How the Service Industry Prepared Me for Running a Business

This article is a 6 minute read

When I was 18 years old I started my first business.

It was 1999, and to say entrepreneurship among youth was rare, was an understatement. On top of that, being an 18 year old female in the 90’s starting a business, was virtually unheard of.

I had just begun my last year of high school (at this time high school was 5 years long, not 4), and I had worked some part-time jobs in the health and wellness field, and decided to augment those earnings by starting a Personal Training business on the side.

I scrimped and saved to pay for the certification, and when I finally received it, I had gathered a small roster of clients. I was charging $10 per hour (gimme a break, it was the 90’s!), and I puttered around town in my 1986 mazda 323 from one appointment to the next racking up the cold hard cash.

I can honestly look back on those days with joy, because despite only making $10 per hour, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, didn’t give a crap what anyone thought, and did it all on my terms. Ah, the blissful ignorance of youth.

My life was a hustle from a very young age. I ran multiple paper routes as a kid, worked under the table washing dishes in cafes for cash on weekends, and found any opportunity to make an extra buck. Although, nothing would prepare me for the realities of running a successful business, quite like working in a restaurant would.

In year 2000, at the age of 19, I got my first serving job. The job was at an Italian themed chain restaurant, where children had the freedom to run wild, and tables were filled with unlimited portions of bread and salad. As awful as it could have been some days, it taught me a fundamental lesson that I still carry with me today.

When you genuinely care for the needs and core desires of your customers, they are happy to hand over their money.

I left that restaurant and jumped around to a few others before I finally landed in the ‘fine dining’ sector of the restaurant biz in 2002. One of the biggest lesson I learned from making the switch from bargain meal deals to fine dining was, everyone is the same – no matter where they come from or what they are worth.

While working in this particular restaurant, I finished my graduate degree, opened and closed 2 businesses, and flipped a condo.

Anyone who works in the restaurant industry will tell you that despite the fact that it shows you the truly awful side of humanity, there is an allure of cash and camaraderie. My best friends to this day have been connections I made working in restaurants.

So, if I was running businesses and successfully completing school, why did I continue to work in the restaurant industry?

As I completed University, I saw so many friends around me digging themselves deeper into debt, and since there was no guarantee in business, I needed to keep a side-hustle working in restaurants through it all.

During this time,  I began to pay very close attention.

Attention to human behavior, attention to interpersonal dynamics, and attention to the human reward system. What I came to learn would be invaluable, and really the philosophy I began to build my business on. When my attention shifted from dollars to human behavoir, is when I began to see tremendous gains in my business.

I came to bear witness to some extremely atrocious behavoir over the years, which I have to admit, has made for some incredible stories at cocktail parties (if you ever wanna swap restaurant stories, drop me a line – I love to exchange some of the best and most grotesque moments). However, I’m forever grateful for what it has taught me about running a business, which I can sum up in about 7 points.

 

1. Money doesn’t matter.

I know, I know, this sounds trite and altruistic, but money honestly doesn’t matter. I have seen men and women who are worth hundreds of millions of dollars break down because their partner left them, as much as I’ve seen families scraping together pennies to pay the bill be the most gracious, happy and kind people I’ve ever encountered. And I get it, it’s easy living in the first world as a person of privilege to say “money doesn’t matter”, so trust me, I don’t take this claim lightly.  To quote Gary Vaynerchuck –

It’s about your legacy, not your currency.

 

2. Money only amplifies who you already are.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this first-hand over, and over, and over. If you start off as selfish, bitter and lonely, there is no amount of money that will change this for you. More money will only ever make you more of what you already are.

 

3. People want to feel taken care of, and heard.

Full stop. If you can instill a feeling of comfort, safety and trust with a client, and you have the ability to dedicate all of your attention to finding a way to solve their needs, you’ve won. I have found that this circumstance applies to all levels of customer service. Be it at the level of picking out a nice bottle of wine for them to enjoy with dinner, or building out a $20,000 web project. If the client feels that they are taking care of and that you ultimately “have their back”, you’ve won before you even started.

 

4. Boundaries. Set them early, set them often.

I continue to test this theory many times over, and the results always come up the same. This statement is always controversial, but, People will treat you the way you allow them to.

Meaning, at any age, people will continue to push both personal and professional boundaries until you stop them. At the restaurant, people will push to get items for free, or get reservations at a certain time, or even flat-out refuse to pay for things they have ordered. This is always because they got their way (maybe even only once) before. The same goes with clients. If you text them, or respond to their texts, it will open a floodgate, and eventually require a difficult conversation.

This needs to be nipped in the bud early on through clear-cut communication guidelines. Clarity as to when you will be available by phone, and how long they can expect email returns within. Clarity from the beginning in most cases, stops the client/customer from even pursuing the possibility of operating outside of the parameters you have set. Do it early, do it often.

 

5. There’s always a comeback story waiting for you.

With clients, as well as customers, you can almost ALWAYS win them back. Many people’s first reaction when something goes wrong is to run, hide and wait for things to blow over, but I implore you to confront problems as soon as they happen. Problems that arise are often an opportunity for you to shine. Customer service has reached embarrassingly low standards lately, which gives you a huge advantage as a business owner, it often only takes a few small gestures to really blow people away, and recover from even a catastrophic situation.

 

6. Confidence is everything.

Well, let’s say confidence is 80% of everything. People can sense fear and insecurity, and it leaves them uneasy, and untrusting. In business, as in restaurants, conveying confidence plays a huge role in how much people are willing to let go and trust you. If people sense a low confidence in you, they will look for reasons to not do business with you. They may never say that their turn-off was lack of confidence, because it happens on a subconscious level when establishing trust early on.

 

7. Nobody cares about your dreams, it’s all about execution.

Many times I would go into my serving shift thinking, “awe, it would be awesome to make $300 tonight”. But, for some people it wasn’t uncommon to walk with $300 – $400 every night. That was because they didn’t sit around and chat about how much they wanted to make, they got out there and gave great service, turned their tables, offered to stay late, and took tables that no one wanted. They did whatever it took for as long as it took – that’s what business is all about.

 

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