Businesses with even the most customer-oriented agendas may have guest experiences that go wrong. Correcting such experiences requires both awareness and a conscious effort – though on occasion, unfortunately, correction may not be possible.
Here are a few examples of eateries messing up....
I looked at the elderly guest in shock and then at the cake splattered on the floor that he’d just thrown in my direction. “You call this ‘fresh’ cream?” he screamed angrily. I knelt down and dug into the cake with my finger. “You are right Sir, this isn’t fresh at all. In fact besides being sour, the cream has also absorbed the smell of the dishes in your fridge. I’m sorry”, I said, “When did you buy this?” He looked at me sort of surprised that I actually tasted it and then cooled down a bit. “Day before yesterday evening – for my wedding anniversary which was yesterday. When we cut the cake in front of our guests and tasted the first bite, my wife and I knew we couldn’t serve it to our guests.” A quick look at the label on the cardboard base confirmed when he had bought it. “This is our fault entirely Sir. We should have communicated to you that our fresh cream cakes don’t last that long and should be consumed within a few hours. This is our responsibility.” He accepted a refund and trudged away sadly. I discussed this communication gap with everyone in my team and in a few days we had a solution. He was surprised when I called him a week later to ask if I may visit him just for 5 minutes. When I handed him a cake box with a label on top saying “Best consumed within 6 Hours”, and the Message piped on the cake simply saying “Sorry we messed up”, he nodded in acknowledgement. “You listened and acted. Well done!” “It wasn’t just me Sir, everyone on the team worked together to come up with this. We’d like you to know that your feedback is truly valuable to us. Please do give us another chance.” To regain trust you can’t just tell the customer... you must show him.
I’d been called to a table at a restaurant I was working at by a celebrity who told me the fish served to her was raw in the centre. I apologised and took it away to the chef who decided to make good the problem by cooking it himself. A short while after it was re-served to the guest I was called back to the table, this time along with the chef. “It’s still raw”, she said. We stood stunned and soon went red-eared in embarrassment. After a few awkward moments of silence, I summoned the courage to speak. “I am truly sorry Ma’am.” I said. “May I please offer you something else instead?” “No,” she said, “I am not hungry any-more.” I felt like sinking through the floor and could see the chef squirming as well. The lady watched us both quite red-eyed by now and then with unforgettable grace she said, “Don’t worry. I’m OK. Bad days happen!” We bowed out, went to the back of the restaurant and wept. In one stoke she had taught us about forgiveness and about how response matters more than situations one is in. Every server on our team that day learnt that lesson. Ever since, when she visits any restaurant that any one of us have moved to, we serve her with a different kind of respect... one reserved for nobility.
The dimly-lit ground floor restaurant of the hotel had been beautifully renovated and now sported huge French-window style glass sheets for the sunlight to pop in and add cheer. Things looked terrific till one busy day I heard the violent crashing sound of it shattering. I whirled to see the playful little boy who’d run into it standing in a pool of splintered glass. He looked at me for a moment and then began to cry. I ran towards him as did a guest nearby to see a trickle of blood run down his nose and also from his elbow. His mother, the only adult at the table who was dining with her two kids, screamed at her other child and then quite understandably, went berserk. I placed my handkerchief on his bleeding nose, asked one elderly waiter to hold it and sent another to fetch the hotel driver and car. “We need to take him to the hospital now ma’am”, I said loudly to pull her out of her daze. On our way to the hospital I discovered that they were from out of town. She gratefully acknowledged while I waited for the boy’s nose to be stitched up. My mind however was on the glass. How did this happen? There was a clearly visible three inch sticker strip running across the whole length of the window. When I returned to the spot I discovered the problem. The height of the sticker made it visible to an adult but not to a child. Whilst ordering a new glass I suggested that the complete bottom half be fully covered with a glazed sticker and also that the entire glass be shatter proof despite the high cost. Initially the directors wondered if I was over-reacting, saying it was a freak incident which wouldn’t happen again. When I stood my ground on the premise of safety however, everyone agreed. When a problem that occurs doesn’t seem like a problem from one perspective, resolving it conclusively requires a shift in perspective.
There are also times when bad restaurant experiences involve guests themselves being offenders....
A restaurant manager once informed me that a guest who was always pointing out some problem or the other under the pretext of getting at-least one dish free, had now crossed the line. On visiting the restaurant with her friend the previous day, she had made a scene and walked out refusing to pay the bill entirely. I watched with a few team members the visuals from the CCTV footage. While there was no audio track, one part of the video left no doubt in anyone’s mind about the reality and her intentions. As they ate their food she could be seen complaining while her friend shrugged her shoulder more than once to indicate that the food was fine. The lady herself continued eating and did not convey her displeasure to any server. Yet, when the bill came she made a scene and refused to pay. Her friend who found nothing wrong with the food then tried to pay the bill herself, but the errant guest just wouldn’t allow her. They left without paying the bill. Since we didn’t have the guest’s name or number, I suggested that we speak with her when she next visited the restaurant. Every single service staff member was informed about the incident, shown the face of the guest and briefed about how to deal with her. She visited again in less than a fortnight. She was politely received, handed over her non-paid bill and asked to pay up. When she declined, she was told that the management had watched what had happened and based on what they saw, had taken a decision not to serve her any more if she opted not to pay. She was banned from the restaurant and did not return. In rare cases, when a guest treats you unfairly time and again, it may become necessary to decline their patronage.
I was passed a phone call by a colleague who was finding it hard to deal with an irate guest. The guest told me that our valet had damaged her car, since shortly after she left our restaurant, her car engine had begun to steam through the bonnet. She added that since her car had just been serviced, it had to be our fault and that we needed to compensate her for it while she would get it fixed by her own mechanic and pass us the bill. I felt bad about her experience and wanted to give her a fair hearing in case our valet had indeed been responsible. I asked for a few hours to investigate the matter during which I spoke with the valet and other witnesses and also checked where exactly the car had been parked. During this time the guest called me several times. As I patiently empathised with her, I realised that many bits of her story didn’t add up. Simultaneously we cross-verified the valet’s side of the story with neighbours who didn’t owe allegiance to the valet and found that he was telling the truth. By then, I had also checked with our legal counsel who had confirmed that the disclaimer on the valet tag clearly spelt out that the restaurant cannot be held liable for such a matter in any way. Since she was threatening legal recourse, we asked her to send us a written note which we would reply to legally, and we did. Apart from examining right from wrong in an incident, we must be prepared for the legal aspect of that incident.
Anything can happen any time in business. As the philosopher Epictetus said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”