10 Things Software Consultants Can Learn From Restaurant Servers


A number of years back, I worked part time at an upscale Vietnamese restaurant in New York City. I was brought on for what was essentially a probation period, during which time I was supposed to learn the ropes. This meant learning how to talk to customers, memorizing the menu, and getting comfortable with the operations of the restaurant. At the end of the probation period, I took a test to determine how much I had learned.

And I failed. Badly. They almost fired me, and they would have been right to. Luckily, they gave me a second chance, and I passed. The restaurant had a standard that they upheld, and their representatives – the servers – had to uphold those standards or else the reputation of the restaurant would suffer.

A few years later, after I had started building websites for clients, I found a two-part article in the New York Times, written by restauranteur Bruce Buschel, titled “100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do.” It is a fantastic compendium of his rules and standards that servers in his restaurants must observe, much like the house rules of the restaurant I worked at. As I read through the list, I discovered that many of the rules of conduct were surprisingly relevant to software development consulting.

Of the list of 100 things (which you should read in full – you’ll never dine in a restaurant the same way again), I found my favorite 10 points that any software development consultancy can and should take to heart when working with clients.

1. When you ask, “How’s everything?” or “How was the meal?” listen to the answer and fix whatever is not right.

Feedback provides a valuable opportunity for your company to improve. Don’t dismiss it or make excuses, or you’ll miss out on a chance to grow and get stronger. Plus, nothing can be more infuriating than a grievance falling on deaf or disregarding ears.

2. Know before approaching a table who has ordered what. Do not ask, “Who’s having the shrimp?”

do research on who they are, what they do, and have some ideas about what you might be able to provide.

One of the most important things when interacting with clients, at least in my opinion, is to come to the table with information and insight. When you’re meeting a potential client for the first time, do research on who they are, what they do, and have some ideas about what you might be able to provide. If you need the client to make a decision, come to the conversation having thought of options for them. Don’t make the client do work that they’re paying you to do.

3. Never serve anything that looks creepy or runny or wrong.

It’s easy to have your head in the sand during the development phase of a client project, but it’s invaluable to periodically take a step back from the project and evaluate the project in its entirety. Is this something I’d use? Would I want to inherit this code base? Is this work worth the money that is being paid for it? If you don’t take the time for reflection, you’ll produce an inferior product that may get sent back to the kitchen, or worse, will silently drive your customer away for good.

4. Do not have a personal conversation with another server within earshot of customers.

Besides the fact that water cooler conversations can inadvertently broadcast unwanted opinions, complaints, or gossip that can quickly sour a client relationship, the client is likely not concerned with your personal life. Be professional at all times, regardless of whether or not the client is in the room, on the phone, or in the chat room. Save the personal talk for the bar next door.

5. Do not call a guy a “dude.” Do not call a woman “lady.”

Words like “man”, “you guys”, etc. are lost opportunities to use what is most certainly the client’s favorite word: their name.

The words you use to address your client can set the tone for your relationship, trivial as it may seem. Don’t refer to your client as “man”, “you guys”, etc. Not only is this overly familiar and unprofessional, but it’s a lost opportunity to use what is most certainly the client’s favorite word: their name.

6. Know your menu inside and out. If you serve Balsam Farm candy-striped beets, know something about Balsam Farm and candy-striped beets.

Before going into any conversation, know how you do business, what tools you have (and don’t have) in your toolkit, and why you do things the way you do. It’s okay to not know the answer to a question, but you are a representing your company and your understanding of the company should be thorough. You’re a salesperson, and must know the product well in order to sell it, even after the order has been placed.

7. Do not disappear.

Few things can come off as more disrespectful than unexpected silence. Don’t make the client hunt you down or wonder where you are. Be ever vigilant about communication. It can’t be stressed enough. If the client isn’t getting the attention they expect (and that they paid for), they’ll walk away with a bitter taste in their mouth.

8. Do not show frustration. Your only mission is to serve. Be patient. It is not easy.

Client needs and desires can change throughout the course of a project, and they should never feel that those adjustments are an annoyance. You can (and probably should) push back when necessary, or bill accordingly, but never appear put off by their changing or evolving business needs. It’s a part of the game, so don’t behave like you don’t want to play.

9. Do not stop your excellent service after the check is presented or paid.

Finishing a project can be a difficult thing, but it’s arguably the most important time of the relationship

A good friend once told me, “The best judge of a person’s character is how they cross the finish line.” Do you slow down and walk across the line, already thinking about the next race, or do you run as hard as you have the entire time, or even push harder? Finishing a project can be a difficult thing, but it’s arguably the most important time of the relationship, since it will be their most recent and most potent memory of working with you. Dig deep, push hard, and cross the finish line strong.

10. Guests, like servers, come in all packages. Show a “good table” your appreciation with a free glass of port, a plate of biscotti or something else management approves.

When a client project wraps up, it’s okay to celebrate. A gift, a dinner, a kind letter – anything that shows how appreciative you are of the business and the relationship is a kind and thoughtful gesture. Make the space for collective reflection and congratulations when a collaboration is rewarding!

These are just suggestions, obviously, but the point is that your company should have its own code of conduct, and that code should be unfailingly instilled in each of its representatives. There can still be plenty of room for personality, character and edge, even if you have standards that are set in place to ensure professionalism and lasting, fruitful relationships with clients.

And for crying out loud, make sure the client’s table is level before they sit down.