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Hiring The Best: Research Shows the Value of Sarcasm

Dannymeyer_2Katherine P. Rankin may have simply wanted to research where sarcasm lived in the brain as part of her ongoing research into dementia. Along the way, she may have discovered an insight which may lead hospitality professionals everywhere to rethink their hiring practices.

What she found is that the ability to perceive sarcasm requires a nifty mental trick that lies at the heart of social relations: figuring out what others are thinking.

It turns out that sarcasm lives in the right side of the brain. (It lives in the right hemisphere, along with the ability to appreciate puns and jokes, appreciation for fine food and wine, love of travel, as well as empathy and listening skills.)    

Why is this important?

Let's turn to Danny Meyer, who as I've mentioned before, knows something about customer service -- he's the founder and co-owner of eleven classic New York establishments. All of these venues have outstanding customer service: Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke, Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, The Modern, Cafe 2, Terrace 5, and Hudson Yards Catering. He's also one of the early investors in a little company called OpenTable.

In his book "Setting The Table", he's got a term called the "51 percent solution". He argues that the way people relate to each other is just slightly more important than the technical performance. It's the same reason a flawless four- or five-star restaurant can actually attract far fewer loyal fans than a two- or three-star place with soul. Meyer adds:

"...The human beings who animate our restaurants have far more impact on whether we succeed than any of the food ingredients we use, the decor of our dining rooms, the bottles of wine in our cellars, or even the locations of the restaurants. Because hospitality is a dialogue, I have always placed the highest premium on hiring the best possible staff to engage our guests."

If the customer feels like the wait staff has done something for them (i.e., listened and take action as a result), they have a strong emotional experience and are likely to come back or perhaps tell their friends.

If the customer feels like the wait staff has done something to them (i.e., didn't listen and did something else instead of what they wanted), they are going to have a stronger emotional experience and are more likely to share the negative experience with their friends.

A restaurant can do a hundred things right -- but if the wait staff can't understand the signals the customer is sending, and therefore doesn't react, the whole experience is ruined. By testing for sarcasm, you're also testing for the ability to provide excellent customer service.

Before you go out and hire the most sarcastic people, there is one caveat: as Cornell notes in a recent report, "Questioning Conventional Wisdom: Is a Happy Employee a Good Employee, or Do Other Attitudes Matter More?", the most important factor is whether employees understand what's important in their job. Sarcastic employees are simply better at listening and identifying needs. They still need guidance in developing the improvisational skills that are at the core of delivering an excellent customer experience.

Link: The New York Times has a terrific article -- as well as a video used in a scientific study on sarcasm. (registration may be required)


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