Sunday, October 9, 2016

Learning to Serve; Serving to Learn

One of Alex’s current favorite activities is going out to eat at restaurants. Because his behavior has improved significantly over the past few years, he has been able to enjoy these outings at least once or twice a week. In fact, we use dinners at restaurants as a reward for good behavior, and this offer motivates him to be cooperative. He doesn’t need anything fancy; he’s happy with any family-style restaurant whose menu offers food he can eat on his gluten-free and dairy-free diet. Fortunately, most of the places we take him offer excellent service. Moreover, he’s become such a regular in some restaurants that they know him by name and remember that root beer is his beverage of choice.

On Friday and Saturday we had completely contrasting experiences at two different family restaurants we visited. At our favorite Friday spot, the waitress greeted Alex by name, kept his glass filled with root beer, and provided the usual excellent service this restaurant consistently offers. However, on Saturday, the waitress mixed up Alex’s root beer with my Coca-Cola, forgot to bring one of Ed’s side dishes, and had to be asked repeatedly for beverage refills, despite the signs at every booth proclaiming “Endless Refills” on soft drinks. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the poor customer service was that she really didn’t seem to care, nor did she apologize for keeping people waiting. Needless to say, we will probably cross that restaurant off our list of possible places to take Alex.

Perhaps I’m more observant about how restaurants treat their customers because I worked as a waitress at a well-run family-owned restaurant all the while I was in college. The owners expected their staff to give the best service to customers and trained us well. Looking back on that experience, I realize that many of the skills I learned then in my late teens and early twenties have proven valuable to my life as an autism mom.

First, keep people happy and updated while they wait. As a waitress, that means keeping coffee warm with frequent top-offs from the coffee pot and refilling soft drinks as needed. In addition, if the kitchen is taking a long time to prepare the food, reassure the customers that their meal should be ready soon. As an autism mom, I know that keeping Alex happy while he waits someplace often involves a snack and a beverage, as well as distracting him with conversation or something to read, and reassuring him that the wait won’t be much longer.

Next, check in frequently to make sure things are going well, but don’t hover. A good waitress makes sure the order is correct when delivering the food, but still returns a few minutes later in case the customers realize they need something, such as steak sauce. Throughout the meal, the waitress should be available in the vicinity of where the customers are seated, but without making them feel that they are being stalked. As an autism mom, I have to keep an eye on what Alex is doing and be available if he needs my assistance, but I also have to let him do things on his own. When he’s had enough of my presence, he’s not above letting me know, as he used to tell me, “Mommy is leaving now!”

While attending to needs, don’t waste steps. A waitress with a coffee pot in hand should offer to refill all of the customers’ coffee cups instead of running back and forth between the coffeemaker and the booths. We were taught never to have empty hands. If we weren’t carrying food or a coffee pot, we were to be picking up menus or emptied plates. This efficient busyness was terrific training for my life as an autism mom, where I multitask most of the day to keep things rolling smoothly for Alex.

In addition, as a waitress I was taught to remain calm, even during the busiest times. Invariably, on hectic weekend evenings, the food for several tables would be ready at the same time, yet my job was to take the time to give the best service while making sure the food didn’t sit too long before being taken to the tables. At times, I felt overwhelmed and wanted to cry or go running out of the restaurant; however, I could not get rattled. Similarly, my role as an autism mom requires me to be able to juggle several things at the same time while never letting Alex know I’m under stress. If he senses that I’m upset, he will become upset, too, so it’s to my advantage to stay calm at all times.

Another lesson I learned as a waitress was the old adage, “The customer is always right.” Even when the customer was actually wrong, we were instructed to keep them happy. Occasionally, that meant taking unfair accusations from people, but that was also good training for my later life as an autism mom. During meltdowns when Alex has falsely accused me of making a mistake or saying something I didn’t say, I know to let him think he’s right until he calms down.

Probably the most valuable thing I learned as a waitress was to apologize, even if it was not my fault. Everyone makes mistakes, and the ability to admit the errors and to say, “I’m sorry” usually helps smooth a situation.  I found that most customers quickly got over their upset when I genuinely apologized for something that went wrong. As an autism mom, I apologize often to Alex: “I’m sorry, but I can’t hear you.” or “I’m sorry we don't have any; we need to go to the store to get more.” or “I’m sorry that you’re not happy.”  In turn, Alex has learned to admit his mistakes and to apologize quickly. Apologizing shows an acknowledgement of the other person’s frustration, disappointment, or anger and strives to make the situation better. Unfortunately, apologizing seems to be a social nicety that some people lack, but I’m pleased that Alex realizes the value of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Looking back on my experiences of waiting tables, I recognize that God used my first job as training for the most important job of my life: being Alex’s mom. Although being able to balance dinner for four on my arms without a tray is a pretty neat trick, what’s more impressive is how God knew what I would need years later and allowed me to learn in unexpected ways. By learning to serve others, to multitask, to remain calm under pressure, and to deal with people who are upset, I was better prepared for the challenges of parenting a child with autism. The longer I live and the more I experience, I realize that everything has a purpose, even when we don’t see it at the time.

“God has given each of you a gift from His great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another.” I Peter 4:10

No comments: