Ideas in Client Service: Lessons from the Union Square Café

By Monique LaForce
Corporate Intelligence Analyst
Steptoe & Johnson LLP

Famed New York City restaurant owner Danny Meyer is widely considered to be an expert in creating memorable dining experiences for guests and providing “engaging hospitality”[1] in all his restaurants, which range in style and formality from white linen to BBQ, chichi Indian fare to half smokes.  Mr. Meyer’s first restaurant, Union Square Café, has been given Zagat Survey’s #1 ranking as New York’s Most Popular Restaurant eight times.  His restaurant Eleven Madison Park was this year honored with the James Beard award for outstanding restaurant.

In 2006, Mr. Meyers published a successful tome on bringing hospitality principles to business.  With the announcement that Mr. Meyer is invading neighboring DC (with the opening of one of his Shake Shack diners and the procurement of a Nats Park concession license), the time seemed ripe to examine the applicability of Mr. Meyer’s philosophy of hospitality to the law library.

Several of Mr. Meyer’s observations about life in the demanding and fast-paced world of New York cuisine are applicable to law librarians.

  1. Service is a monolog . . . [h]ospitality is a dialog.”  As librarians, a significant focus of our interactions with our clients is providing excellent customer service.  Perhaps occasionally we should stop to consider whether we are providing excellent hospitality.   Are we performing an engaged reference interview, or simply responding in a rote way to whatever the patron asks?  Are we seeking feedback from our clients as to what research services they need or are lacking?  Lore has it that there was a transactional lawyer who, when he realized that one of his major clients was seeking counsel from another law firm on some deals, asked the client why it was hiring the other firm.  Turns out, the competing firm wasn’t any better at providing transactional advice, but had better office supplies in its conference rooms. Hospitality ruled the day.
  2. Before you go to market, know what you are selling and to whom.  It’s a very rare business that can (or should) be all things to all people.”  As information archivists, retrievers, and analyzers, we as librarians may try to become all things to all people.  Sometimes, it might be beneficial to step back and examine a request, procedure or purchase in an effort to determine:  Is this the appropriate department to solve this problem?  Are the resources necessary to solve this problem appropriately spent in solving it?  If we add a particular service or database, is it beneficial to a large or important contingent of stakeholders?  Hard as it is for us to swallow, it is okay to say no sometimes.  Albeit in a hospitable way.
  3. People who aren’t alerted in advance about a decision that will affect them may become angry and hurt.”  A solid principle of hospitality is good communication – making stakeholders feel they are part of a process, not hapless victims of a decision thrust upon them.  For example, many electronic database providers have recently changed their interfaces and lexicons – some drastically.  Have we made our clients aware of these changes in advance? Provided learning opportunities?  Educated ourselves as to all the intimate details of these changes so as to provide counsel to our patrons during the change-over and after?   Change is the ultimate constant, so there are opportunities for us to welcome stakeholders into the decision-making process on an almost daily basis.
  4. The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.”  Mr. Meyer provides multiple examples of mistakes that have happened in his restaurants – dinners spilled on designer ensembles, floral arrangements catching fire, guests passing out in dining rooms.  What sets a great restaurant apart from a good one, Mr. Meyer argues, is its ability to “write a great last chapter.”  Mishaps will forever go hand-in-hand with running any service organization – how we handle them determines whether one can “earn a comeback victory with the guest.”  How do we handle a missed deadline?  A response to a research request that lacked critical information when delivered?  A mistaken quote to a client on the cost of performing a search in a database?  How we follow-up with our patrons will determine whether our customers give us “a chance to earn back their favor.”

Mr. Meyer has built his entire restaurant empire on a philosophy of hospitality, generosity to the customer, and dedication to a great dining experience.  As law librarians, we can adapt these lessons to flavor our interactions with our clients to provide a superlative research experience.

[1] Quotations are drawn from Danny Meyer’s 2006 New York Times best-seller, “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business” as are the basic ideas of hospitality that appear throughout the article.