A few years after I started as an agent, it dawned on me. Everything I ever needed to know in my career, I learned during the five years I was a waitress. Forget the time I spent in college or the internships and ad agency positions I held. What mattered most was learning to manage angry chefs and picky patrons. It was realizing that tipping out the bartenders, hostesses and bus boys well led to them servicing my tables quickest. It was experiencing that going that extra mile would indeed pay off.
If you were a waitress, I am sure you are smiling at the similarities. If you weren’t, here is what I learned.
1) I learned to be an effective translator.
I have always said that part of being a successful agent is being able to translate different languages. By that I mean recognizing that there are many different players and they are all coming at the project from different points of view. As I said in my Open Letter to an Art Buyer, “ …agents are always working to translate art buyer language to photographer and producer language and then translate what gets said back again to art buyer language. “ To get everyone on the same page is not always an easy task and sometimes requires finesse and sensitivity on everyone’s part.
I learned this skill as a waitress. Countless times, patrons asked for special requests that I knew the chef would not like. But in order for my guests to be happy and want to come back, I needed to think of a sensitive way to ask for the change. I learned to respect the chef’s vision and recognize that it was compromised by the change – no matter how small it was. By learning to speak the chef’s language I was able to honor the patron’s requests more often than not while at the same time not upset the balance of the kitchen. No easy task.
2) I learned to multitask
Another invaluable skill that I learned from waitressing was multitasking. I would need to juggle up to 10 tables at a time sometimes – all different personalities, different needs and different timing. This is not unlike being an agent. We are often juggling multiple projects and different stages for various photographers and clients. And, just like the tables, they all have different personalities, different needs and different timing. Whether it was waitressing or estimating, I strive to find the most efficient way to manage the group so as to still provide them with the highest level of customer service I can without ending up “in the weeds.” Being overwhelmed or falling behind is not a preferred place to be – whether you are a waitress or an agent.
3) I learned patience.
It never failed. On every shift there was something that tested my patience. Whether it was the woman who sent her meal back multiple times, the children who spilled their drinks and dropped half of their meal on the floor, or chef who yelled at me for some new random reason, the opportunity for me to practice patience always presented itself. I learned to listen, smile and keep moving. No matter who they were, the patrons, managers, or staff, I learned that having a thick skin and taking a deep breath went a long way. And, similarly, any artist’s agent will tell you, there are many opportunities to breathe deeply every day.
4) I learned the power of expectation management
When the kitchen was running behind or I was “in the weeds” I made sure to tell the guests. Trying to hide the fact that service was going to be subpar was never a good idea. People appreciated hearing up front what was happening and often were sympathetic. If they knew there food was going to take longer than expected they were then in control of if they stayed and ordered another drink or left and ate elsewhere. Most people stayed.
As an agent, every aspect of our job involves expectation management. The more information we can share about a situation and the more preconceptions we can address up front, the better the experience is for everyone.
3) I learned that if I focused on working hard I didn’t need to focus on making money.
Understanding that if I focused on working hard and not on how much money I was making was a very important lesson. I realized early on that if I concentrated on doing my best than the financial rewards were ample. This idea became the mission of my current business.
Any waitress will tell you, the tables that tip the best, are the ones that received the best service. I once got my biggest tip ever on a table whose dinner took over an hour long to arrive. My secret was honesty, empathy and good communication; skills I use everyday in my job as an agent. That, and a round of desserts for the table.
I was reminded of the power of this point just recently when I took my family to dinner at Francis Ford Coppola’s restaurant, Rustica. I ordered fish and when it arrived at the table, the bees swarmed. It was no fault of the waitress and I fully knew the risks when I ordered it since we were sitting outside. So, when I asked her to take it away (truly it was a huge distraction!) she did so right away and brought me something less appealing for the bees. When she brought our check at the end, she told me that she had removed my two glasses of wine and did not charge me for my new entrée. Because I had not expressed any distress to her over the issue, I was so surprised. Her response was, “That is not how Francis would have it done. We want your experience to always be positive – even if we can’t control it.”
4) I learned that it takes a village.
Last but certainly not least was learning the power of a team. There is no way any waitress could provide a good dining experience without the support of a strong team. The bartenders, bus boys and hostesses were valuable parts of the team and I made sure they knew they were appreciated. When others on the wait staff were downplaying their tips for the night and short changing the crew, I was making sure they felt valued. My tips to them always exceeded the percentage they expected. In return, my drinks always came up first, my tables were always bussed in time for a new seating and the hostesses looked to me first for extra tables or better sections. By valuing their contribution, they worked that much harder with me to make the customer’s experience positive.
I look back on my experience as a waitress often and fondly. It allowed me a financial independence I would not have ever been able to achieve at that age in my life. It taught me the value of client service and being part of a team. And just as importantly, it taught me to respect creativity – no matter what form.
I joke that the only people I could ever hire would have to have been a waiter or waitress at some point in their life. If not, how then would they ever know how to speak our language?
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