Restaurant Customer Service

A series of posts on a Facebook group (Hot Springs Restaurant Reviews) during the past few days offer two very different perspectives on what constitutes acceptable levels of service. The original conversations began when a few people complained about experiences at local restaurants. I’m thinking of two, in particular. One is a pizza place in Hot Springs Village, where a guest complained of being ignored for seating and then, once seating, ignored by wait staff. She left after being ignored longer than she was willing to wait; as she left, she took a photo of two employees in front of the restaurant smoking cigarettes. The other conversation began when a guest complained, again, about waiting to be served and then walking out when patience ran out.

In both cases, the owner and/or manager responded online with a defensive apology of sorts. But in neither case did the apology seem, to me, heartfelt. Instead, I read them as excuses, with the respondents saying essentially (and I’ll paraphrase), “I work as hard as I can to deliver good food and good service, but sometimes I cannot because you just can’t get reliable staff these days.” One of them also said, in effect, “my food is as good as it gets and, even if you have to wait, it’s worth it.” In neither case did the complainant suggest that the owner/ manager on-site offered anything to address their concerns. Even afterward, when apologies came, they seemed to me to be begrudging; insincere is almost too soft a term.

I’ve never run a restaurant, but I’ve run service businesses. I’ve had my share of staff no-shows, interactions with guests by surly staff members, and the like. But, with one exception that I can recall, did I defend inadequate service by saying “we’re overworked or understaffed.” When necessary, I stepped in and took charge of the interaction or provided the customer service necessary to ensure a good experience for the customer/client. Even with that one exception, I took the customer aside and, out of public view, explained that my staff had done the right thing and the customer was in the wrong.

An example of a restaurant that, from my perspective as a customer, seems to be well-run is one just outside the west gate of Hot Springs Village. It’s almost always crowded, there’s sometime a wait, and the food—while not always my favorite—is always good and presented well. It’s a place I think has consistently good customer service; it’s called Home Plate. The owners of the place seem to be there the majority of the time, circulating among guests and asking if all’s well. They serve, bus tables, and keep an eye on the door and the wait line. Many of the staff I see in the place have been there for a while. All of them are amiable, friendly, and seem always to be in a rush, but not too busy to address guests’ needs. I attribute the atmosphere in the restaurant and the focus on customer service to the managers/owners setting expectations and modeling the behaviors they want to see from staff. I realize some other places may do more “from scratch” cooking than Home Plate (though I don’t know with certainty that’s the case); regardless, the operators of the restaurant seem to have gotten the formula down for consistently good service and good food.

I have no idea if the operators of Home Plate pay their servers and kitchen staff any better than others. Perhaps they do, perhaps they do not. But I know they model good customer service behavior, thereby increasing the likelihood that other staff will deliver the same.

I’ve watched other local restaurants and eateries fold after I had very poor customer service experiences with them: Linda’s Diner, JJ’s Chill Grill, Diamond D’s, Elan, etc.  Judging from the customer traffic of another couple close by where I’ve had less than stellar experiences, I’d say a few more will go by the wayside in the not-too-distant future. While none of the places I expect to be gone soon have food I’d consider extraordinary in any way, even if they did, I would be unwilling to give them my business because they seem to care more about their own convenience than the customer’s experience. The very best food, by the most exceptional chef, will not overcome the negativity of bad service.

It occurs to me that the local restaurant and hospitality community might serve itself well by organizing and operating a hospitality customer service training program that prospective employees would have to complete before being brought in for restaurant-specific training. The hospitality community would have to fund the program (I don’t think you can expect servers and wait staff to pay for it), but I think it might be a good investment. In Hot Springs, especially, with its influx of tourists, good experiences are crucial to returning and repeat businesses. Even businesses like the museums, Duck boat tours, etc. might find it valuable. If I were engaged in the hospitality community in Hot Springs, I’d be on board with it and would even head it up. But I’m retired. 😉


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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