How to Know When to Give Feedback and When to Hold Your Tongue

Learn when it’s okay to make an immediate change or wait until later

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

EEvery in-it-to-win-it entrepreneur has had that painful moment when they’re watching an employee handle a task — particularly a customer-facing task — and it’s not going well.

For 10 years, I ran a chain of dumpling shops and food trucks in New York City called Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, which meant training dozens and dozens of workers on all kinds of customer service tasks. I felt a lot of heartburn every time I saw a new staffer (or, for that matter, an experienced one) miss a customer cue, answer a question incompletely, or give a silly excuse for why a customer couldn’t have what she wanted.

This would drive me crazy. It especially drove me crazy if it involved something very specific that had been thoroughly discussed in the training I provided to all staff members before putting them in front of customers.

Helicoptering into a situation is often totally disruptive in the moment and terrible for employee morale in the long term.

There were so many times I wanted to jump in and muscle my way through a problem in service — and in the early years, I was quick to do so. But as I grew as a business owner, I learned a valuable lesson: Helicoptering into a situation is often totally disruptive in the moment and terrible for employee morale in the long term.

Discovering when you should make an immediate change in an ongoing operation versus when you should bite your tongue and give feedback to a worker later is one of the most important management skills you can build as a business owner.

Urgency conveys a lot of importance, of course. For years, my instinct was to address what I saw as a misstep the split second it happened. If a customer asked for something off the menu, and the employee said, “We don’t have that,” when we could have made it for them, I might loom over the worker’s shoulder and correct them, saying, “Actually, that’s fine — we can do that.”

In particular, I hate when employees use the word no. I think it brings negative energy to a customer interaction, and there are plenty of other ways to provide information—by saying, for example, “Chef recommends you use the peanut dipping sauce instead of a wasabi sauce” — the unstated fact being that it made the kitchen faster as well. Whenever I heard the word no, I had a tendency to burst into the conversation with an energetic description of why the real answer was more complicated than that. Workers looked at me as if I were trampling them, while customers were merely confused that the two-way conversation had become an awkward thrupple.

Taking a step back

Though well-intentioned, my overly active managing had a counterproductive effect that was obvious to everyone but me. I was the parent correcting the child; the stern teacher shushing the class. And in trying to nip a problem in the bud, I could potentially throw off the entire rhythm of an afternoon shift. Depending on the worker, he might be flustered and lose confidence, undermining the point of our training, which was to give staff the knowledge they needed to be effective. Alternatively, an employee might be conditioned by the experience to think that the best way to proceed was to ask me a question every single time a new situation came up. In either scenario, time was wasted, meaning that the rest of the kitchen staff was less efficient than it might otherwise be, while the line of customers grew longer and longer. I was also bogged down by tasks that were important but not a great use of my time. Eventually, my then-business partner David sat me down and told me in no uncertain terms that inserting myself in the middle of the machine that was a kitchen serving 150 tickets per hour was an incredibly stupid move.

Still, as an owner, when you see something, you want (and need!) to say something. So, how should you handle that?

While it’s common to have a pre-shift meeting in the food and beverage industry, there was rarely a post-shift meeting, and never for a fast-casual restaurant. I instituted a policy of having a shift wrap-up with every worker and built up a culture of constantly sharing notes about service. If I was near the register or out in the dining room and saw that something was amiss, I would say to the employee, “Hey, do me a favor and remind me that I want to talk about this moment at shift wrap-up.”

The comment itself suggested to the worker that something might be off (although I would say the same thing when a worker did something worthy of praise). When we got to shift wrap-up, I would ask them, “Now, tell me what happened again?” I often feigned no memory of the actual moment.

Usually, the employee could correctly diagnose the mishap — maybe they got caught and didn’t restock the condiment area, or they were short with a customer during a rush, or they forgot how to explain an allergen on the menu. In most cases, the employee was able to accurately describe the problem and offer a solution for how they would avoid it in the future. In today’s retail and dining staff environment, when so many employees have staggered hours, shift wrap-up can feel like a luxury. But to me, it’s an essential way to build your team’s customer-service muscle while ensuring that the place runs as smoothly as possible.

Sometimes you just need to intervene

There are times, of course, when you should interject. If a customer is becoming abusive to the staff, you should take over. If an employee is struggling to such an extent that your whole operation might be dramatically slowed down, then it’s incumbent on you to step in and make a change — maybe open a second register or give them a quick break while you or another team member pinch hits. If the customer experience is in serious jeopardy, change what you can as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, however, that should be the exception and not the rule. What you want is a culture where staffers feel like someone in authority is watching out for them and will help them improve at the end — rather than a culture where they think someone is watching over them and ready to jump in at a moment’s notice, either to rebuke them or save them when things go wobbly.

Striking this balance is not easy, and it feels bad when you get it wrong. In every business owner’s mind and heart, there’s a constant battle of “should I just do it myself, or should I truly rely on my staff to get it done?” Sometimes you’ll sometimes regret stepping in too soon, and other times you’ll regret waiting too long to fix a problem.

That’s all okay and to be expected. Your business will never be flawless, no matter how hard you try. But if you believe in your staff and create a system for constant improvement, your business can achieve something that is both realistic and powerful—it can become truly resilient and strong enough to weather any customer-service mishap that comes your way. Remember: It’s a long game.

Now Principal at Servicelab.co a customer service and retail consulting firm based in LA. Former Owner/Founder of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar(s) & Trucks NYC.

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