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No feedback is worse than bad feedback

I have a friend, George, who owns three restaurants. My wife and several of her friends recently celebrated her birthday at George’s upscale concept. She ordered the crab ravioli in cream sauce, which she has ordered many times before. The two friends each ordered an Angus burger, one well-done, the other rare.

When the plates arrived the ravioli was in a cream and corn sauce, and the ravioli contained more corn than crab. (There was never corn in the sauce or the ravioli the previous times she ordered it.) Both hamburgers were tasteless—no seasoning at all. Worse, both burgers were cooked to the same degree of doneness. The tab for each person was about $20 for lunch. When my wife told me about this I asked her if she brought any of these issues up to George. “No, my friends were too embarrassed and they didn’t want to make a scene,” she said. But none of the three are ever going back.

We’re all guilty. The food isn’t up to par, the service is lacking, yet when the server asks, “How is everything?” we say “Fine” or nod our heads. And we probably never go back.

I always tell the manager and server, and even the kitchen crew if possible, when they are doing a fantastic job. I also try to inform them when they’ve dropped the ball. Most managers will politely disagree with me or make excuses when things are not as they should be. Instead of listening to the customer, they confront the customer. And, now I have had bad food or service, and been involved in a confrontation when I tried to bring it to someone’s attention.

The bottom line is that customers probably won’t tell you if they are unhappy. The best-case scenario is they probably won’t come back but they will tell their friends about their bad experience. The worst-case scenario is that they flame you on restaurant review websites. Let’s face it, neither option is appealing.

There are, of course, several ways to monitor when things are good and when things are bad.

1.    Keep the manager or owner on the floor, not in the office doing paperwork.

2.    Have the manager or owner talk (in a nonconfrontational way) with the guests if he considers anything might be amiss. Most people really appreciate personal attention. If you see half-eaten plates, people waiting at a table an inordinate amount of time and so forth, then find out what is wrong.

3.    Take complaints seriously and take them to heart. Don’t get defensive; learn from them. Many operators believe that sometimes customers complain to get free desserts, coffee, drinks, meals, etc. I contend that for every person like that there are 100 who just won’t complain and won’t come back. A free dessert or cup of coffee costs you little, but if it keeps a customer happy then it is priceless in future profits.

4.    Servers and bus people should not scrape plates until after the chef, manager, or owner has seen the plates. An easy way to accomplish this is to avoid scraping the plates before they get to the BOH. If I am the chef I want to see the plates so I know what dishes are being devoured and what items are barely touched. If you can’t do this for every plate try a setup where a random sample of plates are inspected or at a minimum that plates are not scraped if they are more than half full.

5.    Have someone monitor social media sites regularly. Have a policy in place on when to respond and how to respond. Only authorized people (keep it to one or two) should be allowed to respond. Also, write a response but don’t send it for a day. 

(A note about comment cards: Comment cards are good, but let’s face it, by the time you read them it is too late to keep that customer happy. Further, I have seen servers pocket bad comment cards and fake good ones.)

A dear friend, Mike Solaegui, the owner of Perfect Edge Cutlery, taught me a valuable lesson many years ago: If you have a customer who has a problem and you fix it better than the customer imagined, you will have a customer for life.


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