“No food from other establishments, bare feet or firearms allowed.” The sign outside Cape Town’s Quay Four restaurant made me wonder if we’d do better somewhere else, but it looked a nice place. It sat by the famous Victoria and Alfred waterfront, where the lights were starting to gleam against the dark water as the swift African sunset began. We climbed the stairs, were made welcome and had a delightful evening. We ate only what they served, and kept our shoes and socks on. There was no gunplay.
The time with my beautiful wife, the strange sign, the views and the good food all made it memorable. But there’s another reason – the brilliant way the staff looked after us. The customer service was perfect. How?
Part of the answer is that there was no sense of being patronised or treated as the passing trade we were. When we left two or more hours later, the sun had set and the streets were dark. A waitress showed us to a taxi rank about 100 yards away to make sure we were safe. Great service.
The other part of the answer is about how the staff communicated with us. When the “waitrons” (the restaurant’s word) talked to us, they looked as if they wanted to be understood. They smiled pleasantly at the right times, listened to what we said, and gave helpful and relevant replies. They asked useful questions and made good menu suggestions. They spoke concisely and to the point, but never tersely. They read us well, knew when to speak and when to stop, and struck a nice balance between courtesy and informality. They were happy to talk and make sure we enjoyed our evening, but were never familiar or intrusive. Their courtesy and efficiency were exemplary, and they were never obsequious.
This all applies pretty well to how we write – perhaps even the smiling. Our readers must come first, of course. But getting a helpful, effective tone is never easy. Readers can soon smell insincerity, intended or not. “Let me assure you that…” and “It would be appreciated if…” can kill a writer/reader relationship in the time it takes to read them. Not getting to the point, especially in response to a complaint, soon looks suspicious. Vague words and phrases such as “…need to address this…” and “we have issues around this” confuse and irritate. And the needless negative in that stock UK closing line, “Please do not hesitate to contact me should you require further information”, isn’t a winning invitation to get in touch.
When we write, we need to imagine our reader. They don’t want subservience and false courtesy, but clear information, crisply and courteously given. Straightforward professional language, confidently free of flannel and jargon, goes a long way towards creating a strong business relationship between reader, writer and their organisations. That relationship, founded on civility and communication, is the best basis for the best results.