How the Service Industry Prepares You for Entrepreneurship

Per the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, service industry jobs in America outnumber manufacturing jobs almost 10-to-1.  In 2012, retail and hospitality employees numbered 28.6 million, with that number projected to grow to 31 million (a 10.7% increase) by 2022.  Currently, almost 1-in-10 Americans work a service-based job.

With so many Americans in the service industry, it stands to reason that many of the entrepreneurs of the future are the retail and hospitality workers of today.  All of us at The Bookkeeper have at one point in our lives bussed tables or ran a cash register.  That’s how we know there are several professional skills you develop in the service industry that better prepare you for life as an entrepreneur.

Service industry employees work with a sense of urgency.  Few businesses are more fast-paced than a restaurant.  Everyone, from the front-of-house to the kitchen, knows that tasks have to be completed immediately.  The slightest delay in taking orders or prepping an entree can result in backlogs, unhappy customers, and decreased revenues.  If you get anything resembling “down-time”, you hustle to complete side work and other prep that can help you when you get busy again.

How can you make it work in entrepreneurship?  Former service industry employees know how to keep busy.  You do jobs as they come in, without putting off the more difficult or frustrating tasks.  You are great at maximizing your free time, answering emails or promoting your business on social media in between meetings and assignments.  Clients are often impressed at how quickly you complete projects and respond to their needs.

Working with urgency makes you better at prioritization.  Three days before Christmas, the store is packed, the registers are backed up, three customers are waiting for help finding items, another customer is on phone line 1 while your district manager is waiting on line 2.  What do you do first?

For someone who has never worked retail, this is the sort of nightmare scenario which makes the service industry seem all the more undesirable.  For those of us who have been in this sort of situation, this hypothetical has an easy answer:  Help the customers in the store first, then the customer on the phone, get back to the DM when you can.  There’s no way to please everyone right then, so deal with the immediate areas of need first.

How can you make it work in entrepreneurship?  You learn what fires need to be put out immediately and which ones can smoke a little while longer.  You have an innate knack for putting your to-do list in the perfect order so you can do all you need to while keeping everyone as happy as possible.

You develop customer service skills and a thick skin simultaneously.  It is no secret that employees in the service industry are often treated terribly by customers.  Service industry workers are frequently (sometimes daily) required to withstand being verbally berated, not only without retaliating, but smiling throughout and heartily apologizing afterward (regardless of whether they personally have done anything wrong).  Over time, you get better at both anticipating customers’ needs and moods (thus avoiding such tirades) and letting verbal abuse roll off your back.

How can you make it work in entrepreneurship?  Many small business owners have an incident or two where they face unwarranted criticism, whether it be an unfair Yelp review or bad word-of-mouth from a client fired for non-payment.  Though the initial desire may be to fire back at whoever is spreading lies and gossip about you, this rarely works out well.  (See the Amy’s Baking Company fiasco.)

The better (though less initially satisfying) option is to prove your disparagers wrong with your continued professionalism and exceptional customer service.  By refusing to let others drag you down into the muck, you keep your company’s reputation so sterling that no mud slung can stick to it.

You become prepared for anything. Anyone who has worked in the service industry for even a few months has at least one crazy story, something virtually unbelievable.  I have several, but my favorite remains the customer who became disgruntled when she spilled her alcoholic beverage.

This was not in a restaurant.  It was in a dog grooming salon.

She spilled her drink because she was carrying it in a regular, open-topped glass.  Loose in her purse.

Again, this was an adult woman, and not a toddler.  Concepts like “liquid” and “gravity” should not have been a mystery to her, yet she was shocked and infuriated (at me) that her mojito had tipped over and was soaking through the bottom of her very expensive shoulder bag.

How can you make it work in entrepreneurship?  Once you have had the experience of fetching towels to help a woman clean rum out of the bottom of a Dolce & Gabbana bag, and have apologized because she didn’t believe the towels looked clean enough, few things can throw you off your game anymore.  Deadlines being moved up or employee sick days just become minor hiccups, instead of major obstacles, and you develop an air of unflappability that instills confidence in clients.  Remaining composed in the face of extraordinary circumstances is a hallmark of a great entrepreneur, and surviving the service industry lets you enter the game with that skill already equipped.

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