This last Thanksgiving, I had the worst dining experience of my life. I also witnessed an extraordinary customer service recovery that will keep me as a loyal patron and advocate of the restaurant. They did a magnificent job of getting it wrong and making it right, ultimately improving my image of the establishment.
My party of 10 arrived on time to celebrate the holiday together, only to be split into two round tables. The server warned us they were heavily (aggressively) booked and understaffed, and food may take longer to arrive. She wasn’t kidding. Our reservation was for 4 p.m. and meals for adults weren’t served until after 7 p.m.! Several of our orders were wrong. Drinks never came. The food was horrible. It wasn’t just our party. You could feel the tension boiling over from every table.
Management messed up and they knew it. The poor wait staff giving up their Thanksgiving spent the evening serving excuses and lamenting the large tips that would never come. It was the kind of night that causes customers to give up on the restaurant and restaurant owners to give up on the industry.
I’ve been there. One Valentine’s Day I took charge of organizing all deliveries at my Edible Arrangements franchise. Because of a series of operational snafus that were completely my fault, we failed to deliver scores of fruit baskets, disappointing a lot of expecting recipients and infuriating a lot of senders. It was a stress that still gives me nightmares. You can do your best in business, but things happen.
The real test of a business’ commitment to service isn’t whether they make mistakes but how they handle them. This restaurant got it right and demonstrated some excellent recovery tactics that can help all of us do better when we get it wrong. Here are some takeaways:
Preemptively communicate. Our server warned us upon arrival that they were having issues and waits would be longer. Telling us up front when our moods were still good tempered our expectations. And it gave us the choice to leave if we felt we couldn’t adapt.
Stay in touch. Customers want to know you’re on the same page and that you’re aware of what they’re experiencing. We appreciated our server acknowledging what was going on and how we were feeling before we had to tell her. That let us know she got it and that she was working to help us.
Don’t over-explain. People want to know what the problem is, but giving too many details can start to sound like making excuses. The restaurant manager explained to us what was happening in the kitchen. But she also understood it’s hard for hungry guests to sympathize with busy cooks. Customers care most about their own experiences. They’re paying for the privilege of being indulged. Offer a brief explanation of the problem. Then quickly shift the focus back to the guests and all you’re willing to do to keep them comfortable, to fix the problem, and to ensure their satisfaction.
Don’t make it about you. Our server could have been a little better about this. More than once, she conveyed the problem wasn’t her fault. I acknowledged how difficult the night must have been for the entire wait staff and she pointed out how they’re going to lose tip money. I understood her frustration, but it wasn’t appropriate for her to discuss this. It makes the night about her. I get that she gave up her Thanksgiving to make money. But the spotlight must always remain on the customer. This conversation aside, she really did do all she could for us. We noticed and rewarded her well for it.
Take the loss. More accurately, make the investment. Think of every customer interaction less as a sale and more of a marketing opportunity. You don’t want customers. You want repeat customers. You want brand ambassadors who talk and post about you and come back with friends. This was a restaurant my wife and I frequented. We were excited to bring our family there. But all the good meals we had there couldn’t make up for this horrible Thanksgiving. They were about to lose us.
Instead, they invested in us. Not only did they take off all drinks and cut our bill in half, but two days later, the manager called me and invited our entire party of 10 back for another meal completely comped. They desperately wanted to demonstrate what they can do. That gesture multiplied by hundreds of guests must have cost them a fortune. But it wasn’t an expense; it was an investment. It was smart marketing to people who’ve already shown interest in their business. Our party of 10 returned for a wonderful meal. We’ll all be back.
I’ve had plenty of great restaurant experiences. I certainly don’t want problems. However, those restaurants that have gotten it wrong but worked to get it right made big impressions on me. I remember them. Demonstrating their commitment to my satisfaction made me a customer for life.
You’re going to make mistakes. Approach them as marketing opportunities, as a chance to let customers know how much you value them. When it happens, let go of your ego, lose the greed, and manage your stress. Empathize with your customers and then go above and beyond, doing more than you must to ensure they leave wowed. They’ll notice and they’ll come back, perhaps with even more confidence in your restaurant. It’s the right thing to do and a smart way to grow. Because some days it’s less about how far you can climb and more about how high you can bounce.