We in the hospitality business are told from an early age that the first rule of our business is “The customer is always right…” Well, we all know that this is just so much bullshit. How could someone who just walked in the door, or even those whom we see with some frequency, possibly know more about what we do and how we should do it than us? Just because they are paying for their dinner doesn’t mean they can arbitrarily dictate operations and procedures. This rule should actually be: “The customer should always get to think they are right…”
Allow me to clarify with an example:
At one place I was managing, we had a large party due to arrive that was on a strict schedule. They were scheduled to arrive at 7:15 and needed to be out by 9:30. They had called and requested their first course, a hot dish, be “on the table” at precisely 7:15. Does their server fire the first course at 7:10 in anticipation of their arrival? Well, of course not; first of all, even if they are all on a bus, and arrive at precisely the time agreed upon, getting all members of any large group into the restaurant and seated is like herding cats. By the time they arrive, enter, check coats, figure out who should sit where, order drinks and hit the bathroom, they are going to burn up a good 15 minutes. If we allowed our guests to literally dictate how and when we do things, we would be putting those hot apps on the table at 7:15 (as per their request), then removing and returning them to the kitchen at 7:20, to be re-fired/re-heated because they are stone cold. Better to wait until we see “the whites of their eyes”, and then time and fire their meal at a pace we know from experience will work best.
Often though, we have to bend or even break our own rules in order to be accommodating. Last night we went out for a bite before a movie. We had followed procedure by making a reservation, even noting when it was made that we had to be out at a specific time in order to make the show. My daughter and I arrived five minutes early. The hostess at this recently-opened place, greeted us. I told her we were to be three, gave her the name on our reservation, and told her that my wife was still in transit from work; I even told her I knew what my wife wanted as a pre-dinner cocktail, and intended to have it waiting for her at the table when she arrived. The hostess pulled up three menus and a wine list, placed them on her podium and waited. At first I thought she was preparing the menus for someone else who would take us in, so as not to leave her phone and the door unattended. We stood there awkwardly for a few seconds until I realized she was not waiting for help to seat us, but that Little Girlfriend at the door had been “trained”. I told her we would go ahead to the table and get started. But, “Oh no,” she said, “We wait until all parties are complete before seating here.” Huh?
Being someone who seats a dining room for a living, I can certainly understand the logic of the intention. A partially seated table is a huge hassle for a server, requiring them to start the table with the first guests, then re-approach when the party is fully assembled. This can result in a longer-than-anticipated turn time for the table in question, and a longer wait for reservations to come later in the evening. A full room, with lots of parties waiting for tables to turn, almost necessitates not seating an incomplete table. But I was looking at a mostly empty restaurant at 6pm, with no one else waiting to sit besides us, and I knew that any of the servers on the floor would have more than enough time accommodate us; plus, I was pre-armed with a drink order for my wife and we intended to order our appetizers while we waited. Because we had to be out by a certain time, the onus would be on us to order and move the meal along quickly; yet she was unbending. Rather than think any of this through and, in complete disregard of our notes about our time constraints, she was going to go by “The Rules” and make us wait.
This hospitality faux-paux was really not her fault, as she was fairly young, somewhat inexperienced, and had obviously been trained by Management to do just what she was doing; but by making this rule an absolute, they were requiring her to remain steadfast in defense of the policy without empowering here to be hospitable and accommodating even if it went against “The Rules”. In doing so, the policy makers not only cost themselves some sales dollars, but also any hope of good will with us. They had broken another basic rule by making a really poor first impression.
We stood at the podium uncomfortably for a few moments, as I stewed and fumed in silence. Realizing finally that she truly intended to make us stand there until our “third” arrived, I told the hostess that we were going to go somewhere else, as this was amongst the stupidest thing I had ever heard of, refusing to seat us in an empty dining room just because we had one person missing. Her response? Not “Would you like something while you are waiting?” or “Would you like to have a seat at the bar?”, but a rather curt, “Well, have a nice evening…”
With this type of inflexibility, I sincerely hope that this new place stays as popular and busy as its ownership and management must think it is by imposing such requirements on their guests, as I will certainly not be returning any time soon no matter how good the menu offerings may be. My daughter and I went next door to another spot, and were seated immediately, without any prerequisites. My wife arrived soon after, we had a lovely meal, and made it to our movie in plenty of time.
Part of our jobs, as hosts, waiters, bartenders, Maitre D’s, and managers, is to give our guests the impression that we are catering to their every whim, while still doing what we know will make their experience better, even when it makes our job more difficult. If we just couch things in the proper verbiage, and use a little bit of psychological shepherding, we can make them think we are jumping through their requested hoops, while still skipping along to our own beat. But sometimes we need to be willing to accommodate our guests’ requests, even if doing so breaks our own Rules Of Engagement. To this end, the 1st Rule of the Hospitality Business should be “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it…”