One of the most difficult situations any server faces is the hostile guest. I call them hostile, because they are angry with you long before you have even greeted them. Some people just bring all the hostility of their day in to a restaurant and dump it on their server. From the moment you greet them, they make it clear that they know you are only smiling because you have to and that none of your upselling mind tricks are going to work on them. The average server can spot this right away and provides adequate service while avoiding small talk at all cost.
This approach is the response the guest is accustomed to. It reconfirms their belief that the only reason you were being friendly in the first place was to get their tip. They peg you as a phony and the restaurant version of détente is underway. Most servers try to avoid this type of guest. In reality though these guests are the ones you can make the biggest impact on. Once you learn how to defuse these time bomb guests, you are well on your way to building a regular for life.
The secret to winning over these guests is to first clarify exactly what you are dealing with. There are five basic types of hostile guests. These types represent nearly all of the habitually mean guests you will face as a server. Knowing how to spot which type you are dealing with will allow you to choose the right tactic to win them over. Each has tell tale traits that allows you to spot them.
Here are the five underlying reasons that make guests hostile:
1) They Think You Don’t Like Them: A far larger portion of your guests fall into this category than you would think. This is especially true at nicer restaurants. Guests who feel out of place or underdressed will think that you are judging them. This is usually rooted in them transferring their insecurities onto you. Imagine going into a hipster bar, a biker bar, or any other place that you feel you wouldn’t fit in. This insecurity is generally rooted in feeling like you would be judged. When people find themselves in a situation in which they feel judged, it is natural to dislike the person they perceive as judging them.
2) They Are Intimidated By You: I know this may come as a shock to some of you, but you are intimidating. You are on your home turf, surrounded by friendly coworkers, and knowledgeable about the menu they are giving a blank stare. You stand above them. Maybe you have a full head of hair and they are bald. They might be worried that their spouse is attracted to you. Whatever the reason, they must step up their hostility to let you know that they are in charge.
3) They Don’t Like Servers: Some people have a legitimate hostility towards our profession. I would think this was odd if it were not for the fact that I have a fair amount of hostility towards Dentists in spite of one of my best friends being one. Maybe they had a bowl of soup spilt on them as a child. Their high school sweetheart might have been a hostess and left them for that cool server who could buy her beer. They might even have encountered so many unscrupulous and uncaring servers that they have decided all servers are the same.
4) They Don’t Like Anyone: While many servers assume this is true of all hostile guests, it is usually not the case. This does not however mean that these people do not exist. Some people are just surly towards everyone. They are often times older or dining alone. You can also spot them in a group from the reactions of the people around them. When the other people at the table look deeply apologetic and embarrassed, you know what you are dealing with. This should be the last option when trying to categorize guests.
5) They Want Something For Free: This is another category most servers are too quick to assume about. It also is a reality regarding a small percentage of guests. These are the guests who will send back their drink because it didn’t taste the way they thought or wasn’t strong enough. They will complain about the food. Even when they enjoy something they will refuse to say so because they view the experience as a negotiation. While it is easy to say their motivation is to get something for free, it is actually slightly different. They want to be treated as if they are special and therefore receive things others do not.
The bad news is that there is no completely accurate test to determine who falls into which category. Guests will not acknowledge that they fall into any of them. The good news is that it does not matter. The basic strategy for dealing with each of these guests is the same. Tomorrow, I will discuss the antidote to each of these poisons. Understanding what makes a guest like you will unlock the solution to each of these problems. You no longer have to cower in fear of a hostile guest; you just have to stick to the strategy until they become your regular.
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