Techniques

How to Hear Your Customers: 5 Tips from High-Volume Pros

A female bartender pouring wine for many people at a bar.
Despite the chaos and volume of a crowded bar, you can make customers feel taken care of by acknowledging that you see them with a simple nod or smile. Photo via iStock/ Deborah Cheramie.

A bartender has a million roles, but there’s one duty at the center of it all: simply listening to your customers. And as anyone who has worked a music venue, nightclub or even just an unexpectedly crowded Tuesday night shift can attest, it’s incredibly difficult to hear drink orders over the relentless din of flirting, Avicii’s latest banger and people yelling for Fireball shots. We talked to experts — from bartenders to lip readers — for their tips on how to better hear and understand your customers.

1. Become an Expert at Nonverbal Communication

It’s likely that you already communicate nonverbally with your customers: you’ll smile at someone to acknowledge when they come in, or point to the person next in line. In particularly loud environments, try to communicate as much as you can without speaking — it’s easier than yelling “what?” at each other for five minutes.

“Something that I use that’s easy are hand signs, pointing at a cup, giving them the ‘what kind?’ and ‘on the rocks?’” said Juan Tapia, head bartender at Miami’s Hyde Arena and Hyde Beach. Tapia has gestures communicating everything from “spicy” to “shots?” (He’ll pretend the crook of his hand is a shot glass and throw it back.)

There are plenty of ways to adapt your common orders and questions: hold up a glass to confirm that they want a mixed drink. One or two fingers to determine if it’s a single or double. Mime “shaken?” or “stirred?” Point to a type of vodka, then flash a thumbs up to confirm. Get creative, and think back to the last time you played charades. And if all else fails, you can pull out a menu and have the person point to what they want.

2. Try This One Weird Trick

A few years ago, Tapia was working at a nightclub, trying desperately to understand a customer. They yelled questions at each other to no avail. She reached over and gently pressed on his tragus — the flap connecting your ear and face — and suddenly he was able to hear her clearly. Now, he uses the trick regularly.

“You press down on your ear like you’re going underwater, so you muffle a lot of the highs and the mids of music and you can hear the person speaking,” said Tapia. “It’s a lot easier to hear. It sounds weird, but if you actually do it, it’s kind of baffling how much better it is.”

3. Attempt Lip Reading

Fluent lip reading is a hard skill to learn — it requires years of intensive training. But by simply observing your customers, you can easily start to recognize the mouth shapes of common orders. Linda Kessler, a speech-language pathologist, says that lip reading is a natural choice for bartenders since they’re working with a relatively small set of words and variables (drink orders). Kessler recommends researching or watching a video of how consonant sounds look on the mouth, making a list of common drink orders and then practicing to connect the two.

“M and P and D are the same on the lips. If they know that — if they know what consonants look like other consonants — it will help them understand what the person is saying,” said Kessler. “They can make a list of the drinks that are usually ordered in their bar [and] they can begin to very easily associate the look of that drink and terms like ‘on the rocks’ on the mouth.”

“For example, 'mimosa' is an extremely visual word,” Kessler continued. “You can see every sound in that word. So if somebody had learned what an M looked like, what an S looked like, they’d be much more easily able to get it then just depending on listening alone.”

It’s also vital to see the beginning of a sentence or word when trying to lip read, said Consuelo Gonzalez, professional medical and forensic lip reader.

“In a loud dark bar, even a professional lip reader would have a hard time. One tip would be for the bartender to be proactive in asking the customer what she or he would like, rather than waiting for the customer to call out what they want or try to get the bartender's attention, “ Gonzalez said in an email. “It is important to see the very beginning of a sentence, so if the bartender is reacting to something, rather than soliciting an order, it might be less successful.”

4. Make It Easy for Customers

On the other hand, make it as easy as possible for customers to understand you. If it’s loud, strip your sentences down to keywords and slowly enunciate every word like you’re in a seventh grade French class. (“VOD-KA?”)

Just remember, Tapia says, to always preface it with a smile — no one wants to feel like they’re being condescended to: “Try, in a nice way, without making them look dumb, slowly mouthing out the word.” Make sure you’re not doing it in a rude way, he added. “Sometimes when people are drinking, they can take things the wrong way.”

And while it’s easy to get distracted, try to focus your attention solely on the person in front of you. “Sometimes it’s so loud in there, there’s 15 people waving you down, yelling out their orders. You have to have tunnel vision with the person,” Tapia said. “You’re with that one client, you’re looking at them and trying to just focus with them, not with anybody else.”

5. Take Care of Your Hearing

Working in a loud environment day after day is extremely bad for your ears. “If you have to shout to be able to be heard, then you’re in a noise-hazardous environment,” said Kathy Peck, executive director of Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers, a nonprofit that works to educate people on the dangers of loud music exposure. HEAR works with musicians — from symphony members to Metallica — and Peck, a former bartender, says that that bartenders are equally at risk for noise induced hearing loss.

“It’s good to invest in some good hearing protection. Sometimes [hearing loss] can just be one time from loud noises, but it’s [also] over time,” said Peck. “Repeated exposure does wear down the hair cells in the inner ear. Young bartenders don’t realize what they’re trading off. [Protection] really does make a difference.”

And don’t worry that you won’t be able to do your do job, said Peck. “You can hear clearer. [Earplugs] cut all the background noise so you’re able to hear normal conversation, still hear people talk, hear drink orders.”

HEAR offers custom-made ear pieces that last for years, but they also recommend the commonly available Mack’s earplugs for a quick fix. On Amazon, you can get a tub of 50 foam earplugs for less than $10, and also snag a set of their more comfortable silicone earplugs — a small price to pay for protecting your hearing for years to come.

Shelby Pope is a writer in Berkeley.

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