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Keeping cool when the customer is not

Susan Wood
Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Denny's waitress Olivia Molinari has 26 years of friendly service experience.
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Denny’s waitress Olivia Molinari must have the magic touch in keeping a customer from flying off the handle.

She’s never had a customer blow up at her, but it’s hard to imagine who could with a personality as smooth and even-keeled as a therapist.

The 61-year-old grandmother, who plans on retiring on her birthday in June after 26 years of full-time employment with the restaurant chain, knows how to snuff just about any situation.



“It’s her personality. She just kind of diffuses everything. She’s a mellow person,” Denny’s day manager Faye Brugette said Thursday.

A cool demeanor represents one way of handling any situation that may arise on the front line of customer service. And in a tourism economy, that front line may mean the difference between a return customer or not.



With manufacturing diminishing over the years, California is 80 percent service industry. That’s about the same percentage as Tahoe’s economic reliance on tourism, which has become far more competitive each year.

Sure, delivering exceptional customer service is necessary. But anyone who works in it will say it’s not easy. Molinari recalled the early days of her career at the King City Denny’s, where she worked the graveyard shift.

“They were so busy. They just turned me loose,” she said, taking a load off her feet at a booth. Her biggest challenge is keeping people awake when they pass out on the table.

“They’d order, and then they’re out,” she said, adding she’d stand back and gently touch an arm.

Her answer to dealing with difficult people is simple and comes from having a respectful upbringing in Portland, Ore.

“I’m just nice to them and talk to them. I can tell if that helps them out because some people don’t want to talk,” she said. The cues are their expressions and body language. Reading people may be a part of the job.

The skill seems to run in her family. She said her husband, Albert – who also worked at Denny’s before taking employment at Heavenly Mountain Resort, had a customer in stitches when a fly turned up in his soup.

“And there’s no extra charge for the extra meat,” she recounted him saying at the cash register.

Humor in customer service goes a long way.

“We joke a lot with our clients,” said Denise Burke, who helps to handle 90 units for the Accommodation Station.

Burke has found that balance between lightening up a situation and trying not to devalue a customer’s complaint or needs. And in the business of managing vacation home rentals, there are plenty to go around.

Burke recalled a time when she fielded an early-morning request to get a heater operating correctly. The renter wanted the furnace fixed that night. She recommended they make a fire until a repairman could make a day call.

Solutions and logic are the keys for this veteran. She appealed to their sense of the latter by telling them they’d lose sleep waiting for a repair.

Dayton Hursh, South Shore Motors service manager, has taught himself to refrain from taking his work home with him – especially on a day when someone with a broken-down vehicle has screamed at him. He tries to stay grounded when they insist on him fixing it immediately. The scenario happens about once a month at the local car dealership.

“I try to never sound condescending. The natural instinct is to yell back, but I’ve been trained out of it. I did some soul searching when I’d go home,” he said.

Front counter staffers Laurie Ney and Paula Smothers of John’s Cleaners know the territory and the ways to deal with the raised decibel level for problems ranging from garment stains to shrinkage. They avoid situations like that with honesty – first and foremost.

“We never promise to get it out because they’ll hold us to it. They’re usually not too happy,” Ney said, adding graphite grease from chairlifts seems to appear often.

“Sometimes we get lucky (getting it out). It helps to keep smiling while you’re giving them some hope,” she said, brushing the lint off a sweater.

Hiring the right worker may also be challenging for managers. Jamba Juice Manager Eric Shay said he’d like to see skills like money management, commitment and responsibility stressed early in school, especially since his store hires the young. The hiring models could make a difference in keeping Tahoe customers satisfied.

“It’s a tricky town to hire in. It’s a resort community. People are a lot more laid back,” he said.


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