When Saying “No” is Not An Option

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An ornery guest who dined at one of my tables recently sent a surly email to the restaurant when she noticed after the fact that a market price item on her bill was more expensive than she expected. She claimed in her email that the server (me) had neglected to inform tell her price of the dish and, therefore, felt entitled to some form of reparation.

When the management team approached me with her grievance, I assured them with absolute certainty that I did quote the price. The trouble was that the woman complaining wasn’t the person who ordered the market price item. Her husband did, and she may not have overheard our conversation about the price. Our staff is always careful with market price items to avoid sticker shock. I distinctly remember reviewing the market prices for all the dishes on the menu when he inquired about the dish he eventually ordered. 

It’s not unusual in the service industry for customers to contact the restaurant with improbable stories about the staff’s incompetence. Sadly, those calls vastly outnumber the ones that lavish praise. When guests have a dispute, management handles them with kid gloves. Defending the staff only fans the flames, so we use whatever tools we have at our disposal to put out the fire, even when we suspect them of arson. 

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For management, defending employees against guest complaints is a Catch 22. Even when we know we’re right, It feels inhospitable to prioritize our version of the events over theirs. In cases like these, it comes down to he said/she said and it’s a usually a no-win situation for the restaurant. When diffusing guest complaints, we always take the path of least resistance. There’s an old adage that a happy guest will tell five of their friends but an unhappy one will tell one hundred.

After she continued insisting that I had neglected to quote the price, the restaurant folded its hand. In her subsequent emails, she claimed to have spoken with her husband and he didn’t recall my telling him the price. It may be true that he didn’t remember but that doesn’t mean I never told him. In the end, much to my chagrin, management refunded her the full price of the dish. But I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. 

The restaurant business is all about giving pleasure and sometimes we have to swallow our pride to give our guests the pleasure of being right.

But, in doing so, we also set a perilous precedent that invites buyer’s remorse as long people plead their case with conviction. Reinforcing guests’ behavior in this way can extend to other scenarios where recompense is expected: Sending back food they’ve eaten but claim they didn’t like, deciding halfway through a bottle of wine that the wine is off or complaining after the meal that a server manipulated them into ordering more food than they needed. Servers are trained to preempt these maneuvers, but it’s impossible to eliminate them altogether. 

When conflicts with guests arise, restaurants focus on damage control regardless whether there is any merit to the complaint. With the power that social media platforms give individuals to spread misinformation, our alleged crimes never go to trial. One spiteful guest can permanently scar a restaurant’s reputation and that forces restaurateurs run their businesses from a place of fear. The result is that the industry has inadvertently empowered dissatisfied guests to exploit our fecklessness to get their way. That’s what happens when saying yes is the only acceptable answer. 

Taking No For An Answer

All restaurant workers have at some point been innocent victims of irate guests who can’t get what they want. Dealing with the fallout from having to say no may be the most consistent and nerve-wracking part of working in the service industry. It’s the root of the majority of customer complaints. You wanted something, and we wouldn’t do it. These misguided feelings arise from the idealism of the American consumer—who has always been taught that paying “hard-earned” money for goods and services entitles you to have everything your way. If a restaurant refuses to meet your demands then you can simply take your appetite elsewhere.

While it’s true that all guests deserve to be treated hospitably, people’s demands are often unreasonable and they have a tendency to communicate them with an improper tone. So many restaurant experiences become hostage situations when people can’t accept no for an answer. I’ve witnessed people walk out because of it. Being told no turns grown adults into sulky little children. Go ahead, throw a tantrum. Ask to speak with the manager. They may kowtow to pacify you but is it worth being branded a troublemaker? Most of the time, there are legitimate reasons why your server wouldn’t deliver what you’ve asked for and showing deference pays dividends.

What is often overlooked is the currency you earn for being compliant. Good service requires sacrifices on both ends, and restaurant staffs prefer to take care of people who respect the rules. Not only that, many restaurants work hard to cultivate an obedient clientele, pruning out insurgents. The friction you create by pulling the “customer is always right” card may be a threat to your good standing.

A guest recently asked me: “Do you have a problem with that?” when I gave her negative feedback on her unorthodox order. I was gently questioning her demand that each shared appetizer be served one at a time. There were four people seated at the table and it was impractical to serve it this way. My intentions were good—what I thought to be in the best interests of the table. She perceived me as being inflexible. In the end, she got what she wanted but not without compromising our relationship. I was following protocol. She was just rude. Rude people should not expect their server’s affections.

Most controversial restaurant rules are aimed at the overall health of the dining room, not just your table’s. Placing an order incrementally, for example, wreaks havoc on the kitchen and the timing of other tables may suffer on your account. We owe it to those other tables to prevent you from doing it. Asking you to stow your laptop is a courtesy you obviously don’t realize you should extend your neighbors. The light emitting from it disrupts the ambience we work hard to create for everyone. Oh, you don’t like the music choice too? Well, that’s unfortunate but do you honestly think that we can find one genre of music that will appeal to everyone? Even Pandora’s algorithms aren’t that advanced yet.

When you oppose these rules, you send a message that you put your needs above everyone else’s. Being agreeable, on the other hand, reinforces a positive relationship with the people serving you and builds the foundation for a more fruitful experience. You have to choose your battles wisely. Nitpicking about restaurant policies isn’t worth becoming an enemy of the state. Restaurant people don’t forget faces, and it’s up to you whether we remember yours fondly. If you end up in the doghouse, it isn’t very easy to get out.