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No-show uh-oh! Guest balks at reservation-cancellation policy

Restaurant reservation
It can be tricky to navigate reservation cancellation policies. | Photo: Shutterstock

Question:

Dear Advice Guy,

We are a small restaurant that is fortunate to be in high demand. We can’t afford no-shows or last-minute cancellations, so have changed our model from a small deposit to a pre-paid reservation, fully refundable if canceled before 24 hours. I recently had a guest who no-showed and was furious that he was charged because he said he canceled the reservation before the window and didn’t receive his refund. I have no record of him canceling, so on my end he was a no-show and we couldn’t fill the seats. I showed him the policy and he threatened to tell everyone he knows not to come in. Any suggestions?

– - Owner

Answer:

Clear reservation policies like these are important to have, but mistakes happen. Maybe the guest tried to cancel the reservation electronically and it didn’t go through; maybe he called and whoever took the message didn’t enter it in the books; maybe he’s lying. If he legitimately thought he had properly canceled his reservation and then paid for a meal he couldn’t enjoy, I understand his frustration. By sticking to your guns, you will be effective in capturing the revenue from your no-show but are likely to alienate a guest who seems to have tried in good faith to follow the policy. Further, you want people to talk about how wonderful your restaurant is; not what sticklers you are regarding your policy.

My suggestion is that you try to turn this situation around, not by refunding the money, only for him to go away (and possibly never return), but by thanking him for communicating his concern, looking into where things went wrong in the cancellation process (in case it is a systemic technical issue), and using the opportunity to apply his pre-paid reservation to a future date. While you can’t undo the empty seats of a no-show, you can apply the revenue to a future service rather than either: (1) simply acquiescing to an irate guest, or (2) fueling the fire by being a stickler. Neither of those strategies accomplishes your ultimate goal of providing a memorable and profitable dining experience.

More on reservation policies and practices here and here.

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