How a Friday Night Fish Fry Changed My Life


Designing the guidelines and professional expectations for medical interpreters is critical to success in the encounter.  But the unsung heroes of that success are the people that schedule and provide work direction to the interpreters.  Let me show you how an effective scheduling program can make the difference between good interpreting and great interpreting! 

Our scheduling guideline was designed from my experience as a hostess at a Supper Club. Famous for their Friday night fish fry, we’d be packed with reservations and have a line of walk-ins waiting to be seated. I always felt bad that the walk-ins had to wait for a table, sometimes up to an hour or more.  

If a reservation didn’t arrive, then we would move the table assignments around. We kept track of table assignments and reservations on a notebook piece of paper.  On the paper, each table would have a list and we’d calculate about 45min for dinner. When a table ran long, we didn’t ask them to leave because their table needed to go to the next person in line. No. We adjusted the tables to fit the demand.  

There were also the regular customers. They would come in multiple times a week. I remember an older couple that always had to have table A9. They would refuse to sit anywhere else. If that table hadn’t finished from the previous reservation, they made their frustration known. I have to admit, dealing with them was no fun.  

Added to this was the wait staff, bussers, bartenders and kitchen crew. It was controlled chaos. I always had to keep my cool and smile. So did the wait staff. I had to manage incoming customers all while taking payment and answering incoming calls.  

And if someone called in sick and no one else could fill their place, forget about it. That instantly meant that the staff would have to work that much harder. The demand stayed the same. And everyone would have to deal with a cranky customer if they had to wait too long. And my job was to help them as much as I could.  

Customers stayed because the product was worth it. But delivering that service and food was always a mad dash for the win. The win was people returning again and again for that amazing fish fry. The win was serving as much food as we could to all who asked for it.  

The wait staff never knew what the night would bring. They never knew who they’d be serving or when regulars would come in. All they knew was that the night would be busy and their tables would be full.  If we could accommodate big groups, that only meant more stress and demand.   

And you had to meet everyone’s demand for great food and a great atmosphere. Our job was to win customers and keep them coming back. Nothing ever happened according to plan. There were minute by minute changes that happened all night. That piece of notebook paper was obliterated by the end of the night. There were so many erase marks and names written in those places that you would have thought it was ran over by a car in the rain.  

At the end of the night everyone could finally slow down and sigh. But our work wasn’t done. We had to count the till, distribute tips and everyone chipped in to make sure the restaurant was ready for the next day.  

And we’d all do it again.  

No one is supposed to end their day with the same schedule as they had in the beginning of the day. Scheduling is designed to be a minute by minute hour by hour process. It was designed to constantly meet new demand by making changes that make sense. If an interpreter is in a location and more appointments come in, then assign them to the interpreter already there to avoid more driving. If things change and another interpreter can take the next few appointments, even though someone is already assigned to them, then make that change. 

I can tell you that the wait staff never questioned what we were doing on those Friday nights. They didn’t second guess our changes or tell us what to do. They didn’t talk to us when we were busy. They knew that we were doing our best and that there was a rhyme and reason for our choices.  

We had a good leader that took good care of us. The staff wasn’t huge and we could all talk about the good and bad from the night when things finally started to slow down.  We could all empathize with each other and support one another if someone’s night went bad. Our leader knew about the entire scope of what it takes to run the business. They’d been there before and did what they could to make our night go well.  

 I tell you this because the ebb and flow of that Friday night fish fry is the catalyst for our scheduling process which is no different. 

And just like at the supper club, no one knows how the day will end or what will happen between 8 and 5 Monday through Friday except that we’ll be busy. But how the day ends should make sense. You should see people in appointments that make sense. It should end by demonstrating our ability to run efficiently and effectively. There should be a sigh at the end of the day with a high five for the work everyone did.  

The interpreting position was never designed to schedule.  

The beauty of the distinction is that the only concern for interpreters is meeting the demand in the field. And the way to do that is by listening to the schedule. You can’t be swayed by suggestions and requests from the team.   

You have a very specific role and your responsibilities are unique. It is the ying to the interpreter's yang. Picture that symbol. You don’t see black bleed to white or white bleed to black. They are intertwined but they maintain their integrity. Scheduling and our team unite in the same format.  

 There isn’t a single interpreter that should say ‘It’s my patient or my appointment’. That is simply not true. They are the customers'. And the customer's needs are a scheduler's responsibility, not an interpreters' responsibility.  

Scheduling needs to be able to do their job without question at the time. They need to be free to talk with the customers when they call. They need to be able to make changes on a whim based on what’s right for the team and the customers. Anything that stops that is a hindrance to the success as a team.  

The main tenant of our scheduling process is to make constant decisions that make the most sense. You have to be a master problem solver. There are many variables to consider to make it all run smooth.  And your choices should be happening all day long. It isn’t enough to add an appointment to a blank spot. You have to look at the whole and make adjustments. If we have room to accept new appointments, then most likely other appointments need to be moved.  

You have to look at who started early, who drove where, who’s already there, and what geographically makes sense. Maybe a late appointment was assigned but the interpreter started their day early. That needs an adjustment. If someone drove far one way then don’t make them drive far the other way. We have ideas and expectations in theory but they can’t always be met.  Always make changes that make the most sense.  

How do you know what makes sense?  

Use a white board. Quickly color code the section of the day. What time, where and who. Interpreters can be notified of changes via text.  

We used to have calendar pages where interpreters penciled in their daily schedule. That’s where they got the information. If changes were made, they would be notified and change the note in their calendar. There was a lot of erasing and new notes that happened each day.  Some weeks that calendar page would look like that Friday night notebook paper.  

The schedule is designed to make sure interpreters didn’t leave an appointment early. That is also a founding tenant of what we do. Your job is to make calls to notify someone if Connecting Cultures will arrive late.  Your job is to demand effective communication so you always know what’s going on. Your job is to manage the ebb and flow of our day in real time. We don’t have the luxury of always knowing what will come in. But knowing that to be true, our process should accommodate that reality.  

How do you do that? 

Start by scheduling one person’s day first. What makes sense for them? How can their day be predictable and limit change?  Repeat through each additional team member until you come to the end. This should make the interpreter's day lighter. That’s where you start so you can see where your spaces are.  

Each day should start with a new rotation. Choose the next in line and repeat. Chances are not all the interpreters will be in the office in the morning. Some will be at early day appointments which will open up the schedule for others to take calls. Always make sure that team members, including scheduling, have enough time to breathe and go to the bathroom.  

Everyone should be assigned a 1 hour break time. That may not happen every day, but that should be the anomaly. Most days we should be able to accommodate a break. And people need them. They need to have time to regroup and take a break.  

As a scheduler, you should be in tune with customer demand. You see where we go, if we get there on time, if we have poor service when people call to name a few of the variables.  

Our promise to our customers is to be there when they need us and for however long they need us.  

Scheduling should have as many cheerleaders as the interpreters. Customers should note scheduling as a critical part of our service. They should jump up and down if our service is brought into question by any buyer. Patient service representatives should be our scheduling champions as much as providers are champions for our interpreters.  

You need to be the subject matter expert. You need to be able to bring problems, and make suggestions, to our leaders. No one should know our daily activities as well as you. You are the one that sees the daily activity in detail. Everything flows through you.  

It isn’t enough to wait to be asked. You need to bring things to us. Your role makes you the expert. You need to find ways to make what we do better. You need to let us know what works well and what needs work.  Just as you know generally what someone else does, others know generally what you do.  

There are people that can flex new muscles and learn how to do what you do. But today and right now you are the expert. And don’t be afraid of that expertise. People depend on you for it.  

Your communication skills go beyond a friendly spirit when talking with customers. You need to use them to keep everyone calm. You need to use them when you see a problem or a success. Don’t stay in your space. Shout from the rooftops and let our leaders know what needs to be done.  

Everyone works hard. But you have a unique view to see how we can do more, not by making work harder but by making it easier.  

And you don’t have to be the pin ball in a pin ball machine. You have to balance a lot and show people you care. But you also need to take the lead and know that your role makes you the expert. Just like you don’t tell interpreters how to do their job, they can’t tell you how to do yours.  

You are me on those Friday nights. Keep a smile and vent when you need.  Take pride in your role as part of a TEAM where Together Everyone Achieves More. 


© Connecting Cultures Inc. 2018