Skip navigation

The best restaurant operators provide no customer service

“Everybody wants to build, but nobody wants to do maintenance.” – Kurt Vonnegut

I will begin today’s sermon by presuming that unless your net worth has more zeros in it than a Star Trek Convention, profitability is still important to you. If it is, then pull up a chair and let’s talk about the Importance of the Mundane.

Every month I consult with a wide variety of successful restaurant companies, helping them re-energize their customer service programs, re-design their training materials, and re-focus their menu merchandising strategies. I’m routinely asked what I think are the most innovative and creative techniques relative to customer service.

The answer is both quite simple and decidedly unsexy: the best “customer service” comes from operators who simply ignore the concept. Instead, they obsessively focus on training their team to anticipate every need and eliminate every problem a guest might potentially encounter during their visit. This radical strategy assures three things: first, that the guest never has to ask for anything, second, that they’ve eliminated the need to “provide service” at all since the guest’s experience is automatically enhanced by the absence of complaints and the doling out of hospitality, and third, that that treatment results in a loyal and frequent guest.

Doug Branigan calls it “Seamless service, hospitality done so naturally well that it’s transparent to the guest.” Robert Marshall concurs: “The best service lets the guest focus on how good you’re making them feel, and what you’re doing ‘for’ them, instead of what you’re doing — or not doing — to them.” We might even say that at the restaurants where guests are treated best, customer “service” is obsolete. To too many restaurant owners, operators and managers, customer service becomes a “program” not a practice, a “focus” not a philosophy. So let’s take a moment and look at a few ideas that can “wow” our guests by eliminating the need for “service”:

What’s “boring” to us is “service” to the guest. You and your team members know the boring and “mundane” aspects of our job by heart, but those details get overlooked more often than Susan Lucci at the Daytime Soap Awards. I’m talking about the basics: ceaselessly picking up debris from the floor, making sure silverware and glasses are not spotted, giving friendly and accurate information over the phone, a smiling and prompt greeting, keeping the front door clean, hot food hot, cold food cold, stable tables, clean restrooms, and a hostess or drive-through order-taker who greets the 300th guest that shift with the same energy and enthusiasm they showed to the first. Handling these basics are the “greens fees” of the customer’s service expectations. To the guest’s way of thinking, the service “basics” are like hair plugs. The less you notice them, the better they are.

Never underestimate the power of an angry customer. You’ve seen the statistics and they’re frightening: an unhappy guest tells an average of 12 people each about their bad experience. Each of those 12 people tell 6 of their friends who tell 3 of their friends each and before you know it, nearly 380 people hear about the bad service experience of just one guest. (Multiply that by 100 if they have Internet access). So what do you do, shoot for 100% guest satisfaction? Sure, but let’s also be realistic: shifts happen, and someone, somewhere on every shift is going to make mistakes and someone else is going to be disappointed. The key is to know how to resolve the problem so that the guest doesn’t leave with it. “A great restaurant doesn’t distinguish itself by how few mistakes it makes,” says Danny Meyer, an owner of Union Square Café in New York City, “but by how well they handle those mistakes.”

All customer complaints are linked to disrespect. When our guests are unhappy it can always be traced back to an element of disrespect like rudeness, avoidance, attitude, failure to deliver on quality promises, etc. And let’s not overlook time. Always respect a customer’s time, especially over the phone. Be proactive. Teach your team to answer the phone with an apology whenever they can’t answer by the third ring. Acknowledge the delay by saying something like: “I’m sorry it rang so long. Joe’s Pasta Factory, this is Steve.” This will help reduce the caller’s irritation. Smile when you talk on the phone (you sound friendlier) and whatever the guest requests, from making a reservation to transferring the call, always use the three magic words, “It’s my pleasure.”

Add flair and variety every shift. As someone who knows a thing or two about pleasing guests, Lee Cockerell, retired Executive Vice President of Operations, Walt Disney World Resort, says: “People don’t want ‘the same’ over and over again; they want different over and over again.” That means creating a “routine” of variety and flair. Keep it energetic, fresh, and somewhat unpredictable (in a good way) each and every shift for both your employees and guests. It means being unorthodox, crazy and maybe even nutty at times. Mr. Cockerell also encourages Disney’s cast members to go beyond “giving service” to making memories instead. He exhorts his team to “Take five minutes and try to do something once a day for a guest that they’ll remember the rest of their life.” That’s a Kodak moment kids.

Manage the “basics” for your employees first. Just as managing the basics for guests every shift results in more repeat business, managing the basics daily for your team members results in lower employee churn. Make sure they always have the right supplies, tools, resources and systems in place that they need to succeed at their jobs. And when you’re hiring, always ask yourself if you’re recruiting to retain that person or recruiting to simply fill a slot. Big difference in how you’ll treat them after they’re on board. Hire the right person or you’ll pay the price with loyal team members, too. “Good employees will leave if you leave bad employees in place,” says Marvin Fields, senior vice president of operations, for Frisch's Restaurants in Cincinnati, Ohio, “and bad employees will stay until you throw them out.”

Once again, it comes down to your people. To summarize, I offer this quote from Stanley Marcus, chairman emeritus of Neiman-Marcus department stores: “The dollar bills the customer gets from the tellers in four banks are the same. What is different are the tellers.”

Jim Sullivan is CEO of, and is a popular speaker at foodservice conferences worldwide. Learn more tips on managing employees by visiting Sullivision on NRN.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.