Who Is Killing The Restaurant Industry – Part 5 (The Customer)

300SquareAnother restaurant casualty! Two weeks ago I wrote in this blog “And rumours abound that Melrose Arch is to see a big casualty soon.” Last night on arriving at Melrose Arch I see that Mangiare has closed it’s doors. I wrote about the debacle at Melrose Arch almost 18 months ago and in it I warned about things to come. Anywhere between 4 and 8 million rand must have been spent on this and countless jobs have been lost.RIP Mangiare

“If it wasn’t for the customers, the suppliers and the staff… this would be a great job” lamented our victim as he trawled through the complaints at hellopeter.CON “for heaven’s sake, why couldn’t they just complain to me, instead of writing to the world about that one tiny little unreasonable incident?”

“That’s ‘cause the customer is always right!” said a voice from his distant past.

“No!” He shouted to no one in particular “He is NOT always right, but he is the customer and it is the customers right to be wrong”

You may feel that all this is just semantics and just a slightly different way of explaining the same thing, but in essence there is a huge difference. Adopting the “the customer is always right” philosophy is tantamount to saying “I am always wrong” or “my staff is always wrong” or “the restaurant is always wrong” and that can’t possibly be true.

I recently bought a shirt at a men’s clothing store, it was marked Medium, when I got home I discovered it was in fact a small. Back to the store I went, I stood in line at the ‘customer service’ counter (now there is a misnomer if ever there was one), waited patiently for my turn, had to supply the store with proof of purchase, two forms of ID, proof of residence and a blood sample before they gave me permission to change an item that they had marked incorrectly… No free shirt, no complimentary round of socks for everyone in the line, in fact not even an apology! So why is it when I enter a restaurant and there is the tiniest error, I feel entitled to complain at the top of my voice, rant and rave if necessary, act as thought the error was a personal slight and then demand compensation in the form of a free meal or a round of drinks for the table?

Are restaurants themselves to blame for this monster they have created, has our own willingness to accept all responsibility and to offer any form of compensation we can dream up, come back to bite us in the rear? Strangely I feel it runs a lot deeper than that, strangely I think it is a reflection of the state of the psychosis of the country. We feel so emasculated, we have a government who appear to do as they please, public servants who appear hell bent on making our lives miserable, road users who push us around, kids that no longer respect us and nowhere to vent our frustration… that is until we walk into a restaurant!

This is the safe space, the psychologist couch, the one place we can exert our authority, our chance to prove our manhood and our superiority. Strange thing about the restaurant industry is that it is one of the few where there are more experts not in the industry than in it. Everyone knows more about meat cuts than we do, everyone has a better way to make a sauce, a dish or a dessert and everyone knows what good service should be. (Even if they are unable to deliver it in their own businesses).

There is no denying the fact that every cent that comes into a restaurant, enters the doors inside the wallet, inside the pocket of one of our customers and without them there would simply be no business, but then the same applies to most businesses and they don’t feel the need to take the pain and the abuse that the restaurant industry does. Falling foot counts, falling spending power and falling margins have made each and every customer more valuable than they have ever been before. There is an old adage that says “Nothing is sacred other than that the customer returns and nothing costs more than an empty chair!”

The Americans have a term called “The Lifetime Value of a Customer” and a quick Google search will refer you to a number of different calculators you can use to determine this. In a nutshell it is a method of predicting what a customer may spend with you over a specific period of time and this is added to the business you will receive from referrals from those same customers… the numbers can appear staggering! But I am not certain that anyone has done the ‘other’ calculation, the one that reflects the damage done by ranting customers who you have tried to placate and bribe with free meals and free drinks who STILL leave your restaurant and tell all and sundry that not only are you cr@p but that they managed to extract some compensation from you too!

Is there an answer to this conundrum? Well maybe not a definitive one, but just maybe I can offer some advice that well help you to sleep easy and assured that you have at least given it your best shot. Let me start by introducing you to my very own 10 – 80 – 10 Rule. (From hereon to be forever referred to as Mike’s Law, kinda like Newton’s Law of Gravity or Malcolm Galdwell’s The Law of the Few only much more important). Mike’s law says we can divide our customers into three distinct groups; the bottom 10% who we truly wish would never enter our establishments again, the top 10% who we are quite prepared to move heaven and earth for and ‘the rest’, the other 80% who come and go almost without notice.

For some reason we then spend ALL of our energy trying desperately to get the bottom 10% not to hate us so much and the top 10% to keep on loving us. The answer to real success actually lies in getting rid of the bottom 10% without a moment’s thought, maintaining a strong but healthy relationship with the top 10% and concentrating MOST of our effort on a certain segment of the 80%. You need to find the 10-20% of the middle group who are almost great regulars, almost brand ambassadors and do all you can to tip them into the top group. Now you are on the way to a highly successful business. By the way this Mike’s Law works with your staff too, but I shall address that in a later chapter.

The second tip I have is in ‘complaint handling’ and I would love to tell you I came up with all of this on my own, but the concept was introduced to me by a life coach I will simply refer to as “The Hoff”. The Hoff has a specific way of apologizing that I believe would alleviate most of the tension and problems you face in the restaurant. He explains that it there is a very specific three step process to follow. (And I shall add a forth from my own experience).

Firstly let us understand what happens when a staff member is called over to a table to handle a complaint. In this instant there are three major influencers at play CASH, ALCOHOL and EGO, a lethal combination at the best of times and this is NOT the best of times. When a staff member is called over to a table where there is a complaint step number one is to remove the offending dish from in front of the customers (this is my bit) thereby removing any reference and removing the ability for the client to poke his finger into the food or waive a lettuce leaf in front of your face. Now the waiter or manager stands with the dish behind their back. This is a signal to anyone walking past that there is a problem, they can pick up the dish, take it to the kitchen and warn them that although they don’t know the exact nature of the complaint there is a problem and they should be prepared. Now back to the table… The person taking the complaint now begins “The Hoff’s” Three Step Process. Step 1; look the customer squarely in the face and say “I am terribly sorry Sir/Ma’am” continue with step 2 “I am sorry for the trouble/inconvenience/embarrassment this has caused you” (notice how we have personalized this) and finally step 3 “What can I possibly do to correct this for you?”

By placing the decision of recovery on the client you will be amazed to see the calmness that sweeps over them as they stop for a second and realize this is now in their hands and that ranting and raving will not accomplish any more than a simple request “could you please ask the chef to cook it a little more for me?” or “Would it be possible for you to replace it with another dish?” Crisis averted mission accomplished! Now go and sort out the meal, make sure the cutlery has been changed, keep the customer informed of the process and enjoy the rest of your evening. No screaming, no shouting, no blame… no problem.

On a slightly lighter note here is something to brighten up your day, share this with your staff, post it on your notice board and have a laugh (to yourself) the next time one of these guests walks in

Of course most customers are completely unaware of a restaurants ability to sum them up in a few seconds. Malcolm Gladwell calls this “Thin Slicing”. It is our ability after years and years in the trenches to categorize our customers without ever letting them know we are onto them. For those of you feeling a little battered and bruised by a hard year, here is a little light relief for you…

Customer Profile 1: His & Her Friggin Royal Highness

Easy to identify, they announce their presence long before they walk in. Not wearing a single item of clothing that doesn’t have a designer label on the OUTSIDE, his highness always walks in front of the her  highness. As they get greeted by the smiling hostess, he will simple walk past her and start looking for his ‘royal’ party. After not finding them, he will return, interrupt the hostess who is now speaking to mere mortals and just say “We have a booking!” assuming the hostess will know exactly who they are.

No matter what table you take them to it is not good enough and she will be whining on about THAT time in [insert exotic city here] when [insert celebrity name here] had the same trouble. Once seated, he will turn his chair slightly away to avoid eye contact with the lowly waiter. He will order one of the more expensive bottles of wine on the list (and probably miss pronounce it) but not THE most expensive wines, after all “no one can pay THESE prices!”

When the rest of the party arrive all the girls will do the double kiss without actually making contact and the men will all shake hands or maybe give each other a manly biff on the shoulder. The women will chatter through the specials about their kids, school and the trouble they are having with their domestic staff and the men will simply ignore the waiter until he is done before one of them will say… “Don’t you have any specials today?” and then make some comment about how service in the country has gone to the dogs.

Not one of the ladies will order directly off the menu, after all it is simply a list of ingredients from which to choose. They will discuss, Mbeki, Zuma, Zimbabwe, falling property prices and drop plenty of names throughout dinner. They will talk a lot, say nothing and interrupt each other constantly. Order expensive cigars and cognacs that they all hate and complain bitterly when the bill arrives. You can expect a 10% tip on the dot! You can thank them all you like as they leave but don’t expect a reply; they are too busy saying nothing to each other.

Customer Profile 2: The Loner

Usually found sitting at the bar, on the same seat, wearing the same rugby jersey, drinking the same beer and eating the same snack he has for the past 7 years. The modern version can be seen at the same table, in the same corner, reading the same newspaper, sipping the same coffee, in the same coffee shop, morning after morning.

He never complains unless someone else is sitting in his chair. He knows all the staff by name, their ages, their likes, dislikes and innermost thoughts. He has been hitting on the same waitress for the past 3 years and is convinced she secretly has a crush on him and if it wasn’t for that stupid assistant manager with the biceps and the attitude, the two of them could be happy together. The 26 year age difference and his 4 ex-wives would not be an obstacle to their happiness.

He is happy when she serves him and delivers his favourite beer without asking but woes betide the day you send a NEW waiter to look after him. He is friendly to a fault and this, borders on harassment as the evening wears on and the drinks go down. He will become increasing animated (loud) as the evening winds down and the subject switches to Super 14 or the race quotas in cricket. He may be running a tab at the bar which means the chances of a tip are pretty slim. Offer to call him a cab as he stumbles out protesting that he is sober, and watch as he attempts to open the wrong car with the wrong keys. He will be back tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the…

Customer Profile 3: The Married Couple

Oh shit! Undoubtedly one of them doesn’t want to be there. He would rather be out with his mates who are all in the club house after golf today and she would much rather be out with her personal trainer. Once seated, get them their menus quickly, they have nothing to say to each other and the sooner you give them something to discuss (even if it is the exorbitant prices) the better.

He will be dressed in his golf clothes, sans the shoes and probably look like a pimp. She in her TIGHT jeans and sparkly top, high snake skin boots and excessive jewelry might just look like someone who works by the hour. If you ever tell her that she might just take it as a compliment.

Don’t expect them to share a bottle of wine or a salad, they haven’t shared anything for ages and they are not about to start just because you have had some suggestive selling training lately. He may have a bored faraway look while you are doing the specials but don’t let that worry you, it is the same look he has had for the last 23 years.

When they order you can expect a small argument to break out about his cholesterol and although he may give in and order the side salad he will inevitably eat all her chips. She will have the side salad no dressing, the steak with no basting, a lemon diet coke and finish it off with a Crème Caramel. Tip between 9 and 12 percent and a pleasant goodbye.

Customer Profile 4: The Married to Someone Else Couple

Only found in quiet out of the way restaurants in a corner table near the back, you can tell immediately they are not married as they giggle and tickle each other. The meal is as close as she is going to get to foreplay so she might as well drag it out. He late forties to early fifties and she in her twenties to early thirties and may be wearing the corporate uniform.

They will listen intently to the specials, hold hands and whisper. They will definitely share the wine, share the salad, share the starter and eat off each other’s plates. Give them lots of space to enjoy themselves, he is dreaming of later and she of the day he leaves his wife and 3.4 kids… you are right, it is never going to happen, but why should that stop her from dreaming.

If he had his way they would leave immediately but because right now, she is the boss, they will be the last two to leave having depleted the stock of Irish Whiskey and cream. By the this stage all the other waiters have cashed up, are sitting around smoking and waiting for you so that everyone can go out score some E and joll. When they finally leave, he is so excited to be heading for his hotel room that he completely over tips you and you get the last laugh at the other waiters.

Don’t expect to see them back in the same restaurant and if you ever recognise him with someone else DO NOT remind him of his last visit.

Customer Profile 5: The Second Cousins

Everyone’s dream customers! Second cousins like you, enjoy their visit, are polite to everyone and always GO HOME. They have been coming to the restaurant for ages, know everyone’s first names, and bring lots of friends with them. When the waiters see their names on the booking sheet they scramble to get them into their section.

They love drinking the amusing house wine or may prefer to BYO (bring your own) and can be found in most family restaurants and their neighbourhood pizza joint. They do watch the prices but would never be so rude as to discuss it at the table. They will eat plenty, enjoy the meal and leave the table a complete wreck.

Their kids are always polite, know the menu backwards and love paying the bill themselves with Dad’s credit card. When things get a little crazy in the kitchen and the food is coming out slowly, they are the one table that really does understand. Do yourself a favour and move mountains to get the kids food out first, even the second cousins can get a little irritable when little Johnny start moaning.

They are a steady 10 to 15 percent tip with little or no hassle and plenty of laughs. Do not forget to laugh at his latest joke, even if you just heard it at the table next door. The joke will be a little off colour which will cause Mrs. Second Cousin to blush and say “Not in front of the k-i-d-esses, Mike!” They will leave laughing and smiling and probably carrying the youngest daughter who fell asleep on the floor at their feet on a blanket he fetched from the Chrysler Voyager.

Customer Profile 6: The “Others”

There are of course plenty of other types and one day I may even find the inspiration to write about them, they include the ‘30th birthday party, too much money crowd’ the ‘new entrepreneur, let’s blow the company budget type’ the ‘we didn’t realize this was going to be so expensive party’ the ‘ethnic group that never tips’ (this varies from city to city and location to locations so don’t get all defensive) and of course there is YOU, a true individual who just couldn’t find a group to fit into.

Just a quick note of thanks to all who have commented on my series of articles, the emails I have received, the phone calls of thanks and encouragement that I receive daily and a really big thank you to all who have passed these on, tweeted them, posted them on facebook and written about them in blogs. It is greatly appreciated and keeps me writing! We are all just ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things day after day after day…

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