In the South, we often start nuggets of life advice with “Momma always said …” It’s an expression made famous by Alabama’s own Forrest Gump, but truly, it’s a way Southerners pass along generational knowledge and wisdom. My Momma didn’t make it past 12th grade, but she was one of the smartest problem solvers I’ve ever met. She was a successful business owner, and had a keen eye for people.
And Momma always said everyone should wait tables and work in retail at Christmas time.
Now, what Momma was really saying was that everyone should learn people. So I worked retail at Christmas time, and I waited tables at a number of holes in various walls, but most notably at a Logan’s Roadhouse in Opelika, Ala., for five years.
I never got the recipe for the famous yeast rolls, but I did see how learning people has translated into my role as a firm owner and consultant, helping our team grow and scale successfully. Specifically, here are four ways it helped prepare me for running my own consulting firm:
You learn to balance your fixed variables smartly.
One of the biggest things you learn when you wait tables, or even more acutely when you manage front of the house, is that your restaurant’s profits — and therefore your tips — are tied directly to a formula. You have a fixed number of chairs and a fixed amount of time in dinner service—those are your constants. The estimated nightly revenue depends on the number of chairs multiplied by turnover multiplied by the average ticket price. If you want to make more money, you have three options: (1) get more chairs, (2) increase your turnover, or (3) increase your average ticket price.
Running a consulting firm works exactly the same way. So often people struggle with scale because they don’t realize their revenue formula is all wrong—they aren’t making enough money, so they just work more hours. When in fact, the issue may be that you need more chairs. In other words, it’s time to hire to increase the load your firm can carry.
Or the issue may be that you need to increase your turnover—it’s time to automate or outsource some projects that are eating away at your time. Or it could even be that you’re undervaluing your time—you should review your rates and consider increasing prices. But no matter how bad you want the answer to be: “I’ll just work 80 hours a week,” that doesn’t work. Remember: time is a constant.
You need to invest in the customers who uphold their end.
In a restaurant, there are some customers who just won’t tip. You could give them service that would impress the Queen, and best case scenario is they leave you a religious pamphlet and a stick of gum—or worse, they don’t pay at all and leave you holding the bag.
You’ll have these clients in your firm, too. They monopolize your time, and either don’t pay or expect to pay less than your normal rates. And then you’ll have clients who will respect you as a professional—and that includes paying the invoice for your fees. Don’t let the clients who pop up again with “just a quick question,” but still haven’t actually ordered anything, take your time away from the client who has invested in hiring your firm, or you may find you have two clients walking away from the table unhappy.
Give everyone quality service, sure, but don’t break your neck making sure they have extra ketchup when you have bigger fish to fry.
Hire smartly with an eye to personality.
When I got my first job waiting tables, it was at this small oyster bar in Opelika, Ala. I got the job because I had never waited tables before. The manager told me that he always hires people who are inexperienced, clicked with his personality, and who need the job. Well, that was me. His reasoning? He said he can always train someone to shuck oysters or carry 5 beers at once (I can still do both!), but you can’t teach personality and you can’t teach hungry.
Over the years, as I’ve done quite a bit of hiring and firing, I’ve realized he was right. If somebody doesn’t fit with your team, if you aren’t comfortable together, if you can’t laugh together, if you can’t grow to trust each other, and, in my opinion, if they don’t have the same “go get ’em” attitude that you do, you certainly won’t be able to scale together.
Some of my best nights waiting tables were when I was assigned to the section with my best friends. We knew we could find our groove, make great money, and have a blast doing it. That’s what you should want your business to be, too. I can train anybody to do anything if they want to learn it, especially the parts of this business that, let’s be honest, just aren’t that hard. But you can’t teach them to want to learn and you can’t teach them to get along.
And speaking of getting along, don’t forget about back of the house.
Oh, the kitchen. That place was a different beast altogether. Profanity flew through the air, dishes slammed or broke, all in stark contrast to the happy faces we put on when we were on the floor. The cooks generally hated the servers, and that was fine. But making friends in the kitchen was a sure-fire way to wriggle success from a screw up. Forget to ring something in? Good relationships in the kitchen meant they actually listened when you called in an order on the fly. Got a 20-top walking in? Knowing the grill cook wants that order broken up into 4 separate 5-top checks — and definitely not 5 separate 4-top checks — gets your order out all together. An order came out wrong? No worries. Just get Quentin in desserts to slip you that extra slice of cheesecake to make it right.
Too much of our firm roles involves managing back-of-the-house work with front-of-the-house expectations. Did your client get what they asked for? Did they get it on time and on spec? Do you have the relationships to make it right? This industry is about being able to build the relationships in your own team to finesse the balance between what your team can do, and what your clients need— when it all needs to be done yesterday. It’s about building trust with your client to know that you’ll make it right, even when it’s not your fault.
And as a manager or owner, it’s about helping your team find that balance, so that nobody feels undervalued, nobody feels thrown under the bus, and everybody makes money and has a great night.
These are the soft skills we can’t teach, and we certainly can’t always articulate, because there are just so many nuances to people that you only learn when you’re the one person standing between them and a cold beer at the end of a long day. For so many of our clients, that green check mark by their name at the end of Election Day is their cold beer. It’s the one thing that’s keeping them going, and pushing them forward. They’re counting on you to help them get it. So clock in, and get to work.
Beth Clayton Pierce is a partner and COO at Boulder Strategies and Turn It Blue Digital. She holds a Juris Doctorate from Birmingham School of Law and a B.A. in Public Relations from Auburn University (War Eagle!). She lives in Gadsden, Alabama, with her husband, Kyle, and her daughter, Caroline.