Spotting The Complaint

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One of the difficulties of the frantic posting regimen I have taken upon myself is trying to come up with new and interesting things to write about.  I want this blog to be informative and provide real world tips that you can apply on your next shift to make more money.  This is one of the reasons why I am happy to get phone calls from time to time with suggestions.  This topic was inspired by a phone call from my friend Roman of the Subatomic Pioneers.  Give me a good idea and you get a mention.  Solve the other problem of coming up witty opening paragraph and I will link to your band too.

Guests have a significant amount in common with my ex-girlfriends.  Both of them can be noticeably unhappy and rather than tell you the issue, they will make you guess.  The old “If you don’t know what is wrong then I am certainly not going to tell you” treatment.  In both cases, failing to spot the signals and act upon them will prevent you from getting what you want.  In the guest’s case that means your entire tip.  Knowing how to spot these problems and how to get them to admit the problem is the key to saving your tip.  Guests will often respond to disappointment by lessening your tip even if they choose not to admit the problem or recognize you, as the server, did not create it.

Here are three ways to spot a complaint that is never verbally mentioned:

Watch the Posture: It is sometimes obvious when a guest has an issue.  They might not cross their arms in a huff and refuse to speak to you like an ex-girlfriend, but the signs are there.  A drastic change in their posture or demeanor will often signal dissatisfaction.  You might not be the source of the problem, but if you don’t try to find out you will infuriate the guest more.  Ask specific questions about the food or drink in front of them.  Be sure to offer any assistance possible.  Be approachable and give the guest the time to know you care.

Watch the Plate: If more than a quarter of the food is on the plate at the end of the meal, this is can be a signal of an unhappy guest.  Instead of asking a generic question like “how was it?” ask something more specific.  I like to use a question with two outcomes.  “Were you not happy with it or did we just get you full?” This forces a guest to either lie or avoid the issue.  Either way the other guests at the table are aware that you care and tried to address the problem.

Watch the Other Guests: Realistically, I am as bad about this as any of my exes or guests.  Just last night I was out with a friend and had a dessert that was incredibly sub par.    They were fried brownie bites that were obviously put in a transfer bowl used for french fries and were covered in salt.  This led my friend to name them “chocolate salty balls.”  The server seeing all but two left on the plate asked very sincerely if I was unhappy with them.  They were less than four dollars and she had our check in her hand so I did not complain.  My friend’s reaction made it very clear that I was unhappy, she picked up on it, and I still didn’t complain.  The difference of course is that I still tipped her the same amount understanding it wasn’t her fault.  Don’t trust your guests to be so logical.

Once you can get the guest to admit the problem, you can take steps to address it.  The same guest that will not complain to you will most likely take their complaint to an email or tell their friends.  This is in addition to taking it out on your tip.  The effort you take in showing you care by giving them every opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction is the key to saving your tip.  This is the key to turning unsatisfied guest into satisfied ones.  As far as girlfriends go, you are on your own for advice on that one.

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9 Responses to Spotting The Complaint

  1. teleburst June 24, 2010 at 12:40 pm #

    Another way to broach the subject of a half-eaten plate is to ask, “Did you not care for your meal or are you just saving room for dessert”?

    One thing that I’ve found to be true in cases where a guest was initially hesitant to complain is that you have to be careful in “forcing a solution” on them. The one thing you don’t want to do is make them get something for free if they don’t want to. You have to be careful about overdoing it. Some people will actually say something like, “I’m not complaining because I want something for free”. If that happens, you smile and nod and say, “Of course not. But I wouldn’t be doing my job or serving you properly if I didn’t try to make it right. It’s important for us to get it right”. If they keep protesting that they don’t want you to do anything for them, the best thing is to not fight them on it. Or, if you want to be sneaky, you could box up a dessert and send it home with them after they’ve paid the bill. This especially works if they already have a to-go bag. You just sort of off-handedly say, “Oh, by the way, I threw in a dessert for you for your kindness in discussing the food issue with me. Many people wouldn’t bother letting us know and I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate your help in our constant quest to be the best restaurant around”. Or less flowery words to that effect . I did this the other day and the guest was surprised and pleased that I had taken it out of his hands but didn’t force him to take a dessert that he might or might not have wanted to eat on the spot.

    The other thing to consider is whether making it right ends up making it wrong. Let’s say someone gets through half of their steak and they’ve decided that it wasn’t cooked right. This can happen if they have a steak that’s overcooked on the edges and they start eating in the center where it’s more correct. If you “force” a recook on them, especially something cooked at medium well or above, the rest of the table is going be long finished before they are halfway through their new steak. Unless they specifically ask for a new steak, a better alternative is to ask if you can get them something that can be quickly prepared, like fish or pasta. Obviously, you’ll want management to comp not only the bad steak but also the new dish.

    All you’re doing by recooking the steak is exacerbating the problem because now you have TWO problems – the temperature of the steak and the fact that one guest is eating alone.

    As always, a good article!

    You mentioned posture, but the verbal component is also important. An “It’s OK” could either be, “It’s OK!!!!” or it could really mean, “It’s (just) OK”. You can almost visualizing the vocal cords shrugging instead of the shoulders . Usually “It’s OK” means the latter. You can sometimes also detect little sighs or delays in answering the question, “How is everything”? I just hope that no server ever asks the bad question, “Is everything OK”?

    One other thing, when I’m asking about steaks, I don’t ask, “How is it” or “Is the temperature correct”? I ask, “Is the steak prepared the way you like it”? I don’t know why that sounds better, but it might be because it covers not only temperature but also taste. That’s just me though.

    • tipsfortips June 24, 2010 at 1:00 pm #

      The surprise free dessert to go is a good move. Embarrassing the guest that is hesitant to complain is never a good idea. What I will often do is get the item taken off the check without sending the manager to the table. I won’t mention it until I drop the check. This is inevitably followed by the line “you didn’t have to do that.” To which I say:

      “I know I didn’t have to and if you had insisted I might not have fought so hard to get it done. They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but sometime us unsqueaky wheels deserve a little grease too.”

      This is music to the passive aggressive person’s ears.

  2. Becky June 24, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    Ha! “Music to the passive aggressive person’s ears”! I love that.

    For the first paragraph I thought you were dangerously close to stepping into some sexist territory, David, and I was going to jump down your throat (not really). But this was a really interesting post.

    I’ve worked in fine dining and fast food and everything in between. I’ve worked every single job there is in a restaurant (barring head chef and owner) and I’ve dealt with every kind of complaint there is.

    The one that still sticks with me when I was a manager in the 80s is the guy with his wife and two kids who decided he didn’t like his dish (his family’s meals were great – they actually expressed that they LOVED the food) and literally NOTHING I did was going to make him happy. He was belligerent, rude and vociferous, and disturbed all of the tables around him (and he was sober). I did it all for him, from beginning with the apology and removing the offending food, to the point where I finally had to (politely and quietly) ask him to leave, apologizing for not being able to make things right.

    This was not “bluestem” fine dining, but it was a place with white tablecloths, servers in vests, extensive wine list, etc. – a quiet, classical music kind of place, and he was obviously accustomed to having his behind kissed. I did that until I couldn’t anymore. As he left, he said he’d not be back and would take his money somewhere else and that the ownership would be informed what a rude staff worked for him. At the front door, which I held open for him, I quietly replied, “That is wonderful, because your money will never be good here again. I look forward to my conversation with the owner, [the name of the owner], about this. Have a nice evening.”

    This quiet, fine-dining, full restaurant erupted in applause. His wife apologized as she left and palmed me a twenty for the server.

    Three guests came to me, business cards in hand and told me to have the owner call them if he needed assurance that I’d handled the situation beautifully. I was lucky enough to work for a boss who trusted me and backed me up.

    I’ve never dealt with this situation ever again, and I would try to handle it exactly the same way were it to happen.

    For the record, he never called the owner and we never saw him in the restaurant again. Thank God.

    • tipsfortips June 24, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

      If you met some of my exes you wouldn’t. Nor would you wonder where all this premature grey comes from.

  3. Marta Daniels June 29, 2010 at 9:25 am #

    Excellent article! I’ve been a server for close to ten years, and I’m always excited to get a helpful tip.I will definitely be using the “get you full” line, or teleburst’s “save room for dessert” line. Thanks so much! God bless!

  4. Todd July 6, 2010 at 2:44 am #

    I have been a server for over a year now, and have just over four years experience in the restaurant industry, beginning in the dishroom. I was a line cook at an upscale steakhouse in Florida for over two years, and can reliably determine the temperature of a steak based on the outside appearance, and without a doubt once a guest cuts into the steak. For the guest who won’t complain about a steak that I know is overcooked, I simply have the grill cooks cook another steak to the guests liking. A few minutes after the new steak is on the grill I will inform the guests that I am a steak lover and that if my steak is not prepared to my liking, it is not as enjoyable as it should be, and it is for my love of steaks that I have a new steak being cooked the way you like it and it should be out in a few minutes. I then offer a take out box for the overcooked steak and the suggestion that they feed it to their dog or a neighbor that they don’t like (usually gets a chuckle or two), but more seriously, that it will taste great in the morning with some eggs and bacon. This approach keeps the guest from having to complain if they are embarrassed to do so, and it also shows that I truly care about their dining experience.

  5. Amber August 18, 2010 at 11:33 pm #

    I, as a former server, and frequent restaurant diner, can not stand the line “Did you save room for dessert?”. It is terribly off-putting, and I have met many people who agree. Please, please stop using that line! There are so many other ways to offer dessert! (I mean this in a nice, happy way!)

    • tipsfortips August 19, 2010 at 12:12 am #

      I agree. In this case however you are actually providing for two choices. By saying “were you unhappy with it or were you saving room for dessert?” You are giving the person the room to make the complaint. If they really don’t have a complaint and are full, you are leading them to that answer too. The actual offer for dessert I give is much more creative. If you search dessert on here I have a whole other post for that.


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