Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Potential for Praise

"There is a couple in the lobby asking to speak to a manager."

I don't recall who exactly delivered these words to me in the kitchen last night, but whoever it was had to do so with a mixture of honest pain and guilty pleasure. The pain comes from knowing that this can't be good news for me and whomever the complaint is going to be about--that's being honest; the pleasure derives from that feeling we all get when we witness someone else's misery--hence the guilt.

I know what was going through the heads of all the waiters who heard the remark (except for the messenger): "That's got to be my table..."

Now, you'd like to think that we take care of all our customers in such a way that they could never, hopefully would never--complain. And yet when we hear the word that a guest is in the lobby with a complaint that requires the attention of the manager, we all quickly run the through the list--hopefully not a lengthy one--of the mistakes we've made with which tables and quickly calculate the odds of it being "one of mine".

As I left the kitchen, I even heard two waiters say something like "Oh that's probably mine..." as if this would lessen the likelihood of that being the case or mitigate the consequences if it actually is.

No matter. As the Manager, all the tables are mine. So, too, are the complaints. Now, to be fair, a complaint is not what I am forced to endure every--or even most--time I get the call to appear before a customer in the lobby. In fact, more often than not, it is a compliment, not a complaint that I am going to receive.

Sometimes, customers feel that the service they received was so good that even a sizable tip is not sufficient reward for the waiter. They feel compelled go to tell the manager about how good the service was because they value the experience so much that they want to share it, not simply reward it.

Happy customers can tell the waiter this of course, but by calling attention to the manager, the patrons feel as if they've done as the waiter just did for them, going above and beyond what is necessary. Now, if you ask me, good waiters do this for reasons that have more to do with the kind of person they are than the size of the tip that they expect. And the customer is right about one thing: the waiter won't get a lot of praise because, well, the tip is supposed to say it all.

There is an old saw that says that leaving a single penny on the table after the bill has been taken is a sign of exceptional service, but often it's just a penny that never got properly scooped up. No obscure symbol that that will really do, because the customer who wants to go the extra distance will almost certainly take the time to ask for the manager and tell him or her all about it.

So too, with even more certainty, will the customer at the other end of the spectrum--the complainer--take the time to tell the manager all about it.

This is precisely what was on my mind as I took a deep breath, moderated my resolve with a smile and headed for the lobby. I had no real reason to think it was going to be a complaint necessarily; just a good old 'gut' feeling. Man, I hate that feeling.

Now, this particular complaint was about gluten, and if I thought that the subject of the conversation was particularly important to this story, I would relate the details. But the details are not important to this thought. I want to address the mechanics, if you will, about receiving and processing a customer complaint.

While admittedly a work in progress, this method is born of hard won experience. Make no mistake about it: the proper response to a customer's complaint is critical for a restaurant's continued success.

There's an old saying that someone who's had a good time at your restaurant will tell three people, and one who's had a bad experience will tell ten. It's quite true. Think of your own experiences. When have you taken the time and effort to complain, and what did you expect? In other words, why did you complain?

I have to digress here to talk about the motives people seem to have for complaining. Ironically, I feel that just as we saw with the folks who take the time and effort to compliment their waiter, the folks who complain do so because they are considerate and caring about the restaurant.

Well, most of the time, anyway. I have had several--and this isn't a failure to disclose, for we just don't get many complaints of this variety, honestly--people tell me that I have to "fire" this or that waiter for this or that reason. I don't give this person, nor what they say much credence because their complaint is so crudely formed that it doesn't give me anything to work with, but I do listen and, where necessary respond with something non-confrontational but rational and hopefully, in defense of the restaurant.

On this last point, I'll be brutally honest. I don't care about the welfare of the waiter--especially when being harangued by an angry customer--but I do care about the welfare of the restaurant. By this I mean that I have no hesitation in calling a waiter to task, but I won't trash him or her or the restaurant just for the sake of making the customer happy.

I'll do everything in my power to make them happy. Of course, I apologize, but not excessively. Once or twice is enough. I'll say we'll do our best next time and that "you won't have that waiter" or "that dish prepared that way" again, but I won't say bad things in general about the chef or the waiter. I'm not going to stoop to name calling,and customers who do so are, in my mind, people to be heard but not to be reasoned with.

So, hearing them out is important, no matter who is complaining or what they are going on about. If the complainant is not being bellicose nor unreasonable, I will listen. More often than not, I am inclined to agree with them on the surface of things. They are usually right. So, I will be nodding my head as they talk, making sure to let them spill it all out the first time.

This is in itself not an easy task. It is quite tempting to dive in to 'explain' or 'defend' each point of criticism. I have the gathering sense that if I don't at least attempt to refute them point-by-point, I will miss a point or fail to address the complaint comprehensively.

This, however, is a false sense of logic, for in fact, it is better to allow the complainant have their say first, as fully and extensively as I am able. I say this because if this conversation is held at the end of the night, when it is fairly calm, I'll have plenty of time to absorb the initial blows and still keep working. If, however, the complaint is in the middle of the rush, it becomes harder by, oh, at least an order of magnitude to keep from simply interrupting at the first point--sensible or not--made.

The words, "Yes, but..." are struggling to escape from my lips. I deliberately avoid this phrasing as I force myself to wait. I must first allow the complainant to expend their initial energy in explanation.

Then, as I discern first the exact nature and reason for their complaint, I begin to work out in my head a scenario, filling in the details around the edges. I quickly deduce where they were sitting, what they ate, and, most importantly from my standpoint, when I learn this is not a complaint about the food but about the service, who the waiter was.

Nine times out of ten, just knowing who the waiter is will explain why the folks are complaining, regardless of the actual circumstances. It's true, of course, some waiters are just more likely to be complained about than others. Since being a waiter is in many way the same as being a stage actor, if the strength of the performance is not there on any give night, the audience will know. The first thing I tell waiters who get complaints and say, "But I was really nice to them!" is this:

"If you were really so very nice to them, them," I say, "Then they wouldn't have complained. The fact that they took the time to complain is proof, in and of itself, that they saw through your act."

So, I tell them to abandon the line "But I did everything I could" and start thinking about where and when the performance they were giving failed. At some point, like being in a bad play, their audience refused to suspend their disbelief. This confuses bad waiters--who don't see themselves as actors-- but it gets the good ones to thinking.

At this point, after hearing the complaint, I am thinking about how to best resolve the conversation and, quite frankly, get these folks on their way in a reasonable frame of mind and a reasonable amount of time.

This is where the art of compromise comes in. Clearly, we have differing ideas on how long the confrontation should take place. The complainant may be willing to go for twenty minutes or more, and the manager--speaking from personal experience--would love nothing more than for the whole thing to be over in about ten seconds. So somewhere between ten seconds and twenty minutes, there is a magic number. When and how it is reached is different every time, but the mechanics are fairly regular.

After hearing the complaint, the manager then has to explain what went wrong and promise some sort of action to repair the damage done. The first part of this resolution process is particularly tricky to navigate, for the natural tendency to defend one's colleagues and livelihood is hard to overcome.

It's unbelievably tempting to say that it wasn't even a mistake and that the customer is the one who is in the 'wrong'. It's also remarkably easy to avoid the temptation by imagining how we feel when someone tries to tell us that is is us, not them who are in the wrong. No logic in the world will prevail after such a gambit, and we know it from personal experience.

So, admitting that a 'wrong was done'--if I may adopt that most Reaganesque neutral phrasing--is the place to begin, even if we don't ultimately admit that anyone in particular did anything in particular wrong.

As I said, I apologize, but not excessively. I start by admitting that yes, the customer is right. Then, I move to the more nuanced position that, while we did all we could, the mistake still seems to have happened. This allows for the possibility that we didn't make it on purpose, and that our aims are not necessarily nefarious.

In other words, I want to let the people know that even though what happened can indeed happen, we are not in business to displease people. I mean really.

This is, then, the ultimate message I try to leave with people who are complaining: "It happens that, even and especially in the course of trying to please people, we occasionally fail. When we do, there is nothing to be said or done other than that we will try hard not to repeat the mistake."

The message is, I hope, a transparent one. While I really do regret that some people have not been pleased by our efforts, best or not, it is worth realizing that at that point, not much can be done to rectify it. Having offered at least an explanation of how it happened, I can hopefully move quickly into resolution by thanking the patron for taking the time and effort to complain and inviting them to come back and give us another chance.

This is really the final piece of the interaction, one that can usually take place as we are finally moving toward the door. Handshakes and earnest promises to do better accompany this final piece of the ritual. Nothing can replace a sincere look in the eye and the direct acknowledgment that we hear the complaint. Sometimes, the patron may walk away thinking that nothing will come of it, but only if that's what they wanted to hear in the first place.

The fact is, as far as I am concerned, that change in response to a complaint will indeed happen, even it it is merely to make me more aware of the potential for praise at every table.


d2 said...

So what happened with this particular complaint?? I burning to know...

Greyghost said...

Well, it was from a woman who requires a gluten free diet.

This is becoming a frequent request, and problem actually arose when the waiter sought to assure the patron that he knew which items on the menu would suit her request.

This didn't sit well with the guest because she felt that, a) a waiter cannot possibly know what exactly is in every dish, and that b) his suggestion that he did actually prevented her from making adequate, timely contact with the chef.

Well, the waiter did consult with the chef--as we always must do-- and came up with a dish that was both Hudson's fare and gluten free. She ate it and, by her own account, loved it.

But, by not offering to consult with the chef immediately, the waiter aroused the mistrust of this person; someone who had obviously been treated with some discourtesy in other restaurants.

On this supposition, I was correct. At the end of our talk she disclosed that she represented a 'gluten free' support group of some sort. She candidly said that her power of suggestion to the group would go a long way towards getting their members to eat at Hudson's. Considering the economy, we'll certainly take their business. Appeasing people with dietary restrictions may not really add to the bottom line except in terms of goodwill but that's better than nothing, which is what we'll get otherwise.

At the end of our conversation, they were quite happy to have been heard and really did not have another complaint about either the food or the service. In fact, they actually complimented the waiter on his professionalism, but wanted him to know that he shouldn't pretend to speak for the chef, at least not to someone with a medical condition. True.

And, while I am tempted to disregard the description of the condition as 'medical' as an potential overreaction on their part, the truth is that I can't say for certain how serious a condition the intolerance for gluten really can be.

Further, I am not able or willing to argue with someone who thinks they have a potentially life-threating situation. Who am I to decide?

In this case, I think that I treated them with all due respect and hope I set the tone for a return visit.

valgal said...

a 'gluten free support group' - i think i want to join and learn to complain...

bc said...

Some interesting points, But..."Too many words, Phillip."

phunked-up! said...

gluten-shmuten! philip, i like your maturity and personal growth in this matter of dealing with sh*@% customers;! however, i fear this is sara-dog talking and our dream of running the fine "soup nazi" establishment were we don't "take any snuff of those swine" is slipping away every time you empower another stock crashed, no longer middle upper class, diner, looking for a handout. we have dreamed for so long to be able to turn away as we please and kick someone out of "our" restaurant when and as we feel; keep up the fine work. i respect you for it. its not easy. but don't, i insist lose the gusto to do whats right, don't empower those complaining f*@%s!

sorry if there are any sensitive readers, this is something very near and dear to me, and i stand by my words, we are right, not them!