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I can't get this out of my mind

During the run of my restaurant, I spoke with a lot of customers but for some reason, this one exchange has stuck with me.  Table 31.  2 people.  A little bit more uptight than our usual customers but nothing too remarkable.  They ordered the vegetarian entree.  My server, Missy, told me that they had a complaint about the food.  The portion was too small.  She couldn't get them to stop complaining so I went over to the table to help.

They said that the portion was too small but they hadn't finished it.  I told them that I'd let the chef know and that I was sorry that they felt that way.  I'll admit that I fundamentally don't believe in rewarding bad behavior so it takes a bit to get me to comp something.  It was obvious that that was what they wanted but they were rude and they hadn't finished the dish despite the fact that it was "too small".  I thought it was resolved.

A few minutes later I saw that their check was ready so I swung by to pick it up.  The woman grabbed the check before I could take it.  "You lied to us."  This surprised me so I asked what the issue was.  "You didn't tell us that you are the owner."  Ok, let me start by saying that I think it's more than a little pretentious to approach tables and to let them all know that I'm the owner.   "We know a lot of people in this area and we're going to tell them that this restaurant isn't worth going to."

At that point, you really have 2 options.  1.  Give in, apologize (still trying to figure out what I'd be apologizing for) and comp the check.  This might mean that they'd come back.  Don't know if this is a good option.  2.  Tell them that I'm sorry they are upset but that I don't make a habit of telling people I'm an owner as it's kind of a non-issue.  Don't comp the check, breathe a sigh of relief that they may never come back and hope that if their friends are as obnoxious as they are, they won't come in either.

Went for option 2.  They stiffed Missy.  I covered her tip.  No reason for her to suffer from an issue that was really mine.  Never heard from that couple again.  This was in the pre-internet days so the damage to our business was probably minimal.  I'd like to think I'd do the same thing today but it's hard to say.  With all of the venues for customers to disparage you online, it's a harder call.  Do you risk a really bad review on Yelp or do you risk feeling like you're always bending to the will of difficult customers?  

What would you do?

christian watson

christian watson
May 17, 2011 10:26 CDT

No, I loathe them as well, but eventually they stop being jerks and their ability to spread bad news is unlimited.  I hate to give anything away, especially when I know they are trying to con me, however once you kill them with kindness… they are left with fewer choices.


May 17, 2011 10:06 CDT

Duly noted.  I guess it's my personal prejudice against people who are obviously out for a free meal.  It's also the realization that you can't please everyone every time and knowing that when you're small and independent, you really need to cultivate your good customers and occasionally cut your losses on those who appear less good.  

christian watson

christian watson
May 16, 2011 11:46 CDT

Option 3: Kill them with kindness. I politely start to find out more information about their experiences and what is lacking in the restaurant. Feedback can be hard to swallow especially if a client is hot-headed, but if a customer knows that the owner is listening, well then their opinions don't fall on "deaf ears."

Then I start to inquire about their friends and other ties to the neighborhood, where they normally eat-out, and walk them over to the bar for an after dinner drink.  The bar tender presents a check (as planned with all my bartenders), but then I tell them that it is on me... swiping the dupe away. "Please allow me!" (something for free... noted)

I invite them to give me their honest opinions about every future visit that they have in my restaurants and to ask for me by name, my little "eyes and ears" program is what I call them. "I need your help to whip this group into shape, you are not the first customers to issue a complaint," I would say.  Every time they walk in the door they are greeted by their first names, and never wait for a table when I can help it.  I engage my team to go out of their way to give them VIP treatment.  They have two choices, tell everyone that they know, "Well! we know the owner!" or never return and miss the opportunity to tell all of their friends, "oh, well, we know the owner!"

It is funny how people make themselves more important when they know the owner. In this case, hopefully they are old! Then you can write them off as dead or senile. Whatever the case, I like option 3.

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