by Steve Adubato, PhD

Amy Russo Harrigan is the owner of Toast Restaurant on Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair. Toast serves breakfast, brunch and lunch and although a new eatery in Montclair, has already gained the reputation as a place that’s comfortable, friendly with great customer service. This is not by accident. Amy has raised the bar for how her employees approach their job and communicate with their most important constituents—customers. Everyone talks about customer service, but they live it at Toast and most of that effort revolves around exceptional communication skills.

Q—With all the challenges businesses face, what is the most important message to communicate to customers and clients?

A—Whether you are in corporate America or in the restaurant business, the key is to let your customers know you care about them. It is because of them that you have the opportunity to make a living doing something that you enjoy. According to Amy Russo Harrigan, the philosophy at Toast is to communicate to each and every person who walks through the door that they matter. “Customers don’t just sit down and get cookie cutter service. Our servers approach families with kids differently than they would professionals having a business lunch. Everyone needs to matter in different ways. Everyone has different needs and I train my staff to assess customers before they get to the table and communicate accordingly.”

Q—How do you communicate a message to your staff that the customer is always #1?

A—Most organizations have a mission statement or some other core values they stand by. Everything you do, including who you hire and what the décor is in your establishment communicates about and supports that mission. At Toast, Amy starts this process when interviewing prospective employees. “Toast’s mission is to create a cool, relaxed environment where people matter most. Therefore, when I am interviewing, I read between the lines to see if someone can support that mission. The people I hire need to know that customer service is the only variable in the restaurant that we can control.”

Q—How do you teach employees to deal with difficult customers or clients?

A—Regardless of why a customer or client is being difficult, you need to let them know that you are here to help them. It may be as simple as saying with a smile; “I am so sorry you feel that way. Is there something I can do to help?” Empathize with the customer or client and let them know you understand his frustration. Amy’s approach is that whatever a customer may be requesting, whether it is an “omelet with 20 substitutions or a change of table or waiter,” she tries to accommodate the request. Says Amy; “1,000 percent of it comes down to attitude. You can have a great time at work on any given day. You just need to make the best of it and roll with whatever comes your way.”

Q—What do you do with employees who just don’t seem to get it?

A—Every manager, CEO or team leader has been faced with the employee that regardless of how much coaching and mentoring is provided to him, just doesn’t “get it.” At Toast, Amy tries to surround one person who doesn’t get it with people who do, in hopes that the person who doesn’t get it steps up or takes himself out of the game. Sometimes, no matter how much you communicate verbally how you want employees to act, there is no substitute for modeling good behavior of colleagues, which can communicate a very powerful message.