The Mother of All Complaints!

The Mother of All Complaints!

(Or… every complaint I ever read on Facebook and what the restaurant can do about it)

There are very few customers that can see the kind of things I see when I walk into a restaurant. Knowing when to speak up, how to speak up and to whom to speak up is actually the art. I have a deep love for the restaurant industry and all the crazies who congregate in it and will defend it with my dying breath!

Talks13I feel it is important to give you a little background before I begin. I joined the restaurant industry as a waiter in the late 80s in a restaurant called Tijuana 220 in Rosebank. Many of you probably threw your names and your clothes away on any one of a thousand crazy nights. I was probably the one encouraging you to try an upside down margarita or a body shot. I went on to manage other restaurants, own two of my own award winning restaurants in George and Wilderness and spent many years as the marketing manager for Mugg & Bean in the early days. I consult to restaurants, advise and train on service issues and write prolifically on the subject. (You can read my series Who Is Killing the South African Restaurant Industry by clicking HERE)

I am a nightmare to serve, not because I have such discerning tastes or taste buds that I can tell a grass fed burger from any other but because I have such pedantic instructions and believe that if I take the trouble to explain them to the restaurant, I expect the restaurant to carry them out to the letter (No, I said ice with no lemon not lemon with no ice!)

But I too have sat at the table, eyes rolling skyward as I listen to someone being blatantly rude and downright unreasonable as they take their bad day out on the waiter or restaurant manager. (Who hasn’t?) They question might be “how many times have YOU been that customer without even realizing?”

The Ultimate Nightmare Scenario

Talks09It’s Saturday morning and you decide to surprise your better half with a visit to a restaurant that you have heard so much about. You pop along to the restaurant website to find the phone number. Regrettably it is a trendy new restaurant that has invested more money in the flash design than in the content and after watching the little wheel turn for what seems like an age, the site finally opens and there is no telephone number to be found. Fifteen to twenty minutes of navigation and you finally find the number

Restaurant Tip: Ensure the phone number is on the front page, most of the time that is all the visitor wants. After that it’s a look at your menu and possibly clear directions

You dial the number only to be greeted with “Kelp ya” which is drunk waiter speak for “can I help you”

“Yes” you reply “I would like to make a reservation for this evening” This is followed by 3 minutes of silence and a lot of scratching noises as the waiter fumbles around looking for a pen.

Restaurant Tip: Have a pen on a piece of string by the telephone at all times

“Name? What time? How many people? Phone number?” We go through the regulatory interrogation all the while I am wondering if any of this is actually being written down.

“By the way” I say “do you guys accept Diner’s Club and can you give me directions to your restaurant for Waterfall Estate” A deathly silence followed by a shout to someone on the far side of the restaurant “do we take Diner’s Club and can someone give this oke directions to the restaurant?”

Restaurant Tip: On a clearly printed piece of paper either on the wall or in the reservation book, put all the questions customers may ask on the phone. Times of operation, directions from various landmarks, methods of payment, reservation and rules for large parties around tipping, split bills etc. Customers do not see these but they make your staff and your establishments appear more professional

The big night arrives and off you go, excited but a little apprehensive that the booking will actually be in the reservation book. As you drive into the carpark you are doing your very best slalom maneuvers to avoid broken beer bottles and piles of take away boxes that may or may not be from the restaurant you are about to visit

Restaurant Tip: You may not believe you are responsible for the condition of the carpark but YOUR customers are already starting to form an opinion of YOUR restaurant and you are not there to point out that center management are not doing their job. Every now and again, send a cleaner outside the restaurant to tidy up what your customers may see

On the way into the restaurant you quickly put your arm around your wife and distract her, hoping she will not notice the chef in the dirty uniform sitting on the stairs, next to the overturned dustbins, smoking with the bus boy.

Restaurant Tip: Every detail is noticed by every customer, even if they do not mention it and even of it does not end up on social media

Talks12Arriving at the door, you are greeted by a scene from a Three Stooges movie. People are running around, bumping into each other, there is a fight in one corner, what looks like a food fight in another and certainly nobody in control.

Eventually from the far end of the restaurant, a very tired looking manager, picks up his hand, points in my direction and shouts “two? You want a table for two?” I am so glad I took the trouble to book! “you see that table over there? That’s your table.

Restaurant Tip: I could write an entire blog on this alone but let me just say, welcome me like I am arriving as a guest at your home, throw away that lectern and welcome me with open arms. Of course it is important to know if I have made a booking but handle it with flair and enthusiasm, I am here to give you MY money

We stumble our way to what we can only hope is our table only to find it covered in dirty plates, half empty glasses and the billfold still stuffed with cash. (very tempted to take the money and run at this stage!) We clear our space and the wait begins…

Restaurant Tip: Employ a few staff members just to clean and set tables if you are lucky enough to be that busy, if you don’t, you may soon find that you no longer have that problem

After a few irritating minutes I decide to stop the first waitress that crosses my path, only to be greeted with the regulatory “I am not your waitress Sir”

Restaurant Tip: I am everyone’s customer! Got it? Good!

Eventually a very tired, harassed looking waiter stops off at our table and asks “are you ready to order?”

“Order?” I ask “we haven’t even seen the menus yet. He rushes off embarrassed trying to find two unused menus to give us. On his  return I realise I am not going to have to ask about the mushroom sauce as it is smeared all over the menu for me to view and taste if I so choose.

“Ready?”

“Yes” I reply “aren’t you going to write down the order?”

“No, I have been doing this for a long time, I have a great memory”

Restaurant Tip: I didn’t come to your restaurant to be impressed by your waiter’s memory, I came to be impressed by the food and service. Train waiters to write down EVERY order or find ones that will and you will see a dramatic drop off in wrong orders and a dramatic increase in happy customers

Having convinced the irritated waiter that I would like to know my order has been recorder correctly, we now wait and wonder.

Talks05Of course this didn’t happen on the same day to the same people! It happens over time and it happens in some of the finest restaurants around. Customers bring their own bad days and bad moods into the equation with them, one man’s grass fed is another man’s “I hated that”. Restaurants are microcosms off all businesses. They are mini factories turning frozen goods into finished product in record time. They are service centres and financial institutions. And to make matters even more complicated the customer samples the product right there in front of you, not at home the next day when they open the box. When the manager approaches any table he knows that three very dangerous factors are at play here, three factors that do not mix well together “Alcohol, cash and ego”.

There are bound to be complaints, just imagine this law of averages… If a restaurant serves 300 people per day, that will be 9000 customers in an average month (and believe me there are restaurants serving upwards of a thousand customers a day). Now let’s say the restaurant has extremely well trained staff both front and back and they are getting it 99% right, which are still 90 complaints a month or 3 per day EVERY DAY. Does your business get it right 99% of the time? Can you name many that do? I can’t.

OF course many of those complaints can be handled on the spot, many would just go away with better training (But what if I invest all that time and money to train my staff and they just leave? Well what if you don’t train them and God forbid, they decide to stay?) Restaurants do not set out to destroy your evening, to rip you off, to be rude to you and embarrass you and those that do, deserve all the bad press and deserve not to be around in the future. Most are nothing like that at all, most are just trying to please 10 000 different people with different tastes and different ideas about service and hospitality.

I am not telling you not to complain, I am not even asking you not to complain, I am asking you to step back occasionally and ask if the complaint is truly reasonable and valid, if your mood or attitude has contributed to it, if you have done all you could to have the matter resolved there and then before you take to social media.Talks10

I have been warning restaurants for years to be more concerned about customers with smart phones and social media accounts than food critics (do they even exist anymore?). They used to say that one unhappy customer told 7 people now it is closer to 7000, but there is a flip side to all of this… With “thousands of reviews” on hundreds of groups” in “dozens of social media channels”, it is now just becoming clutter. Another complaint is just becoming part of the “noise” and people are paying less attention to it, more and more people are defending restaurants they love and calling “bullshit” when they see it. This is no excuse for restaurants to slacken off or take their eye off the ball, it is still a reality.

My advice to restaurant owners is… invest in training, invest in your staff, treat complaints as opportunities, value your customers and their opinions and treat your restaurant like the business it is.

And my advice to customers… Enjoy it, you earned it, you deserve it!

1 Comment
  1. Thank you. 😊

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