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Leadership Development

Managing by Pouring Water

There is no single, “right” way to be a leader. Finding the style and routine that’s suited to you, and to the particulars of your environment, is not easy. Even when you find one that works in one phase of your business, it may be less effective as your company grows.

What follows is one technique that’s been successful for me. Essentially, it’s my take on what has long been taught as “managing by walking around.” But in this case—everyone who works at Zingerman’s will laugh—it’s called Managing by Pouring Water. I’ll abbreviate it to MbPW.

MbPW has developed rather organically at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, the full-service, 180-seat restaurant that we opened three years ago. The Roadhouse is at a different, younger stage of development than our other businesses, and it’s a restaurant not a retail shop, mail order call center or production setting. I was searching for ways to be active and present, to see what was going on and contribute without trying (and inevitably failing) to do everything myself.

The name “Managing by Pouring Water” came from a regular customer who’s watched me do it many nights. She suggested with a smile that “Managing by Pouring Water” should be the title of my next book.

The Owner as Helper
One busy day, I picked up the water pitcher to fill customers’ nearly empty glasses. I moved from table to table, filling glasses and doing whatever else needed to be done. Once I had the water in hand, I kept going around the dining room. Without intending to, I’d come upon an effective routine.

Pouring water is just the superficial—if at least practical—element of the benefits of MbPW. The much bigger element is what happens in, around and after all the water pouring. MbPW is just the old idea of being in the business where the action, people and product are. Other owners have come up with similar routines. Vikram Vij, who runs one of my favorite restaurants in Vancouver, accomplishes much the same thing by personally taking the dinner order at each table. He’s not the server, nor does he do everything that each table needs himself. But he’s created a system in which he plays one key role and establishes personal interaction.

I hope that sharing this system stimulates a creative approach in your business.

12 Ways to Win by Pouring Water
1. A practical entrée into the dining room
Pouring water is an in-the-moment reason to interact with customers that’s hands on. What I discovered was that there are a lot of less obvious, but ultimately much more meaningful, things that I learned by walking around filling water glasses.

2. Watch customer buying patterns firsthand
I quickly see which customers go for the exotic fish and meat dishes and which are most conservative. I observe the eating patterns by age group, watch how out-of-towners order differently than locals, become conscious of how business people’s purchasing patterns are different than families. I see what kids want, and what items people have heard they should order from their friends. The result: I can better contribute to the more effective management of our menu, see what’s hot in the market, identify opportunities for new items, etc.

3. Get a real-time feel for on-time delivery
I can keep an eye on timing and delivery of the food. By moving through the dining rooms constantly, I have a mental picture of where each table is in its eating sequence. That helps me know which servers are on top of their timing, how the kitchen’s doing, and so on.

4. Get close to the customer’s consumption
Getting data from afar can be a great help. But it’s not the same as being able to watch customers consume your product in real time. I can see what gets eaten quickly, what dishes people are oohing and aahing over, which items get pushed to the side of the plate. Like the homemade pork rinds we use as a garnish on our barbecue dinner. They’re delicious. But after seeing 75 percent of them left on the plate, it dawned on me that most customers did not have a clue what they were. Up here in the North, pork rinds are anything but the everyday item they are in the South. Understandably, when Ann Arborites get an odd-shaped, flattish, brown thing sticking out of their mashed potatoes, they politely move it to the side of their plate and leave it there. Which means that instead of enjoying this nice homemade crackling—something you won’t get any other place in town—everybody is missing out. So, we started to tell every guest about the homemade pork rind, adding a small bit of value to their meal. Now, more customers try the pork rind and most like it.

5. Provide quick response to customer queries
When appropriate, I can constructively contribute to the dialogue that servers are having with the guest. Often, I’ll stop to pour water at a table that a staff member is interacting with. Most of the time I keep my mouth shut and fill the glasses. But sometimes a question will come up that the server doesn’t know the answer to, in which case I can quickly chime in. I provide on-the-spot support and on-shift training, and help the guest’s experience as well.

6. Manage moments of truth
Moments of truth, as we define the term, are those situations where a customer isn’t complaining, but where something is about to happen (or has already happened) that is likely to lose us a guest for life. Or if handled well, make them a long- time and loyal promoter of our business.

MbPW allows me to monitor—and then help alter for the better—the course of each table’s experience. In theory, every service person will give a great experience to every guest. But let’s face reality. When you get into the complexities of service, there are a million little nuances that are hard to pick up, myriad small signs that years of experience and attention to detail allow you to read, things that someone who’s been on staff for six weeks—no matter how good they are—probably won’t notice. MbPW allows me to identify customers that need extra attention.

The other night I came upon on an elderly guest who wasn’t happy with her meal. The server had offered to replace it, as did I when I happened by the table, but she refused anything else. “No, she said. “I looked at the menu and this is the only thing that interested me. Now, the Roadhouse menu has about 100 items in addition to 10 or 12 daily specials, plus we’ll custom make most anything. Even her friend tried to suggest alternatives but she insisted, “I’ll just eat this.

Straight service would have meant continuing to apologize. But she reminded me of my grandmother, so I tried dealing with it as we did in my family. Within 15 minutes I’d teased her into laughing and making fun of herself. I told her how guilty I felt about our failure to provide her a good meal. And since she wouldn’t take anything in replacement, I offered dessert. She shook her head side to side, then said resignedly, “I’ll have to walk around the block three times if I do. (This had become a game of guilt chess; I was raised playing that game.) I told her that I’m a runner and that although I’d already done my 60-minute jog that afternoon, I’d change shoes and go out with her again if she wanted. She said it was too late in the evening and she’d have to wait until daylight. I told her I’d give her my cell phone number to call the next morning and I’d come over. The guest and her friends left laughing.

7. Show strong on-site ownership presence

Customers love the fact that an owner of a business is pouring water. They like to tease me about it; some suggest I ask for a raise. One woman told me how shocked her 20-something son was to see it happen and how she used it to point out what one has to do to be successful.

8. Build better customer relationships
Through MbPW, I meet a lot of customers I’d never talk to. Sometimes they know or find out I’m the owner and that gives me an entrée to welcome them to our business. It’s a chance to bond personally in a way that our competitors won’t.

9. A chance to praise the staff in public
By getting close to the customers and staff, I can compliment servers in front of the guests, which helps them feel better about their work. And it helps the customer feel calmer and more confident that they will have a great experience.

10. Hear what otherwise goes unsaid (to us!)
MbPW allows customers to chat with an owner without feeling like they’re intruding. And that’s something the mass market and franchise folks cannot compete with. We listen—they probably never hear 98 percent of what customers say. When pouring water, you hear a whole lot more than you do reading customer comment cards. I hear what people are saying to each other, I read their body language and listen to the nuances of their tone of voice. All of which tell me a lot about what they want, what we’re doing well, where we’re falling short and where we can proactively pick up our pace to preempt a problem.

11. Be in position to help in a hurry

This is the food business—the only thing you can count on every day is that something will happen that you didn’t count on. On a busy day, MbPW means that I’m there when something crops up at the last second, making it easier to support the staff and solve problems.

12. The chance to teach the little things
The teaching takes place simply by setting a good example. Being out there and doing all of the above in front of the staff makes it easier to model the behaviors that we’re looking for in our servers.

But the most important part of this is that MbPW allows me a wealth of teaching opportunities. Servers—whether in a restaurant or a retail setting—are operating on their own much of the time. Unless we’re standing near them, it’s difficult to show them how to read a guest or how to give positive reinforcement to customers. Staff members who’ve finished their formal initial training period still have years worth of subtlety to learn. By getting close to the table in a constructive way, MbPW allows me to see, hear and watch what they’re doing. Please note: This is not to catch them doing something wrong. To the contrary, I want to catch them doing things right and compliment them on those.

Managing by Pouring Water (or whatever version you have) is a way to enhance all the other good things you’re already doing. It is a method to gain great return on relatively small investments of time. When it’s done well, everyone—staff, customers, organization and the community—has a better experience and we’re building a more sustainable, engaged and responsive organization.

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