Want to minimize the possibility of complaints?
Be aware of what rankles restaurant patrons the most and work to erase those situations. Last year, Consumer Reports polled more than 1,000 customers to learn their hot buttons and reported on the percentage of respondents who cited specific situations as negatives. The top two spots are held by dirty utensils and sloppy restrooms. Low on the list — not enough nutritional information provided and conversely, too much.
“Everything I am interested in is operationally directed. Any feedback that helps in that regard is very beneficial,” he says. “If there are ways for us to improve, we’ll pay attention to what our guests say.”
One Yelp-generated bit of information most definitely has caught his attention: he is able to learn how many users posted reviews from their mobile devices. “The number keeps growing and that’s a strong indication that restaurant websites need to be optimized for mobile.”
Open Table’s Srinivasan concurs. “We are just about at the tipping point where half of restaurant reservations come in via mobile devices. That trend won’t turn around. It is important for operators to understand how important functionality [of their web sites] is,” she says. “That’s definitely a type of feedback.”
Waiting for negative comments to pop up on a website may be an unnecessary step, their appearance perhaps prompted by an issue that would have been better handled as it was unfolding. Bill Reynolds, owner of New Buffalo Bill’s in New Buffalo, Mich., stresses how important it is for the dining room team to be tuned in, aware of how each table is responding to their dining experience. “Learning what customers think is one of the most valuable things a restaurateur can do. They need to tell us if there is anything we can do to serve them better. Being present allows you to observe that rather than having to be told directly. If you see happy faces and clean plates, chances are things are going well. Overhear a table conversation and you might learn of a problem that can be solved,” he says.
He is not, however, a fan of servers who appear at tables to ask how everything is. “It shouldn’t have to be the guests’ responsibility to tell you. A well-trained staff should be attuned to what’s happening, reading each table and getting to any problems before they’re pointed out. In that sense, there is no substitute for being present.”
Reed agrees, noting that he nurtured the habit during his years as executive chef at Hilton Hotels. “I’ve always been very present in the dining room. You want to check in with tables, see how they’re doing and learn firsthand whether they are happy or not,” he says.
Even, or especially, when there is a problem at a table, responding quickly and directly can change the tone from negative to positive as evidenced by Starbucks’ habit of having free-drink coupons at hand. “An unhappy customer you take care of almost always becomes a better customer,” says Reynolds.
Reed, who works an open cook line at Luella’s, keeps an alert eye on the restaurant as he grills shrimp and ladles bowls of gumbo. “Even if I’m in the weeds on the line and can’t leave, I know what’s going on with guests all the time. As soon as I can, I walk the dining room to see what I can do when there seems to be a problem. If a customer says a dish isn’t right, I can do something to diffuse the situation, make sure they don’t leave hungry or unhappy. If I hear of a service issue, I can assure the guests of how important it is that they have a good experience and that we’ll do what we can to make it right,” he explains.
Sometimes, a preemptive strike turns to gold for Reed and that’s one of the reasons he is so committed to what he calls table touches. “When we’re slammed, I know exactly how long a table waited for their food to arrive. I’ll stop by and note that I’m sorry they had to wait. Most of the time, they hadn’t even noticed but they appreciate the attention, the sense that we’re doing everything to ensure a great visit,” he says.
“You worry most about those who have a problem and don’t say anything,” Reed adds. “When I stop by a table, it opens the dialog, gives them a chance to speak directly with me, to learn that I care and will do anything I can to make it right, to fix any problems. The best thing you can do for a guest is turn a negative into a positive. Listening and being aware make that possible, gives you a chance to show who you are as an operator.”