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Are poor phone manners costing your restaurant?

A key part of my position as a culinary arts instructor at JobTrain is to get graduates jobs. To do this I literally make over 100 phone calls a month to kitchens, offices and chefs. I am always shocked and amazed at how badly phones are answered and how few messages get transmitted to the right person.

This morning I called the kitchen of a major upper-end hotel. The phone was answered with, “What!?” I asked for the chef, who is a good friend of mine. “He’s too busy to talk with you. Call him after work.” The person never asked who I was. For all he knew I could have been the chairman of the board of the hotel chain. Oh yes, he slammed the phone down and never told me when after work was so I could call back at the right time.

Yesterday I received a call from a kitchen manager at a major restaurant chain. He left a message: “Adam, I need two good prep cooks immediately. Call me as soon as you can. I want them to start by the weekend.” I called back. The phone was answered, and I asked for the KM by name and told the person I was returning his call. The person didn’t say anything, put the phone down on the counter and walked away. I presumed he went to get the KM. I watched the timer on my desk phone and when it hit 10 minutes of me listening on speaker to the noises of the kitchen, I hung up. Being a glutton for punishment, I called back. Of course the line was busy. I called back 20 minutes later, and the line was still busy. I presume the phone was still lying on the counter. An hour later the KM called me again. He was exasperated that I hadn’t returned his call.

Both of these scenarios are frustrating but, unfortunately, not unique. For the last few months I’ve wondered if these phone issues would actually cause a store to lose money. About two weeks ago I was approached by a barbecue chain opening up a few places in the San Francisco Bay Area. The chef recruiter/trainer and I corresponded by e-mail. She asked me to call her at the Berkeley store “where I will be training all day on Saturday.” Saturday morning I called the number she provided at 11:00 a.m. The answering machine said the store was open at 11:00 (ten minutes before) and that if I was reaching the answering machine the store was closed and I should leave a message. I left a message for the chef recruiter/trainer. On Monday guess who got an e-mail from the chef recruiter/trainer wanting to know why I couldn’t have been bothered to call her on Saturday! I called her immediately and explained I left a message. She told me she never got the message. I joked, “Well, it was a good thing that I didn’t place a tailgate party order for 25 slabs of ribs.” She chortled back, “That message I would have gotten.” I wondered if she would have.

So, the next day I launched an informal personal survey of 20 — yes, 20 — businesses to see how these sort of things would be handled. I called national well-known chains and little struggling mom and pop stores. The results will startle and alarm you.

The first place I called was the Berkeley barbecue place. I called 30 minutes after the store had supposedly opened and got the answering machine. I left a message that I was doing a tailgate party in a few days for 40 people and wanted to buy all the food from them. I left an alias name and my real phone number. (I took my name off my answering machine message and just used my number.) Guess who didn’t call back?

Three different bakeries for a wedding cake. Only one called back.

An upscale bakery to order 10 sheet cakes for a corporate function. No call back.

You think a failing pizza place would want a large order. I called one. I told the very rude person on the phone that I wanted a price quote for 100 pizzas for a Silicon Valley business. “We don’t give discounts, our menu is online.” I asked to speak to the manager. “He’s not here now, I’ll have him call you back.” The person then hung up without getting either my alias name or my number.

Of the 20 places I called only a handful got back to me. I have one question that you need to consider with extreme candor: Would your business have been one of the handful?

Bottom line: Every restaurant needs to train employees in the basics: how to answer the phone, how to take a message, how to pick up messages on the answering machine and how to be civil on the phone. You need to make sure that managers, chefs and others in charge actually pick up calls and messages. And finally, you need to teach your crew that a sale is a sale, and money spent over the phone is just as good as money spent at the counter or the table in your restaurant.

If you want to let me know what you think of this article, call me at 650-330-6413. I promise I will return the call and yes, my real name is back on the answering machine.

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