Conflicts with customers, even disappointed patrons are unavoidable. Even at the greatest restaurants in the world, occasional gaffs in service are inevitable—the steak that comes out a shade overcooked, or the forgotten appetizer—but how restaurants deal with these problems is what separates good service from excellent, and what ultimately can convert an unhappy guest into one who leaves with a good experience to relate to his friends. Serious Eats talked to a few chefs around the country known for the excellence in service to figure out the best way to deal with these inevitable run-ins.
Here's what they had to say:
Chef Tony Maws of Craigie on Main in Cambridge says that when a guest looks even remotely upset at the level of service provided, their first reaction is to "pamper the crap out of them! People want to be heard and feel like someone is looking out for them." It's a strategy that works, converting underwhelmed customers into positive mouthpieces for the restaurant. "We even hired a Grandmother," Maws jokes, speaking of his own mother. "She follows up with even slightly unhappy patrons." Never underestimate the power of the little old lady.
Make No Excuses
There's nothing worse to a customer's ears than when a waiter or manager tries to blame someone else on the floor or in the kitchen. Passing the buck simply doesn't work. "It might be old fashioned, but honesty is the best policy," says Ian Louisignau, the General Manager of Boston's Clio. "We find that most people are forgiving as long as you give an honest apology and are sincere about making their experience memorable for the right reasons."
Nick Kokonas of Chicago's Alina agrees. "Total honesty and admission of error" is the only course of action. "We tell our staff to always admit a mistake, own it, and then make it right." He stressed the importance to "never, ever try to cover it up or lay blame elsewhere. Every customer can relate to an honest mistake or error."
At New York's Maialino, Executive Chef Nick Anderer adds that "Excuse will only elevate the customer’s sense of your restaurant’s incompetency."
Comping courses, entire meals or a round of drinks are often an easy way to quickly patch up a situation before it gets out of hand, or to make sure that an irate customer leaves with a better impression when the bill comes, but it's not a catch-all solution to every problem. Chef Tom Douglas of Seattle's Lola says that "If the customer gives us a fair chance to correct the problem, then we won't comp them" Often that involves simply sending a dish back to the kitchen to be recooked, though Chef Douglas is quick to point out that if there is a group dining, they'll "try to get the rest of the table to consider returning their food so we can refire the entire course and serve them all at the same time." In the meantime, a small midcourse or snack might be offered to hold them over while their meals are recooked.
"For some people who are extremely agitated, removing something from their bill" might be the right thing to do says Chef Anderer. He adds, "But for others, it could be as simple as providing a sincere apology and delivering on your promise to correct the mistake."
Michael Kean, General Manager of Manresa on Los Gatos, Calif. adds to this the importance of promptness. "Talking with the guest and correcting the problem before they leave the restaurant" is key, he says. "If something should be comped, do it [and inform the customer] right away."
Focus on the Solution, Not the Problem
With an upset customer, the primary concern should be to make them happy, not to assign blame, says Chef Maws. "We try to have a caring attitude and not get hung up on the specifics of what did or didn't actually happen." After service when the customers have cleared the floor is the right time to talk to the staff to try and assess the situation, he adds.
Donnie Madia of Chicago's Blackbird and Avec offers similar advice. "I always approach those concerns with a positive attitude. Even if the customer may be wrong, we're going to deliver service and treat it as if our own family had the complaint."
The Customer is Not Always Right
Despite the old adage, many chefs and restaurant owners agree that the customer is not always right. It's a particular problem when a customer doesn't understand the basic language of a menu and misinterprets how dishes are meant to be served, like being surprised when their tartare arrives uncooked or their duck breast still red in the center. At these moment, service switches to damage control mode, says Chef Michael Lomonaco of New York's Porterhouse. The goal is not to "cause any undue embarrassment for the guest," he says.
At Maialino, servers are instructed to avoid "contradiction or any sort of confrontation" that will "only agitate the situation," says Chef Anderer. "This requires some athleticism on the part of the server to be able to identify what the person really wants so they can offer them something that more closely meets their expectations."
"There is a certain amount of responsibility that falls on the guest as well," chef Oringer points out. "It ultimately falls on the guest to ask if they are unfamiliar with an ingredient or preparation. It could come of as insulting if a server says to a guest 'Are you aware that your sashimi will be raw this evening?'"
Image crédit: Herve Blandin