Pardon me, may I speak with a manager?

"Pardon me, may I speak with a manager please?"

This is a line heard every day in restaurants across America. It's a reasonable enough request—be it to make special arrangements, ask a confidential question, or complain about service to an authority figure, asking for the manager is an accepted, and often critical, interface between a restaurant and the guests it aims to serve.

And we wanted to find out just one thing: How easy is it? If a customer wants the attention of a restaurant's manager—something just about any restaurateur would say he or she is entitled to—what's the customer have to go through to get it? How long does it take? And, perhaps most critical, how are guests treated once they ask for a manager's attention?

With this in mind, we dispatched our scouts to randomly chosen units of 10 restaurant chains—from quickservice to casual dining—with very simple instructions: Walk in the front door, ask to speak with a manager, and see what happens. To keep everything even-Steven, we devised a plausible (and harmless) scenario behind our request, which was given if asked: We were thinking of bringing in a class trip in about a week or two, and could the restaurant accommodate 30 without too much trouble? We made no commitments or reservations, and penalized no restaurants if they couldn't accommodate such a party. We merely wanted to see what it took to get a manager's attention, and how we were made to feel for asking to see one.

The grist: Most of the units we tested did a fairly good job getting us in front of a manager pretty quickly. But there were surprises in store, too. At times, for example, some of the more upscale brands gave us neither the time nor the courtesy that some quickservice places dispensed cheerfully. Some restaurants let us speak with the manager, but made us wait a while—only to speak with managers that seemed too rushed to speak with us, too. Plus, it seems to be lost on several chains that what is said to customers is every bit as important as how it's said. Tone and body language matter—a lot.

First the good news. When it came to the disposition of the cashier/host (usually the first person we encountered), some chains had it down pat. After we asked to see the manager, the register people at McDonald's and In-N-Out Burger were friendly as could be—"Sure," and "No problem," were the smiled responses. (McDonald's did not return phone calls requesting an interview, but In-N-Out VP Carl Van Fleet told us, "Our focus on customer care helped us achieve the results we showed in your test.") The host we encountered at a Hooters unit—a young man barely out of his teens—attacked his job duties with nothing short of zeal: "This is my first day," he said, and he was happy to summon the manager for us.

Waiting times, for most of our marks, were also pretty low. With the clock starting the moment we asked to see the manager, a number of chains managed to produce their managers in photo-finish time. The average wait time came to 20.6 sec., with some chains like McDonald's and Wendy's asking us to wait a mere 8-10 sec., respectively, and other outfits such as Au Bon Pain getting us the manager's attention immediately, with no wait. At Quiznos, when we asked the cashier if we could see the manager, it turned out that the cashier was the manager, which cut down the wait time to, technically, less than zero. What's more, when faced with a request about a large party, that manager consulted still another manager (who turned out to be the franchisee), meaning we got the attentions of two by asking for one. "He did the appropriate thing," responds Quiznos New York area director Robert Tobias. "The manager called the owner."

Yet if most of the chains we tested got the fundamentals of the experience right, there were also those who stumbled when it came to the details, either by putting us on the spot, running too much interference, or just plain making us feel awkward. While no chain denied us access to a manager, it was clear that some were more interested in helping than others. And again, it's the attitude that made the difference.

Take Houston's. When we asked the hostess if we could see a manager, she was polite, but wasn't about to let us through just like that. "What's the nature of your request?" she asked. "We have several different kinds of managers here." (Different kinds of managers? Precisely what this meant was a mystery to us, and will likely remain so, as Houston's management declined our requests for an interview.) When the manager came over, she smiled, but seemed suspicious. We left feeling awkward.

At a Whataburger unit, our scout met up with a lackadaisical cashier ("I got the feeling she was thinking, 'Not my problem,' " our scout reported) and then waited 90 sec. to speak with a manager—who was carrying supplies that she didn't put down to talk to us. The manager began shaking her head before we finished with our request. "The feeling I got was, 'No way, now let me get back to work,' " our scout said. ("Once the manager comes over, we want them to treat the customers with the utmost respect," replies a spokesperson for Whataburger. "You may have just caught her in a crunch time. It's unfortunate.")

At Outback, our scout had the curious experience of speaking with an official who didn't seem to want us to know that he was part of the management. The greeter smiled, then passed us over to a gentleman who, after we asked if he was the manager, told us no. ("The man was guarded," our scout adds. "He wasn't very friendly.") We asked him for his name, and only then did he produce a business card—one that revealed he was a managing partner, prompting our scout to wonder why someone of that authority behaved evasively. (Outback did not respond to a request for an interview.)

One telling aspect of the experiment was how, coincidentally or not, the chains which performed well (or at least not poorly) were also ones that seem to place a great deal of importance on undercover scouts of their own. "We conduct mystery shopper programs, and one of the requirements for a good score is the visibility of the manager on the floor," says Hooters' marketing VP Mike McNeil. "Every month," adds Quiznos' Tobias, "we do what you just did."

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