty.

This revised interpretation can put hospitality professionals at odds with their personal nature. At the core of hospitality is a sincere desire to please; we enjoy seeing people happy with products and services we provide. Perhaps, then, one of the most difficult issues is accepting that, just like junior high, not everyone is going to like us. As successful brand ambassadors, we must know, and be proud of, exactly who we are. In order to maintain the success of our brand, we must know when, and why, to say, no.

Brand identity should be expressed in clear, concise mission and vision statements that effectively sum up the values driving a brand. Those statements serve as an infallible guideline for every decision from the top, down.  The mission and vision function as an operations gatekeeper: If what you are about to do is consistent with the mission and vision, then proceed; If not, don’t. This simple piece of operational structure helps to maintain brand integrity and consistency on every level. It also allows employees to be valued as autonomous thinkers, who can now be empowered to make decisions with something consistent to tether those decisions to. Every guest request will either fall inside, or outside, of your mission and vision. When asked why you do X, or why you don’t do Y, the answer should quickly turn into an in-house ad campaign for that mission and vision.

To illustrate, a guest at a local beer-driven bar communicates the following: “I just want a domestic beer…why don’t you carry any?”

Step 1: Smile.

Step 2: Empathize with the guest, but DO NOT apologize (the only time for an apology is when an incident has occurred that does not positively and/or accurately represent your brand.)

Step 3: Combine that empathy with a pitch for your brand; i.e. acknowledge their request as valid, but politely explain why you do things differently. For example, “I can appreciate that domestic options are common, and that those brands have a loyal following, but we are committed to supporting local brewers who are producing great products. I’d be happy to make a suggestion based on what you like, and bring you a sample. Note that this response accomplishes a few things. First, you did not discount their request, which communicates understanding and opens the door to talking about your brand. Second, you convey your mission and vision in a positive, explanatory, engaging way. Third, you invite the guest to understand their experience in the context of your brand. Fourth…congratulations…you said, “No.”

Too often, a guest leaves a venue dissatisfied without truly understanding why. We have seen this play out on Yelp and social media countless times. It is okay if a guest leaves dissatisfied, as it’s simply a possibility that the guest is not a member of your target audience. Again, you can’t please everyone. A guest, however, should never leave unhappy without fully understanding their experience. This could mean the difference between a review that is negative in the misunderstood sense, and quasi-positive review as a result of being more informed. (“This place sucks.”  Vs.  “This place is not for me, but if you are looking for great service, and craft beer, this is your spot!”). Not everyone who walks in will be your target consumer, but you certainly want to invite them to become one. Hospitality is about making everyone feel welcome to join the club, not about adapting the rules of the club to everyone’s desires.

The moral of the story is that it’s okay to say, “No,” to requests that fall outside the scope of your brand identity. It is brand identity, after all, that establishes your place of distinction in the market. Of all of the business advice in books, articles, journals, podcasts, etc., the most important element of success can be reduced to a simple ancient Egyptian aphorism: “Know thyself.” Know your brand. Know when to say, “No.”

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