Dear Advice Guy,
I read the Pete Wells article [in the New York Times, encouraging restaurant guests to complain in person rather than venting online]. Do you think I should formalize something to encourage guests to let us know if something is not to their liking?
– Foodservice Manager, Philadelphia, PA
Absolutely. I’ll address this question in two parts: 1. Why solicit guest complaints? and 2. (next week), What is a good system for dealing with them?
No one likes complaints—you work hard to provide high quality food, beverage, atmosphere, and service. It’s painful to hear you’ve missed the mark. It’s even more painful to hear that you’ve delivered exactly what you intended but it went unappreciated by the guest.
Every restaurant should make a conscious effort to solicit guest feedback—good and bad—from as many guests as possible for a few reasons:
- Complaints may help you nip a real concern in the bud and prevent future dissatisfaction. For example, I once ordered a bagel with cream cheese and the cream cheese had clearly gone bleu. A proactive guest and receptive manager could have corrected that immediately rather than leaving every guest dissatisfied until it was discovered, losing future business and no doubt inviting negative online reviews.
- Venting privately may prevent venting publically. Sometimes guests just want to be heard. Even if a problem is out of your immediate control—a drafty dining room on an unusually frigid day, an obnoxious guest at a neighboring table, or an 86’d item, inviting them to rant with you may prevent a rant in public via word-of-mouth and review sites.
- Turn around the situation. By hearing complaints, you can turn around a negative situation to a positive service recovery, potentially earning loyal business far beyond the specific incident. Once that guests leaves your operation, the chance to recover diminishes.
One key to remember is that while formal systems like comment cards can work, noticing your guests goes a long way to gauging satisfaction. I was impressed at a business dinner last night when a colleague took one sip of her cocktail and left it alone. Without asking, the server quietly brought my colleague the drink list and removed the offending item. Heather Rodkey, Director of Operations at Sojourn Hospitality Group agrees that soliciting guest feedback—formally or informally—is key, “If you're a manager and not asking guests about their experience, you're not doing your job. It makes me insane that touching tables is a lost art --that oftentimes you can't even identify the floor manager in restaurants. Just as service staff has a protocol, or points of service, so do managers. If nothing else, making yourself available to the guest is a fundamental that's bypassed due to management hiding away in the office. Greeting, recognizing, thanking guests for coming in, remembering their preferences, and asking about their experience gives the guest a voice where it counts.”