Lots of people have been sharing their #firstsevenjobs on Twitter recently, so I thought I'd chip in. I initially started with short stints working as a babysitter (not my thing), helping in a bakery (fattening) and selling snow cones at the state fair (fun).
My sales career really kicked off, however, when I landed a job as a server at Uncle John's Pancake House. Three restaurants and seven years later, I capped off my waitressing career at the Ground Round. (Yes, that's me on the left. It was on the front page of our local newspaper when I was 21 years old.)
Being a waitress taught me so many things about sales (and myself) that still impact me today.
On a macro level, I discovered that I loved having some control over my income. While my friends slogged away at their minimum wage jobs, each day I was motivated to do my best—because it made a difference.
After I heard an interview with author & UCLA professor Mike Rose on The Intelligence of All Kinds Of Work (in which he references the intelligence of a waitress), I was inspired to think about what I'd learned during my serving career.
Here are 7 key skills I developed at this very demanding job:
1. Constant Prioritization
When you're working busy shifts, it's easy to feel frazzled. To be successful as a server, I had to constantly assess which tables needed my immediate attention and which could wait. And, rather than just ignore my lower priority tables, I had to let them know that I saw their need and would be with them shortly. But priorities were constantly shifting. Someone's order was ready. A kid spilled their milk. The steak was overdone. I was constantly shuffling thing around in my mind, trying to figure out what needed to be tackled first.
2. Grouping Like Activities
One of the best ways to maximize time is to combine similar activities. Every trip to the bar involved picking up the newly-ordered drinks, and preparing any refills that I anticipated coming. Rather than bringing a new basket of peanuts to just one table, I'd replace other half-empty baskets concurrently. My focus was on saving steps, and serving faster.
3. Upselling & Cross-Sellling
To increase the average order size (and hopefully, tips), it helps to suggest options. Perhaps the customer would like to start with that tasty appetizer? How about a glass of wine with their meal? Or, maybe they've saved room for that scrumptious dessert? No one ever got mad at when I offered these additional items. Many took me up on these suggestions. I discovered also that the quality of my descriptions impacted people's choices.
4. Observation & Communication Skills
People's expectation of their server varied wildly. I learned to quickly gauge what they wanted from me. Friendly? I could do that. Flirty? I could do that. Speedy? I could do that. Invisible? Again, I was capable of that too. To keep them happy and get the best tips, I become what my customers needed me to be. After all, this was their dining experience.
5. Success is a Team Sport
At first, I thought my success was 100% contingent on me. But soon I realized that I needed all the help I could get from the bartenders, cooks, hostesses, busboys, other servers and my manager. I learned to offer assistance whenever I could. And, to treat everyone with respect—even if they drove me crazy. If you didn't, the crankiest customers would get seated in your section, your food orders would get misplaced and your drinks would take forever to arrive.
6. Appreciate Diversity
While working in restaurants, I got to know people whose background and aspirations were polar opposites of mine. We talked, we laughed, we shared stories, we partied and we helped each other. This experience opened my eyes to the humanity in all of us. I think, in today's polarized world, this was even more important.
7. End of Day Routines
In the last hour of each shift, servers were expected to refill salt and pepper shakers, wrap the silverware together, clean the work stations and more. That ensured that whenever you came to work, everything you needed to do your job was ready to go—the perfect way to start the next day.
I really loved being a server. It was challenging, hard work. But most importantly, it taught me transferable skills that I've used to be more successful in sales.