As operators attempt to solve tricky economy, they need to clue guests in

As operators attempt to solve tricky economy, they need to clue guests in

Irecently realized there is a potentially harmful disconnect between what operators and their customers believe. While writing an article on the customer backlash some operators are experiencing as they try to reduce costs through smaller portions and other such tactics, it came to my attention that operators aren’t always in tune with what their customers are thinking.

While operator after operator assured me that—especially during a tough economic time like this—they would take no actions that would alienate patrons, many customers nonetheless are feeling very alienated.

During my research, I found dozens of online blogs showcasing a variety of customer complaints about penny-pinching by restaurants. Among the grievances were shrinking bread baskets, the disappearance of lemon wedges from drinks, smaller entrée portions, too much ice in drinks, fat left on meat to pump up its weight, and wilting vegetables.

I also spoke to several restaurant customers who said that they had noticed smaller portions at restaurants as well as higher prices. In addition, a few noted that they were now being charged for extras like sauces and to-go containers. One woman even told me she is convinced that a restaurant she often frequents is using smaller plates, and another told me that her favorite eatery not only now charges for takeout cartons, but also for plate sharing, both of which were once free.

In contrast, the vast majority of operators I interviewed vehemently denied such practices. In fact, almost all have been adamant that they are doing everything they can not to raise prices for food or extras and to keep customers happy and returning as often as possible during this economic downturn. Their rationale, they say, is that if they offer value now, customers will reward them with regular patronage when times are better.

Clearly, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Nonetheless, operators would be well served to listen more carefully to their customers and to explain to customers the reasons behind any move that might be perceived by patrons as an economy-related cutback that somehow cheats them.

For instance, one customer told me she was sorry Red Lobster [2] had discontinued its endless soup and salad offer. In fact, the chain had not eliminated the program, but was planning to test a new soup and salad offering in a select Florida market, a chain official said.

“This had nothing to do with the economy,” said Wendy Spirduso, spokeswoman for Red Lobster, a division of Orlando, Fla.-based Darden [3] Restaurants. “Indeed, in this kind of environment people are going out to eat less, so we are doing every little thing we can to offer them the highest value and best customer experience possible.”

Better make sure the customer knows that.