How Being a Food Service Worker Trained Me for Networking on LinkedIn

I’ve received comments on how my LinkedIn profile is full of several different jobs. The funny thing is, only a fraction of my experiences are posted on my profile. Some of the jobs not listed include my work in restaurants, catering, and dining. Every experience teaches you something and working in food service taught me a lot about how to treat people. Lessons I still use today in how I move on LinkedIn.

Smile.

Look people in the eye.

Say their name.

Treat everyone like a somebody. When I worked as a cashier at Five Guys, we received bonuses if mystery shoppers rated us 100. You never knew who those shoppers were so ideally you gave each and every customer who came through those doors 5-star, white glove end-to-end service. I was on a train one evening and saw a woman crying pretty heavily. I let it happen for a few stops but wanted to make sure she didn’t need any help before I got off. That woman turned out to be an accomplished Harvard professor in her day clothes. I’m not saying that to claim that a person’s social status the need for human empathy any stronger but to underscore that we’re all just people. There’s no reason why our background or “use” to others should influence how well we’re treated. You treat the janitorial staff the way you treat the executive staff because you care more about people than what you think that they can do for you. I send personalized connection request with the person’s name, triple checking that I spelled it correctly because names matter to me and to many. I smile on video calls even if I may not like the content of the call so people know that I’m receptive to them. To be frank, I’m still adjusting to “looking people in the eye” via video call because staring into the lens is not it for me. Nonetheless, you get the point: address people like they matter; because they do.

The customer is always right.

No matter how hard criticism is to hear, take responsibility for it nonetheless. I may not agree with the methods of delivery but as a restaurant worker, it is my job to keep every diner happy. At times, the demands are beyond my scope and need to be escalated to a manager. Most often, I just need to try and go the extra mile or at the very least, try to. You’d be surprised how many customers just want to feel genuinely listened to and cared about.

“How was your meal today?”

Actively seek feedback. It’s bad when feedback doesn’t come out until it’s on Yelp or Google. While people are still in your restaurant, address them to see how the service was. 1) If it’s good, you’ll get some great compliments. 2) if it’s bad, you still have them in your midst to resolve and make up for the problem in that moment. I actively seek feedback on my own LinkedIn by responding to comments on my posts, messaging connections to provide feedback that they have now and in the future, and by analyzing how my posts perform to extrapolate how well I’m providing for my audience’s needs.

“Let me know if I can do anything else for you.”

One pat on the back is not the end of the road. In user experience design, you consider the user journey from before they reach your product, as they interact with it, and after they’ve used it. In restaurants, the service doesn’t end with the meal. It carries into dessert, drinks, the check, the farewell greeting by the hostess on your way out the door, and beyond. On LinkedIn, I try not to let my relationships stop at the ‘coffee chat’ or interview. I want to keep in touch with people and continue to provide value even after that interaction ends. One way I do that is by literally asking how I can support them moving forward. Whether they ask or not, I also support people’s content because I know how vulnerable one can be in opening themselves up to making content in the first place. People often expand to meet your expectations and beliefs about them. This is a dangerous limitation but also a great opportunity depending on how you use it. I try my best to uplift others to the potential I see in them and even beyond that. Even if I can’t be of service in their endeavors, I can at least be of excellent encouragement.

It’s never about you. Bad days happen and great days are happenstance.

User design and Product Management is about empathy. I learned my empathy not from textbooks on user research but from working fast food, formal event catering, and family restaurant service. Part of that real world learning on empathy was learning not to take interactions personally. Customers yell at you for things you have no control over and aren’t at fault for. You might think Karen is being completely irrational about a strawberry lemonade but if you zoom out, you’ll realize that it’s not really about the drink; it’s about wanting to unwind and feeling like you have no control over even simple things at the end of your day while the rest of your life spirals in a way that you can’t handle. I can’t be mad at someone being mad at me when I have the heart to understand that what they’re experiencing isn’t about me in the first place. All I can do in that moment is make the service better and no more. I must accept my limitations in being able to address others’ frustrations. Along that vein, some customers just don’t like the way I look, dress, or speak. I can’t do anything about that but hope that they enjoy their meal without letting their tragic hatred towards me get in the way of their double cheeseburger and onion fries. I imagine working corporate America will have some similar encounters where I’ll need to learn to surf the biases and projections of clients, coworkers, and customers without giving it the opportunity to diminish the quality of my work.

It’s not about the money.

My motivations for working in food service were not money; there are better paying jobs. I enjoyed the challenge of working with different coworkers, various bosses and their management styles, and many, many types of customers and requests.

As someone with RBF, being in an industry that requires service with a smile pushed me to grow. It took years! In 2016, I was almost fired for not going out of my way enough to smile at everyone. In 2018, my boss sat me down and told me that I have to learn to leave home at the door and not let emotions enter my work. I thought those employers were being harsh and forcing me to be fake and not myself. As someone whose identity is about being Authentic, it felt like a challenge to my entire way of being. However, I realized that it was more about over-communicating my internal state. It wasn’t fake because I do care about other people. On the contrary, my disposition wasn’t telling them so. In 2019, my cousin told me how I scare my aunts when I respond unenthusiastically to their questions.

For me, I was simply addressing the question asked; nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, people tend to read into our behaviors and overevaluate for meaning. I find this quite frustrating because I’d like to believe that since I communicate what I need to do there’s no need to read into my actions; I’m very genuine so what I say is what I say. However, I’ve learned to take what I say and wrap it in a bow to also manage how it’s interpreted.

I derived greater meaning out of wrapping burritos and cleaning tables by making it about serving the people I work with rather than trying to find meaning in the labor itself. Similarly, my interactions on LinkedIn aren’t trying to connive a pyramid scheme or land a job at a random company. I’ve connected with AMAZING people and learning their stories is way more important to me than learning their salaries. Previously, I wrote an article on how I don’t get burnt out previously. I think something that I hadn’t addressed is that my intentions are genuine which leads to my actions being more sustainable due to their honest motivations. LinkedIn isn’t transactional for me; I’m not connecting with you for a referral only or to use you to get to someone else. Surprisingly, because of wanting to simply get to know others, the referrals arise from other people’s unsolicited inspiration which I really appreciate. My goal is long term: to support others as I learn myself. Even if land a 6-figure offer tomorrow, I’ll still be on LinkedIn all day cheering on my peers and sharing reflections on my journey as well.

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Product manager | Leading with empathy.

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Phyllis

Phyllis

Product manager | Leading with empathy.

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