Everything Isn’t Great


"Of course the nachos are great"

If you are in the restaurant industry in a managerial capacity, this post is probably going to represent a gut check.  I am speaking to you today on behalf of your former guests and current front line employees.  This is a bit of tough love, but I assure you it is for your own good.  It is the feedback that the people who interact with your guests on a daily basis are afraid to give you.  Not every item on your menu is great.

For years now, servers have been called upon to uphold the company line.  When a guest seeks a server’s opinion on a particular item, the server is required to provide a ringing endorsement.  Savvy guests have become wary of soliciting this advice because they know servers are not allowed to speak candidly.  In spite of their experience watching countless guests leave dissatisfied after trying a dish, they are prohibited from preventing another from making the same mistake.  They instead sell out their integrity to uphold a misguided corporate mandate and stroke the ego of someone who does not have to make a living off of the disappointed guest’s tip.

Your servers are the backbone of your sales force.  You empower them to be more directly involved in your guests’ experiences than anyone else.  The key to their ability to sell to your guest is not pushing a specific drink to their guests at the greet or trying to upsell.  The reasons servers are able to sell to your guests is the level of trust the guest gives them.  This trust is lost entirely when the server is prevented by corporate mandate from telling the guest that certain item is subpar. 

I know you are convinced of the quality of all of your products based upon focus group testing in your corporate kitchen.  Your staff holds focus groups of their own each night in their section.  They have seen the reactions of hundreds of guests to your offerings.  They know what receives positive reactions and they know what leaves guests disappointed.  The guest will often seek their counsel because of this. 

The advice that a server gives the guest is a key component in hospitality.  If you were out with your family and someone asked your opinion of an item you knew was subpar, would you tell them it was “great”?  You would most likely advise them to try a different item.  When we define “hospitality” as treating our guests as we would our friends and family, then we have an obligation to provide them with the same honest opinions.  The primary difference between the two groups, is that your guests will not necessarily have an underlying loyalty that causes them to return after a poor dining experience.

You have the same goals as your servers.  Both of you want highly satisfied guests who sing your praises and return often.  The best way to make this occur is to impress the guests with hospitable service and a great meal.  I have no fear of providing that service to my guests, and if properly trained your staff should not either.  I dedicate an entire chapter in my book, Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips, on ways to do this, but here are a few words on the techniques that I use.

The Non Answer:  When a guest asks about a subpar pasta dish, I will often respond “We are better known for our steaks.”

The Follow Up Question:  When asked by a guest about a particular item most guests are dissatisfied with, I will respond, “Are you familiar with this dish?”  This allows the server to provide a cautionary statement about components of the dish that your guests might not be anticipating.

The Work In Progress:  This one is remarkably simple.  The reply is, “I think the chef is really onto something great with this dish, but I think he will have it better developed by your next visit.”

The Shake Off:  If a guest is asking about an item that I am certain will leave them disappointed, I will give them a head shake.  The motion is similar to when a pitcher shakes off a pitch called for by the catcher.  This is then followed up by a brief explanation. It is the opposite of a “Sullivan nod.”  I don’t expect the term “Hayden shake” to catch on.

I know that all four of these options have some restaurant operators scared.  The fact is that your guests will love them.  Guests have grown to distrust server who are corporately mandated to say that everything is “great” and will appreciate your servers’ honesty.  Your guests want to have a great meal and they appreciate having a server who is invested in making that occur.  This is a bond that will make your guest return, because it is at the core of the principles of hospitality and service that we all preach.

Tips²: Tips For Improving Your Tips, the new book from the author of The Manager’s Office, teaches the skills of exceptional servers that will increase customer satisfaction and dramatically improve restaurant sales.  This book is more than a server training manual.  It is the secret to teaching your staff to enjoy selling and give your guests the experience that will create raving fans.  To learn more about the book, visit www.tips2book.com.  Use the coupon code “MANAGER” to save 20% at the checkout.


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About David Hayden

David Hayden is a restaurant marketing and training consultant based in Kansas City, MO. He writes a series of 9 blogs collectively known as The Hospitality Formula Network and is the author of "Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips" and "Building Your Brand With Facebook"

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