What happens when you and your staff fail to connect with your customer's mood ¬and why should you care?
Pat Nolan looks into the psychology behind good and bad customer service in pubs and restaurants to find that the simplest solutions are the ones most often overlooked.
Recently, a special occasion demanded that my better half and I eat out for Sunday lunch. We chose the restaurant, booked the table and arrived (for once) on time.
The relaxed atmosphere and the restaurant's pleasing decor promoted within us a sense of anticipation and incipient contentment as we awaited our meal. The starter didn't disappoint and we looked forward to an enjoyable afternoon.
But when the waiter brought the main course, my wife's dish failed to live up to scratch. Her Confit of Duck arrived overcooked, too dry.
She pointed this out to the waiter. Without prompting, he smartly offered her the choice of any other dish on the menu. So far so good.
She chose the simple Fish & Chips option and we waited. And waited. Reluctantly, I got on with my own meal before it grew cold, for it hadn't been taken back. She watched me eat it. Eventually, just as I was finishing my own, her dish arrived - another disappointment. Quietly, we discussed what to do next .....
Now what I found interesting at this point was that neither of us felt like submitting a second complaint. If the restaurant can't get the order right twice in a row, what's the point, we reasoned?
And so we endured an uncomfortable lunch, added to by the earlier unfulfilled promise from the waiter that, "The manager will be right over to see you presently". He never did arrive - but did take the trouble to regale the table next to ours as he knew the customers well.
Frankly, after the second disappointment, we were glad that he didn't bother. What could he have said? For us, getting our money back, for example, was not the point of the wasted afternoon.
We paid and left -- and wouldn't be back.
Now whether you're a proprietor or a customer you may not agree with our choice of low-profile action but the point is that this establishment lost customers and as customers, it's our prerogative to exit the situation any we want to.
The psychology of customer interaction
The whole episode got me thinking about the psychology of pub and restaurant food service generally. I got to wondering just how many establishments fail to understand the psychology of the customer-establishment interaction? A publican/restaurateur or his staff can take all the good out of a positive dining experience by missing out on fundamental psychological signals from customers. Equally, the psychological signals, (or lack of them) coming from staff to customers can be important stepping stones to return business.
"The key thing that people in the food and drinks industry forget is that everyone serving food to a customer is a salesperson," explains Anton Savage as Managing Director of the Communications Clinic, "They're selling two things: the relationship with the establishment and the products on the menu.
"The second one won't happen if the first one isn't perfect.
"Getting the first one perfect starts with understanding that what comes out of a person's mouth is not the same as what is in their head (this is particularly true of Irish people. For us 'it's grand' can mean anything from 'The food is so good I want to take it home and sleep with it,' to 'I'd rather poke myself in the eye with a fork than eat this again').
"A lot of waiting staff will try to get the customer to say something nice so they can leg it to the next table rather than picking up on obvious cues of dissatisfaction. It's why they'll accept the 'I wasn't hungry' excuse for a plate coming back uneaten. If the customer wasn't hungry they wouldn't have ordered food. The only reason they didn't eat it was they didn't like it. It is the waiter's job to unearth the underlying problem.
"We instinctively try to keep people from voicing their concerns," he says, "But in the service industry if you get the customer to vocalise their problem, they view it as a once-off that was solved. If you allow them to bottle it up, you make it define their view of your establishment".
Conor Kenny of hospitality consultants Conor Kenny & Associates takes the same approach when dealing with customer complaints. He explains, "A complaint is a second chance to impress. A complaint is an opportunity to make me a customer for life after I've taken the 'risk' of complaining".
Anton Savage agrees: "Buckets of studies have shown that the most loyal customer is not one who has never had a problem with your service, but rather one who has had a problem dealt with superbly. Every problem is an opportunity to cement a superb relationship with your customer".
For the proprietor or his staff the aim should always be to overdeliver, not underdeliver, on the promise.
" Never present a list of options without making the customer feel they're on to something special," explains Anton Savage, " 'The fish was just landed two hours ago', 'The chef working tonight is from Thailand, so the curry is superb'; they should always be given something over-and-above what's given to everyone else.
"If that's done throughout the meal it allows for a gentle push-sale of coffees and desserts; 'The chocolate horse is a new dessert and it's phenomenal'. It allows you to avoid an overarching choice; never let the customer decide whether or not they will have dessert; let them decide rather which dessert they will have."
Perhaps none of this could be described as straightforward marketing. Rather, it constitutes an oblique science which requires an intuitive brain but it can pay dividends when applied professionally.
Robert Winton, a Sales & Marketing Consultant in the US, has stated, "You will never persuade your customer to talk with you about their psychological pressures which are, in other words, unspoken customer requirements.
"Chances are good that the customer is completely unaware of psychological pressures that weigh upon his decision. Most sales people are also unaware. However, psychological pressures will affect a customer's decision just as certainly as a printed specification sheet."
The editors of Nation's Restaurant News, the most frequently-published magazine in the foodservice industry in the US, spent weeks delving into the underlying psychology of away-from-home dining decisions and consumer satisfaction.
"As every restaurant patron can attest" stated the News, "the dining-out marketplace has no shortage of missed chances to gratify diners' egos, ids and conscious desires for emotional affirmation. Seemingly clueless dining room hosts and servers can up the balance of a diner's mental contentedness from positive to negative with any number of faux pas.
"For example, guests' suspicions may be aroused by scripted greetings that sound insincere. There may be a lack of sensitivity when seating solo diners and women. Guests might be quizzed methodically "Is everything all right?' just as they've taken their first bites and can't respond. Or customers might be challenged gracelessly to explain whether they're 'still working on that?'. And the bill might be presented automatically to the man when in fact the woman has been the party's host."
(The writers forgot to add the similarly common experience of waiters serving a couple wine and automatically assuming that the male will do the tasting).
All these little signals can lead to a negative customer experience whether in the restaurant or pub setting.
In a study conducted by UK research company Retail Eyes recently, the company's 'Inndicator' survey analysed the findings from 500 mystery visits to pubs serving food.
According to Retail Eyes, "Little more than half of customers received a checkback during their meal (and of those, only 55 per cent were said to be made in a genuinely interested manner).
"Only two-thirds of customers had their plates cleared within five minutes of finishing their meal.
"Only around half were asked if they wanted anything else after they had finished their meal and less than half of tll0se were specifically prompted about desserts or coffee".
Little more than four in 10 visitors said that someone said 'good-bye' to them when they left.
The report states, "We asked our readers to tell us what one thing would have made the experience better and it's clear that the most frequently-occurring issues relate to speed of service and the combined issue of check-backs and clearing of plates. These two issues, along with the related issue of attentiveness, account for half of all the suggestions lists and would appear to be where management focus would be best applied".
Anton Savage agrees.
"The last bit of selling the relationship is to realise that good service is like dancing; it is defined by transition, not position. No amount of mid-meal hovering will make up for being late with a menu, failing to notice your customers had finished eating and wanted places cleared or that the wine bottle had drained. Transition is when customers get demanding and that's what good wait-staff watch for.
"A bus company undertook a piece of research years ago that showed that the reason people get annoyed when a bus is late is not because of punctuality but because of control. If the timetable says they will have to wait 45 minutes, they can make a choice about whether or not they hang on. If it is a minute late, the customer is out of information and has to involuntarily vest control in the bus company. Same with diners; we're happy to wait for a 30-minute soufflé if we've been told it'll take that long, but make us wait five minutes for someone to pour soup in a bowl and we'll be apoplectic by the time it hits the table."
One aspect of selling a relationship to a customer is to focus on them, not you.
"The best way to test this as a customer is to ask a waiter what he or she would recommend off the menu," says Anton, "If the answer starts with 'Well I like the .. .' then you have someone whose head is in the wrong place. The answer should start with something like 'Are you in the mood for fish or meat or pasta?' or 'Do you like shellfish?'. The customer will probably eat whatever the waiter recommends anyway but they'll feel it was their choice and crucially, they'll feel they were listened to."
Anton Savage places great store in the value of older restaurants for finding great 'sellers'.
"If you sell the relationship right, you'll have the foundation to sell the products. It's remarkable how few waiters these days know how to sell. You have to go to the older restaurants to find good sellers. It's little things; re-fill their wine glasses while they're having their starters. The objective is to empty the bottle before the main course arrives. No wine-drinker will refuse a second bottle if the first is gone while they're still on soup.
"Lastly, never let a customer leave without asking yourself, 'How can I add value over-and-above our normal service?'. It's the old tailor trick: 'We'll throw in the tie and round down the bill'. Most customers know that's all priced into their margins but it still feels like added value. Same with restaurants; no customer should leave without being made to feel that they got something extra and special.
"And sometimes it is fixing a complaint that provides the perfect opportunity to provide that special treatment.”
Conor Kenny sees the disparity between customer expectation and staff fulfilment.
"A whole new generation of staff are 'customer ignorant'," he explains, "The first mistake in the recruitment process is to look for 'service skills' rather than 'service attitudes'. "What experience have they?
"On entry the customer will scan the room for where they would like to go" explains Conor, "dependent on their need at that time."
And service attitudes must be adaptable to different customers depending on their mood.
'Reading' customers' moods should be intuitive.
"Moods can vary from elated (the lottery winner celebrates) to OK (hasn't decided yet) to downright down (perhaps following a funeral). It's up to the staff to be able to read the mood and adjust approach and interaction accordingly," he says.
A really good staff member can adapt to each mood going from one table to the next.
"There's also an art in knowing when to leave the table too," he observes.
In a number of cases, customers have been asked what stood out for them about a visit to an establishment and frequently mentioned first was that the staff 'did that little bit more for me. I'll be back because they like me in there'.
When one tries to 'manufacture' customer service, one fails, he adds.
Interacting with your customers
But it's not just the staff that should be customer-aware.
"Where has the 'wander about' gone?" asks Conor, referring to the time-honoured practice of proprietors 'working the room'.
Such perambulations by the proprietor must be natural and definitely not selective, he warns. And the owner is certainly not permitted to project his feelings onto his customers.
"The pub is one of the few institutions we don't have to go into. People who therefore come into it come to escape what's going on outside - that's even more the case today.
"Therefore if I go into your pub to escape and you remind me what I'm escaping from, then I won't be back," Conor explains.
A deeper study of this field indicates that there are thousands of tiny tipping points in the psychology of customer service so it becomes vital to empower your staff to deal on the spot with complaints as any complaint tends to be quite a discretionary development on the customer's part.
It's likely that the complainant doesn't want to see the manager - we didn't - if the member of staff can handle the complaint efficiently and discretely themselves (which was not done in our case).
So empower your staff to make big decisions. Inspire the confidence in your staff and train them to provide the best of service. Teach them and yourself to be 'customer alert'.