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What message are guests getting?

You might have heard about the “Making Cents of Your P&L” course Morreen is presenting next month.  A few of us on the CRS team have been out visiting local independent and chain restaurants, casual-themed to fine dining, handing out flyers and gauging interest.  It is fascinating to see how the experiences vary from one restaurant to the next.  I am sad to say that frequently, the experience is poor.

Each time I walk in, I say hello and ask to speak with a manager.  Occasionally, the response I get is a quick and friendly, “Sure, I’ll go get him”, sometimes followed by, “Who may I say is here to see him?” which seems like a smart thing to ask.  In those cases, I give them my card and often the manager is out quickly and talks with me kindly.  If I have to wait a while, a few hosts have been kind enough to offer me a seat in the waiting area, and one even offered me a drink.  I’ve received a particularly warm welcome at Legal Sea Foods, California Pizza Kitchen, and Mesa Fresh Mexican Grill.  Thank you!

More often, the host/ess I speak with appears to be completely annoyed I’ve pulled him/her away from, well, leaning on the host stand.  Mind you, we’re stopping in during the middle of the week between lunch and dinner.  Not a lot of busy tables or other guests waiting to be helped at 2:30 on a Wednesday.  I’ve been in about 60 restaurants over the last few days, and in at least 35 or 40 the response has been complete disinterest.  It goes something like this: I ask for the manager, and then get a big sigh, sometimes followed by an eye roll, and then they slump to the back to find the manager or they pick up the phone and say something like, “Chris, some lady is here to see you.”  No kidding.  I’ve heard that exact phrase at least 5 times.  Then they just kind of look at me or chat with their co-workers until the manager comes out.

Yes, I’m there to present a training seminar.  But they don’t know that, and anyone who knows me knows I’m not exactly a hard-core salesperson.  For all they know, I could be a reporter, an inspector, a secret shopper, someone wanting to book the banquet room for 30 people or more, or the person interviewing for the open manager position.  I could even be a recruiter from somewhere they would love to work (not that I’d ever offer a position to someone who treated me so rudely).  And regardless of which of these categories, I’m definitely a potential guest and someone who will talk to other potential guests.  Knowing these options, why would you treat someone that way?  Here are my thoughts:

1. They don’t care.  Maybe they’ve been trained on how to greet guests but are so disengaged they don’t care to take the effort to follow the procedure.  Or maybe they think they are going to be laid off due to declining sales so why make the effort?  I’m not making them any money that very moment, so what do they care how I’m treated?  And perhaps that’s not the way they feel, but it’s certainly what they’re projecting with their behavior.

2.  They haven’t been trained.  There’s no protocol for how to respond when someone asks to see a manager, so it just depends on the personality of the person you encounter at the front.  I have a feeling if I went back to some of these restaurants on a different day, I might have had a great experience.  Unfortunately, most guests won’t try twice.

3.  They’ve seen how their managers treat guests and they follow in their footsteps.  After waiting at one restaurant for about 10 minutes (during which the hostesses talked about what time they would be leaving that day), the GM came out and dismissed me almost before I started talking.  His message was, “We get all this from corporate, and I’ve been doing it a long time.”  Maybe so, but his restaurant was empty, while the competitor across the parking lot had a decent crowd.  And as another GM told Nena, “I’m never going to say I know it all; I’m open to new information.”

4.  They don’t recognize the impact of treating every visitor to their restaurant as though they were a guest.  I’m going to guess a “win every guest, every time” philosophy was not included in their training materials and therefore they don’t understand the long-term positive (or negative) consequences of guest treatment today.

As a result of my experiences, I recommend that restaurants focus on the following:

1.  In a market where there are more candidates available than positions, be really selective about the people being hired.  Screen for the most important personality traits, and if an employee falls short of expectations, provide coaching, and if improvements aren’t sufficient, find a replacement.

2.  Train front desk personnel on how to greet guests who aren’t there to dine.  Should they ask for a business card?  Should they offer a seat in the waiting area and say it will be a few minutes?  Should they get the manager right away, regardless of who it is?  Or should they vary their response depending on the nature of the visit?

3.  Ensure managers are modeling the behavior they expect from their employees.  Provide examples during training of how actions speak louder than words, and how employee engagement suffers in times of uncertainty.

4.  Incorporate training on how to take a bigger view of the restaurant and guest service.  Provide examples of how an individual experience can have long-term positive or negative repercussions (through repeat visits, word of mouth, bad publicity, etc.).

When restaurants improve the initial impressions they give to visitors and guests, they are much more likely to have repeat business.  I took my restaurant visits as a time to decide where I’ll be taking my mother and mother-in-law for a Mother’s Day celebration, and not surprisingly, we’ll be dining at one of the locations where the hostess seemed happy to see me.  It may be easier to get a seat at one of the other locations, but I’d prefer the positive atmosphere.

Christin Myers

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