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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Whited

How to be a Good Customer: Food Service Edition

I began my work life like many others, in the service industry. I worked as a busser, a dishwasher, prep cook, and in managerial roles before moving out of the industry. I’ve always felt that although the industry takes a lot out of you, it provides a great base experience for the traits needed to excel in other areas. Communication, attention to detail, following a process/standard, general customer service, emotional intelligence, etc.

In the past year, I’ve had the fortune of being reacquainted with the food service industry while working with a restaurant client. I’m the type that likes to see and/or experience a process directly in order to better understand it. This gives me an extremely valuable insight into its effectiveness, improvement opportunities, and often, the frustrations of those performing related tasks. In this case, it may come as no surprise to you that one of the biggest sources of frustration for food service workers are the customers themselves.

One thing I have always taught customer service providers is to train your customers. Meaning, take it upon yourself to educate them on your processes, communication channels and expectations, jargon or lingo, and help them set realistic expectations. You can find plenty of examples of these with a quick search on “how to provide good customer service”. However, I couldn’t seem to find much guidance at all on how to be a good customer. What point is good customer service given to a bad customer? How can customers improve if service providers don’t apply a standard of some sort? This isn’t the wild west, it's food service within a developed society. So why is the gap between one customer’s behavior to another so vast?

Be a Gracious Guest

Remember that you are a guest at the establishment, not a king or queen taking time to associate with the commoners. The employee is your SERVER, not your SERVANT, and although it may seem like a nuanced difference, it’s a BIG one! They are also not your babysitter. Do your best to keep any children you’ve brought with you under some sense of control. The restaurant is not a playground after all. Servers respect the challenges of parenting but not a complete lack of it.

Treat all employees with the same level of respect that you would like to receive. A simple “please” and “thank you” goes a long way in creating a positive relationship. Avoid using aggressive or dismissive language, and instead, approach employees with a friendly demeanor. Employees will generally reflect the same demeanor that you project as a means of matching your communication style so keep that in mind during your interactions.

Pricing isn’t Based on Your Opinion

There are a vast multitude of factors that impact the price a customer pays but the customer’s opinion surely isn’t one of them. Restaurants are one of the lowest margin businesses in the game so there is very little wiggle room on pricing here, especially for small businesses. They are at the mercy of suppliers, logistics, regulations, and many other factors they have zero control over.

The last thing a small business wants to hear, when they’re already struggling to survive in this inflated economy, is a customer complaining about prices. It’s not a discussion topic and creates an unwinnable conversation for the employee who has no impact on pricing whatsoever. If you think the prices are too high at a restaurant, simply don’t eat there!

The Customer is NOT Always Right

If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you’ve heard the age-old adage of “the customer is always right” and probably wondered “who the heck came up with that nonsense?” That would be Harry Gordon Selfridge, who coined the phrase in the early 1900’s as a means of directing employees to treat customers with respect. In reality however, it is far from true, it creates a sense of entitlement among customers, it kills employee morale, it’s an unsustainable business practice, and it was never meant to be taken literally to begin with.

Southwest airlines CEO, Herb Kelleher provided a customer with a personal response after a laundry list of ridiculous complaints came rolling up to him. He simply replied, “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, we will miss you. Love, Herb.” She is what managers would refer to as a “lost cause” and there’s nothing to be gained by retaining such a customer.

Employees are the experts on the product or service they’re delivering. Although long-term customers may have more experience with a specific product or service that they have used, internal changes can be made at any time that impact that landscape. In the food service realm, that could include menu items, prices, or internal processes for example. It’s best to let the real expert guide you through your customer experience.

Have Reasonable Expectations

When you walk into a restaurant, you’re not walking into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. There are limits to what the business can provide while still meeting their goals. Those goals will differ by restaurant type and for each establishment individually of course but they exist for all of them regardless. For reference, some of those goals might be turning all tables within 45 minutes or kitchen expectations of getting an order out in 30 minutes or less. Everything the customer does can positively or negatively impact the employees’ ability to reach those goals. For example, overly customized orders add time to service all around. Of course, ordering a burger without onions is simple, but ordering a particular item completely deconstructed, plated separately, and/or prepared without key ingredients is not so simple. The latter may not be something the establishment is willing to do if it results in failing to meet service goals for all other patrons. That can be frustrating but it’s important to remember that you’re not the most important person in the room despite the server’s best efforts to make you feel that you are.

Tip Appropriately

In the U.S., tips are an ingrained part of our society despite any personal, minority opinion anyone may have on the subject. It’s not going to change unless government regulation forces it to so, let’s move past that part of this topic and focus on proper etiquette in today’s restaurant environment.

Let’s start with a baseline of 15%. If you are tipping anything less than 15%, you should likely be speaking with the manager about the reason for doing so. Anything below 15% represents poor service and experience which can be helpful for management to know about in case adjustments can be made to improve things. If you cannot afford to tip at least 15%, then you should not be going out to eat. It’s that simple. That may be a hard pill to swallow, but that’s the reality. Dining out is not a right, it’s a privilege, and you can always prepare food at home or utilize fast-food options.

By today’s standards, 18% is the norm for good, average service. 20% is a bit more generous and where I try to be for good service myself, plus the math is easy. Anything above 20% is great and would generally indicate above-average service. 25% and above is indicative of great service and experience. It could also show respect for the server’s situation. For example, I personally move to this level if the place is slammed, the server has a large number of tables, or I notice other tables being relatively difficult. Moreover, if my service was not negatively impacted by these factors because that’s a result of a lot of expertise and hustle which is deserving of appreciation and reward.

In the end, empathy is the most important factor in all of these. Having empathy for the person serving you makes it easier to be kind, respectful, and to tip well. Remember that without them, we have no dining experience at all so, treat them accordingly!

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