Service flashpoints and how to avoid them

Smooth and unflappable, almost Bond like, being a good sommelier is an art form, based on knowledge, experience and time.

Every service and every customer is different, so you’re always having to assess situations and make decisions.

And it’s a fine line between getting it right – and creating a memorable experience for your guest – and getting it wrong.

Of course, every sommelier is different and has their own opinions and experiences. But I have selected a few examples here of tricky situations that seem to occur pretty regularly and suggested the best way of dealing with them.

These are all scenarios that I myself have been in (you probably have too) and I didn’t always get them right. So the key thing is to learn from our mistakes, and do the right thing next time. Hopefully this will save you some time!

By The Glass v By The Bottle

crop man pouring red wine in glass in restaurant
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

‘I will have one of those,’ says the guest, pointing at a glass  of Chardonnay (Meursault) from the Coravin page that is listed at £35 per 175ml. The question is, do they know that the price is for a glass, not a bottle? And, more to the point, how do you broach this matter with them without looking like you are suggesting they don’t know what they are doing or (maybe even worse) don’t look like someone who would normally be drinking wines at this price?

The best approach is to confirm their order and show them the Coravin; talking about the wine they’ve chosen and making it obvious that it is a premium GLASS of wine.

If they’ve made a mistake they’ll probably say something along the lines of ‘Oh heaven no! I was looking for a cheap bottle of wine and like Chardonnay! Thank you for letting me know’.

As you walk away a small part of you might be regretting the money you could have made. But your attitude and honest approach have just built a trusting relationship with this guest, and they may even ask you for further advice (and added sales income) when it comes to desserts.

Order Confusion

One of your colleagues – maybe not the sharpest tool in the box – has taken an order from a table. “43” he says to me. I look at the list… It’s a top wine from Margaret River priced in 3 figures. Above that on the list number 42 is a Sauvignon Blanc at a quarter of the price.  You have not sold this expensive wine for over 2 years and your heart beats fast.

The question is, do you go for the gung ho sale or do you go back and confirm with the guest, who at this time is loudly entertaining his party and clearly ready for a glass of wine?

And even if you show them the more expensive bottle, if they’re not really concentrating, they could be in for a nasty surprise when the bill arrives. They’ll leave feeling disappointed and we could have some negative comments on TripAdvisor or a complaint letter the next morning.

My approach here would be to always double check. I would quietly interrupt the table and just confirm with a wine list explaining that my colleague was ‘not sure’ which one they wanted.

Interruptions like this can be annoying for a guest – particularly if they’re in a boisterous mood – but trust me, they would be more annoyed with an expensive bill later on!

woman in black blazer holding pink and white book
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

‘I Like It So You Should Too…’

‘I would like the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc,’ says the customer. ‘But I have a new wine just come in from Greece; absolutely amazing, same price; a bit more aromatic and richer,’ you say, talking them into buying the wine. The trouble is, they don’t like it.

For me the style of communication is absolutely key here.  To gauge a guests’ individual requirements and desire can be very difficult.  Our job is to advise and guide them without being too dogmatic. Enthusiasm is fine, but at the end of the day, it’s their decision.

If you’re trying to shift them into something a bit left field that you really believe in, I’d consider letting them have a try of the wine first, and explain clearly why it will work with their food.  But remember if, at the end of the day, they want to stick with their original decision who are we to say no?

The Wine Flight That Isn’t…

‘I want the wine flight but I only drink red,’ she says.

The price of the wine flight is expensive at £130 and is mainly white.  So do you just adjust the wines to get the sale?

I have had this happen to me numerous times and I believe again communicating to the guest and being honest allows you to take control. You can perhaps give them their own “unique” wine flight, so that they won’t match the food as such, but the customer still gets the spiel and experience and tries lots of wine!

Or you could direct them into choosing a nice bottle of red that you think will go throughout the meal.

The Money Question

Asking what kind of budget a guest has and how much they want to spend on wine is one of the hardest subjects to broach.

Approaching them in a relaxed and soft manner will help prevent them feeling uncomfortable or patronised. Euphemisms such as ‘is it a celebration?’ can be a good way to break the ice.

Using words like ‘accessible’ and ‘value for money’ as opposed to ‘cheapest’ or ‘house wine’ also helps with what is a sensitive topic. Even describing a wine as ‘special’ is fraught.  After all, surely all the wines on the list are special!

The key thing here is that the guest needs to trust you and know you are trying to help them, not rinse money out of them.

There are so many things to think about when in work mode but the guest experience – and trust – should be at the heart of all of it, even if sometimes it means having to park our ego, bite or tongue or say goodbye to an easy big-money sale!

Why First Impressions Are Key to great Service

The first five minutes with any new guest are crucial. Get them right and the chances are that the rest of their meal will go perfectly too; get them wrong and it could be a struggle.

Of course, every guest is different, but there are certain key principles that we can all follow to ensure that those early encounters set up a positive environment.

First, get the non-verbals right

At the very beginning look carefully at their manners and their movements; try to understand who you are going to be dealing with. Then make eye contact and give a smile to establish a connection before stage two: show time.

It’s Show Time!

Let’s start with a positive, personalised introduction: Customers like to interact with humans, not robots. Introduce yourself clearly and make sure they understand your name and your role in the restaurant. Reassure them that you’ll take care of their table. 

Let’s continue “small”

Questions like: “how was your day so far”, “have you been here before”, “how was your weekend/vacation/summer etc” are always an effective way to open a conversation, or, if it’s honest and you feel comfortable enough, you could compliment them. Maybe about a necklace, a dress, a pair of glasses they are wearing. By praising them, you’re making them feel good about themselves, proving that you’re paying attention, and moving the focus away from you. They are at the centre of your attention, remember, so show interest.

Now for the tough part: listening and caring

Listening is the easiest way to make people appreciate you. So genuinely listen to what they are telling you about and resist the temptation to break in with personal opinions. That way you will likely win them over. Care about their needs and desires and do your best to satisfy them. 

Recommendations: your time to shine

Now that you have absorbed their insights and have a clear idea about their taste and preferences, I’d suggest targeting three different products at different price points and make sure you are able to clearly explain the differences between them. Don’t be too cocky suggesting only the product you think they will like. There is a very fine line between aggressive selling and smart selling.  

 And finally, here’s a general list of rules that I like to keep in mind for each table:

  1. Project confidence
  2. Be a chameleon, and adapt. We need to shape ourselves based on someone else’s needs and behaviours to make them feel comfortable, as if they were at home.  
  3. Do not forget to SMILE.
  4. Mind your manners. “Thank you”, “you’re welcome”, “goodbye” and “hello” never grow old. 

‘I’ve been in hospitality since the age of twelve…’

Having been introduced to wine through his father’s cellar – nosing wines and trying to guess the vintages – Jan van Heesvelde knew from an early age that hospitality was the career for him. And he has pursued that goal with single-minded dedication ever since – as the surprised winemaker at Chateau Rayas found out!

You actually started to study hospitality at secondary school didn’t you?

When I was 12-18 years old I went to the Culinary Arts School in Bruges. I wanted to be a chef at first, and in the first three years you do chef, bakery and butchery. Then I did chef and restaurant manager for three years. After that I specialised as a sommelier. So I’ve been in hospitality since the age of 12.

But you weren’t instantly attracted to service…

In the fourth year of school – aged 16 – I hated waiting on people. Especially at school where it’s for your friends and it’s like a big performance, which you obviously don’t like because they’re trying to play jokes on you. But after a while wine just took over from the chef side – it just felt more interesting, and I had a bit of a vibe for it. I’m very lucky. I’m determined, and I knew where I wanted to go from an early age.

Have you always taken drink seriously?

When I was going out with my friends [as a student] we would all have a 10 Euro allowance for the night. They would buy 24 beers for E0.50; I would buy four for E2.50 apiece because I’d rather have four good beers than 20 lesser ones. My dad always told me, if you can buy smaller quantities but good value, then do it. That’s something I always live by.

You seem incredibly focused. Have you made any wrong decisions?

I graduated from school winning ‘best junior sommelier of Belgium’ in 2014. It’s a competition held between the hospitality schools in Belgium. I thought ‘well, I have a plan B, so let’s try university’, and went to study Business Management, which was very fashionable at that time. It was the worst decision of my life. The first six months were amazing – I passed all my courses. The second part – disaster. I had to resit everything. I did one more term, and then said ‘that’s enough’. It did teach me one thing, though. ‘Don’t do anything you don’t like…’

So you went back into hospitality?

I worked for two years at Tafeltje Rond in Belgium, then decided to work abroad. I was talking to restaurants in Scotland, Portland and LA before Hide offered me a job. I came to London in September 2018.

Hide. That’s quite some wine list…

I tasted things there that I would never have tasted in a lifetime in Belgium, opening a bottle, having a small taste and sharing it with the team. I don’t think anywhere has a list as crazy as Hide.

So what was the attraction of L’Enclume?

At L’Enclume [in Cumbria] we’re about breaking the rules for service. Everyone does everything. Everyone is in at ten in the morning, from commis to the restaurant manager, and everyone leaves at the same time. Everyone works together, and no-one is afraid of doing any job: folding napkins, mopping the floor, cleaning things – there are ranks without there being ranks. I’d never have expected it for a two-star Michelin. It’s an amazing vibe. We’re like a nest of ants running all together, but moving gracefully like swans. I definitely got more attracted to service there.

Have you managed to keep your wine education going?

I passed the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced level in February just before lockdown. I always knew I wanted to become a MS, and it’s something I’ve been pursuing for quite a few years now.

How do you fit studying around the work?

We’re four days on, three days off – and Monday is always free – so there’s plenty of time to study. You can put time in after and before service, too. When my friend Davide Dall’Amico and I were going for the Advanced, we both had flash cards on us, and we’d test each other before service. You need to be creative with your time.

Which do you think will be the toughest bit of the MS – theory or tasting?

It’s a comprehensive exam and everything is hard! Right now I’m taking a break from studying after the Advanced, to go for the Best Belgian Sommelier competition in October. It’s not about lines on the CV, it’s about representing your country and showing your best at the highest level.

Do you have a favourite wine style?

As long as it’s good and drinkable, I’m fine. I like everything from old Shiraz from Australia to the most natural wines from Friuli. Lately, though, I’m most into Chenin Blanc. There’s plenty of young producers in Swartland making amazing old-vine Chenins. From the Loire, the one I still love the most is Le Clos de la Meslerie Vouvray, made by Peter Hahn. The 2014 is my go-to Chenin at the moment.

Do you have a favourite visit?

Chateau Rayas in Chateauneuf du Pape. I didn’t even really know what it was. I know now, but I didn’t then, that it’s one of the best producers in the appellation, at a very high price point – and very difficult to get in. I just knocked on the winemaker’s door and he said ‘come back on Friday, there’s some Germans coming in’. I think it was the most epic tasting because I had literally no clue – I’d never tried a Rayas. And it was incredible.

What are you hoping to gain from being part of the Sommelier Collective?

To become a better sommelier, in terms of knowledge, building a network and – the most important part – help each other to make a strong sommelier profession.

Find the wines

Clos de la Meslerie is imported by Dynamic Vines

Chateau Rayas is imported by O W Loeb