10 Ways Bartenders Can Engage Customers

10 Ways Bartenders Can Engage Customers

One of the most annoying things is to be ignored by a bartender. It’s not a great feeling. Most bartenders who’ve mastered the art of bartending will tell you that if you don’t have the people skills to accompany your skills behind the bar, then you’re not doing your job.

For insight on how bartenders may better engage customers, we spoke to two experts, Gary Lowell, a retired bartender who worked at the Ritz-Carlton Naples Beach Resort for 11 years, and Martin Cate, a rum and exotic cocktail expert, who owns Smuggler’s Cove and Whitechapel (San Francisco), Hale Pele (Portland, Ore.), Lost Lake (Chicago) and new tiki-focused lounge False Idol in San Diego.

"No" is never an option.

Lowell: The extra steps that the Ritz-Carlton takes is part of its credo: You’re never allowed to say no, from the guy from the laundry room to the president of the hotel. If someone asks you for something, you get it. If you have to get in your car and buy it at another store and bring it back, you do it.

Try to find common ground with the customer to strike up a rapport.

Lowell: Luckily I traveled quite a bit before I became a bartender. So I always found a common ground with customers. They’re amazed that you know something about them and/or where they’re from—whether it’s North Dakota or Luxembourg. And people love it when you remember their names, when you treat them like a friend, not just a client.

Always remember that a competitor would be happy to take your business.

Lowell: When you’re in a cutthroat business and everybody wants to make money and make it big, you don’t have any excuse to ever come up with a reason to not keep a client. Never be uppity to guests.

Always try to fix the dissatisfied guest’s experience.

Cate: Everybody likes that sense of “Hey, I wasn’t happy and it got corrected.” I never understand why people (in the industry) don’t get it: It’s just a drink. If the guest doesn’t like the way it tastes, then fix it.

Properly acknowledge all guests—even when you’re “in the weeds.”

Cate: Get the eyes up and say: “How are you doing, folks? I will be right with you.” As soon as the guest has been engaged, as soon as that person has been acknowledged, you’ve just bought yourself another minute. Second step: Look up again and say: “Folks, let me give you a menu.” You’ve just bought yourself another minute. Give them reading material. Acknowledge their existence.

Never wear your stress so that guests can see it.

Cate: When you’re a bartender you must think like a swan: Above the water, the swan looks calm, but below the surface you’re paddling like mad. It’s maintaining that calm demeanor even if you’re stressed or hustling. There’s no question that it’s not easy. It is extremely hard to maintain the cool and not get frustrated.

Enthusiastically learn how to make and serve every type of drink.

Lowell: Learn how to make ALL the drinks that everybody drinks. Get a bartender’s guide and study it cover to cover.

It’s important to find the people who are service-minded first because they can learn the skills second.

Cate: Engage the guest with warmth and friendliness and the same kind of openness you’d have with a friend or colleague. … As a bartender, you have an opportunity to not just keep them happy, but to also manage the guest experience. Start planting positive reinforcements before the beverage is even served.

Always handle the customer who insists on asking a lot of questions with finesse.

Cate: The challenge is not to be short, not to get flustered because you’re stressed out that the tickets are shooting out. It’s to maximize, just as you maximize the efficiency of motion in your mise en place. Just as you maximize your economy of motion as you’re working as a bartender, you need to maximize the economy in your replies. Think about how to answer questions in the most efficient way. If your bar offers a list of more than 500 rums, have your top five handy so you can tell the customers without getting flustered.


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