The world is full of places and institutions that we collectively refer to as the hospitality industry – bars, cafes, restaurants, hotels, motels – all are a dot on the hospitality map. Hospitality itself can be defined as the combination of an array of products (tangible) and a series of actions (intangible) which together help facilitate productive and effective employment of one’s time and also to make one feel welcome and at home.

So when we go and buy a meal or a glass of wine we are contributing to the hospitality industry in exchange for services that can and cannot be quantified. A room we hire is a certain size and we can hence calculate how much a hotel charges per square inch of space they rent out. The bottle of water they sell too has a similar measurable cost component. But what about a bed that is always made and the fact that at some places they buff-shine your shoes and arrange your clothes in neat folded piles? What about the steward who always greets you by your name and remembers your favourite dish and the way you like your drinks? There is no defined way of measuring the worth of all such gests and instances which although almost invisible are an intrinsic and important part of the hospitality product.

These are services and for a sceptic like me they remain the most desirable and yet the least offered part of the hospitality component. Are we, the people of an independent democratic republic, really being served?

Before you jump to conclusions and shout yes, let me ask you a bigger question, are we always this impulsive? No wait, that was a trick question; the real one that presents itself is this: how do you define service?

…meeting guests’ expectations; perhaps even exceeding them? Making sure the guest has a good time, or that the pitfalls aren’t too many, and that he feels like he received value for his money. Or, worst case, he doesn’t file a complaint so severe that we have to shut business and move countries.

The problem with service is that it has too broad general and adaptive a meaning. In a fine dining outlet having four people wait on you is service whereas in a roadside eatery or a crowded “happening” bar, actually managing to get the main bloke’s attention for more than 10 seconds can be deemed really commendable.

So, to help reduce ambiguity I am putting forth what can be considered a more decisive and solid definition of service: Service is knowing what a guest wants even before the guest himself knows it.

I know I said more ‘solid’ and this seems more psychic. If you have ever been at the hands of a good service personnel then you know what I am on about. When service is good, you don’t even notice it. You can’t even recall the team that served you. They glide in and out, fulfilling their duties, doing justice to their roles, entering and exiting like characters in a well directed play, all in harmony like a conducted orchestra.

Bad service is much harsher. It makes you feel uncomfortable and under-valued, even cheated. Pity then that we have more of the latter around than the good or even the average stuff. Here is my pick of a few things (especially relevant to beverages) that the service industry is yet to catch on to properly.

“Let me Check”: People working in an outlet no matter how big should always know what they will need to know for that service shift. If they have to go and check with the chef whether a dish is available or with the manager if a wine is still in stock then its time they upped their fish intake and got themselves some memory cells growing. If they can’t remember a few basics about the place where they spend most of their waking time, it is truly sad. It is definitely not service. A restaurant that needs to check is not a great place. The only checks I can sometimes understand are if the guest wants something off the menu and the steward wants to see if the chef can pull it off. In a five star or any other deluxe property (including stand-alones) this however doesn’t apply – if they can have ten types of mushrooms and fifteen types of salt, or a menu-full of Mojitos, surely they can throw together a little something that a guest desires without having to ‘check’!

Three calls and you are out: I don’t understand baseball much but I like the notion that every hit counts and every miss hurts. I like service to be well-oiled friction-free machinery. It shouldn’t just run just like clockwork but more like Breguet Tourbillon. It should be perpetual and self-renewing and adaptive. The steward should be able to anticipate what I could possibly need as the next logical requirement and accordingly arrange for it. If I have to repeatedly interrupt my conversation at the table and keep calling for his/her attention then the whole idea of service evaporates. My measure is simple: during the course of an evening or any other meal if I have to call for the service staffs’ attention three times of more, then I am just walking away to not return. From clearing my plate to replenishing my water or reserving my wine, the staff should know it before even I do. You think that’s harsh, well I assure you that I have been to fine dining places in India where short of flashing the stewards, nothing else could have got you some attention at your table. Sounds drastic, but every bit true.

Wine service: Wine service in India is not just an oxymoron, it’s an inherent contradiction: the words not only don’t fit in together here in India, they in fact well oppose each other in thought and in action. Wine (or any other beverage for that matter) is not sold in India, they are bought. People walk into restaurants knowing that they will treat themselves to some average drink at a horribly exaggerated price; nobody has ever been convinced of this post being seated. As a good friend of mine queries, outlet owners would be unhappy if people walked in and just ordered a drink, why then don’t they feel similarly and equally insulted when someone orders food and no beverages? F&B industry does imply both, right?
Having a good wine list arms you for a decent blood-match but it doesn’t win you it. For that you need trained fighters: cocks that would sooner go out on a limb risking it all rather than come back lost and limping. Unless stewards taste enough and know enough about the product they will nowhere come close to be able to serving it properly. Sadly, I can’t count more than 50 properties across India (and I have been to quite a few) where the notion of a hint of a possibility of a wine service exists and every now and then shines a little glimmer of hope our way.

Standard Operating Procedures: SOPs are about as friendly and useful in service as a robot with a mean integrated chip on the shoulder. Sure it helps to define responses but the trouble is that no two instances or queries are ever alike. As a result, the standard response eventually becomes reduced to a repeated emotionless statement that is uttered parrot-like and sans compassion each time a qualifying situation presents itself. Sure SOPs work for call centres which are about as courteous and personal as e-greetings. Luxury on the other hand is the worst place to have measured responses for service. Luxury should always be bespoke – thought-out and individually tailored. We can time tasks (time taken for check-in, laundry delivery, service of a drink) but we cannot standardise the core component that is the interactive service itself. To even think that such is possible would be to try and kill the personality of not just an establishment but also of the people within. I am not a keen supporter of the theory that different properties of the same group should have the same offerings in every city – if the food, culture and people are different in every region why then should we inflict the same upon them across the range? It is perhaps the worst way to announce the death of democracy.
I agree that some basic guidelines to govern a list a useful but to pin down every beverage to be listed is a bit too military. Not only does it make our senior F&B responsibles redundant, it also deprives them of the judicious power they could exercise over their suppliers to get the best possible deals which in turn, they could pass on to the consumer, or else pocket to reduce the beverage cost component, whichever you choose to believe, depending on how naive and new in the industry you are.

Punctuality: While most bad service is on account of the outlet and its management, some of it can be directly linked to bad guests. Yes, you heard me; bad guests. This last point is aimed at you dear reader, should you happen to be one of them: the social types who think it is ok to reserve for 7pm and arrive at 8:30pm. Several places are introducing dinner seating timings not just to maximise business but to also help improve service standards. Without getting into too much detail, when we don’t show up on time we throw the entire cycle out of resonance. The ensuing problem has only one outcome: compromised perhaps even hasty service. While it is our right to be served, it is also out duty to respect the service environment. This last point, bitter as it reads, could well be one major clink in the bad service chain.

Meanwhile, I live to see another day, another sceptic day that is. It’s not that I am impossible to impress, it’s just that when I give a complement, I truly mean it. In short, when I commend a place or a wine (or a person) I do it out of sheer admiration and for the joy of sharing. My opinion can’t be bought. At least, not so easily…and definitely not in marked or sequential bills that haven’t yet been transferred to an overseas account in my name. Till such happens, I will be happy to just get some service around here!