At the other end of the spectrum was the service segment in three Certified Sommelier Examinations. In that portion of the exam, students are tested on service mechanics, Champagne service and tray service, along with their ability to answer various questions and make recommendations. As always, student performances were all over the map. More often than not, the make or break was previous experience working in a restaurant. For some, lack of restaurant experience resulted in struggling with basic service mechanics according to MS standards. Others demonstrated good service skills but struggled with answering questions and interacting with the “host,” or examiner at the table.
For many, talking to guests at the table is far from the easiest thing to do. I’ve observed experienced sommeliers in both exam and competition settings fumble for words as if speaking English was a newly acquired hobby. Granted, a lot of it is probably due to nerves. But lack of any comfort level with communicating with guests at the table—so-called soft skills–can be a huge challenge. How can a student—or a professional—acquire these skills that will help in creating a great hospitality experience for the guest? Here are some strategies that might help.
Soft skills can be broken down into several facets: attitude, demeanor, psycho-geography, establishing rapport, and language patterns.
Attitude: attitude for the sommelier is about being in the role of a server and taking care of the guest. In that context, removing yourself from the equation is absolutely required–regardless of your level of experience. Ultimately, you as the sommelier are the most visible member of your service team and the goal is to set the standard of service for the entire team as well as to create a great hospitality experience for your guests—whether they order wine or not.
Demeanor: is about respect and adaptability; using your considerable knowledge of your entire beverage program to again provide a superlative hospitality experience for the guest–but without dumbing the information down or overwhelming the guest with factoids they simply don’t need to know.
Psycho-geography: literally, how we physically interact with our environment, more specifically other people in our environment. In terms of service, psycho-geography applies to how and where to stand in relation to guests at the table, as well as how to move around the table when serving. Here are points to consider:
- Pay attention to how guests respond to your physical presence at the table in the form of head and eye movements.
- If you’re too close to the table, their heads will tilt slightly (or more) up and back. The pupils of their eyes will also dilate. Not good.
- If you’re not close enough to the table or they can’t hear you, they’ll lean in with their head forward. That’s your cue to move a bit closer to the table. A bit closer.
- When placing or removing glassware, avoid reaching across a guest’s space. When serving, also be mindful of where your tray is positioned in relation to guests (as in their head) at the table.
- Sensory acuity: pay attention! Adjust instantly if what you’re doing isn’t working and making the guest uncomfortable.
Side out: this is important. Be aware of where you’re standing when talking to a guest at the table. Avoid standing directly in front of someone you’re speaking to. If at all possible, stand slightly to the side. Why? Because if you’re using effective language, the person you’re speaking to will be making images in their head in response to what you’re saying. If you’re directly in front of them, you will be standing, in a manner of speaking, right in the middle of their internal IMAX Theater. Standing just to the side also helps in establishing rapport with the guest. More on that in a moment.
Step back: when opening a bottle—especially a bottle of sparkling wine, it’s imperative to take a step back from the table for the sake of safety.
Establishing rapport: can be defined as quickly making a connection with someone. In regards to being a sommelier, it means matching the pace, volume, and even tonality of the person with whom you’re speaking.
I once heard it said that a person tends to speak at the same rate as they think. If that’s true, it’s even more important to match the pace of someone’s speech. Mind you, this could be a challenge. Most restaurants are incredibly noisy and it’s difficult to be heard over the din. But with a bit of practice, it can become second nature and a valuable communication tool.
Language matters. It’s not only what you say to someone at the table, it’s how you say it. Successful communication with a guest presupposes you’ve established some sort of rapport with them and then can easily, as in conversationally, ask the right questions to find out their wine likes, dislikes, and other important information–all as elegantly as possible. Active listening on your part is a given. From there, it’s about suggesting and selling the most appropriate wines/beverages. Here are several quick language strategies to help do just that.
Matching Sensory Language
Sounds complicated, but it’s quite simple. People will tend to represent their dominant internal sense or representational system in casual conversation. By that, I mean visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Most people—as in over 90% of the human race–are visually dominant internally in that they think in pictures and movies. No surprise that in conversation they tend to use words and phrases that are visual. For example:
“That looks good to me.”
“I see what you’re saying.”
If auditory tends to be dominant internally for someone, they might say:
“I hear what you’re mean.”
“That sounds OK to me.”
Finally, if a person tends towards kinesthetics and feelings, they might say things such as:
“That doesn’t feel right to me.”
“Feels like the way to go.”
Know that any preference for these sensory predicates changes with different contexts. Why the fuss? Because matching sensory language is one of the quickest ways of establishing rapport with anyone. That means you as the sommelier need to pay attention and match your guests’ sensory language as much as you can—but without being overly obvious which will quickly land you in the creepy bus driver file. The opposite, as in responding to a visual statement with an auditory remark, can be jarring to a guest. Mismatch someone’s language consistently even for even a short period of time and you risk losing whatever rapport—and credibility–you’ve established.
When speaking to guests at the table (or anyone for that matter), avoid using the word “but” as a conjunction in your response to whatever was just said. If you respond to a guest saying, “yes, but…” you are, in fact, negating everything they just told you. Instead, use the word “and” between repeating (not parroting) what the guest said and your response to them. It takes practice, but using “and” instead of “but” in your conversational responses is a subtle but very effective strategy.
Modal Operators of Possibility vs. Necessity
Another linguistic term that sounds complicated but is actually straightforward. Modal operators can be defined as “modes of operation.” These operators are words that categorize different kinds of action. There are four categories: desire, possibility, necessity, and choice. These modes/words are important in every day communication but largely go unnoticed because they are very subtle. Two of the modes—possibility and necessity—come into play in the context of a sommelier at the table speaking to guests, especially when it comes to making recommendations and selling.
Whenever we communicate with someone, a choice is linguistically implied–or not. Modal operators of necessity such as “got to,” “have to,” and “must,” all imply pressure, obligation, and no choice. By contrast, modal operators of possibility including the words “possibly,” “can,” “might,” and “would,” imply options, opportunities, and choice for the other party. And with options and choices comes a comfort level for the host who might feel be feeling the pressure of having to choose wine for everyone at the table. Here is a list of some modal operators of possibility vs. necessity:
- Possible vs. Impossible
- Can vs. Can’t
- Will vs. Won’t
- May vs. May not
- Might vs. Might not
- Would vs. Should
- Choose to vs. Choose not to
Here are examples of things that might be said to a guest at the table in the context of modal operators of necessity (MON) vs. modal operators of possibility (MOP). Note that the previous sentence actually includes a modal operator of possibility. Imagine that.
MON: “This is a great wine. You have to try it.”
MOP: “I tasted this wine recently and I think you might really like it.”
MON: “Given what you’ve told me, this wine works best.”
MOP: “Given what you’ve told me, I think this wine would work really well. Would you like to try it?”
MON: “This sparkling wine will go well with all the dishes that have been ordered.”
MOP: “This sparkling wine might go really well with everything you’ve ordered.”
MON: “This wine needs time to open up.”
MOP: “I think you’ll find that with a few minutes in the glass, the wine will open up and be softer.”
As mentioned above, mastering soft skills comes with repetition and a duration of time spent working the floor. There are many things to consider and I suggest working with one or two of the ideas at a time. Trying to incorporate everything at once would be difficult and confusing. Making small changes over a period of time seems to work best.