A professional restaurant critic in a major U.S. city shares views on how restaurants can elevate service.

I doubt there are many restaurant owners who would say that customer service is not a priority for them. And yet, my experience is that most of them are focusing on the wrong things.

I’m not talking about politeness. “The customer is always right” isn’t even true, and is far less important than true customer service. What do I mean by true service? I mean figuring out what a customer needs from your business, and trying to give her that thing. It sounds so simple, so obvious. But it’s pathetically rare.

The good news: It makes exemplary service all the more obvious and appreciated. Some of the common customer service failures I encounter regularly may not be what you’d expect.

Let’s start at the beginning—not the moment customers walk in your door (we’ll get to that)—but the moment they begin to interact with your establishment. Most likely this will happen when they call you or visit your website.

If they were to call, would they get a person on the phone, or a recorded message? How easy would it be for them to get through to an actual person?

It’s a fairly recent phenomenon, but getting through to a restaurant is now sometimes just as difficult and frustrating as trying to call a bank or cable company. Too often, rather than a live person, you get a message that dictates hours, address, and directs people to the web for other information. If you’d like to make a reservation, leave a message. This is true during business and non-business hours—many restaurants never personally answer their phones at all.

I understand that 80 percent of your calls are to ask for hours and directions, but why not give those things personally rather than rely on a message? Isn’t the entire basis of your business personal interaction? If nothing else, failing to make a personal connection is a lost opportunity to start the customer service relationship in a positive manner. And what of the other 20 percent, the folks who are calling to see if you can accommodate an unusual request or who want to know what your specials are that evening? If you don’t answer the phone, that business is probably going elsewhere—where there’s a person customers can speak with.


If the point of entry is the website, what will that experience be like? People go to restaurant websites for three primary reasons: to find your hours, to find your location, and to look at your menu. Yet these things are often hard to find on a website, or are incredibly confusing. If music and graphics are more important on your website than basic information, you’re actually creating a bad impression, no matter how pretty the site is.

Is your website mobile-ready? If not, what happens when someone is lost and trying to find directions? Using a smart phone, they click on your website only to find they can’t view anything. Even if they make it to your door—probably by having to visit Yelp or another website—they’re already frustrated.

Now that the customer is in the restaurant, who is the first person he encounters? It used to be a maître d’, generally the most experienced, highest paid member of the service staff. But in recent years the maître d’ has been replaced, often by a host or hostess. And the hostess is often the least experienced, lowest paid person on the floor. Is that really who you want to handle the delicate, first face-to-face impression? How did this responsibility shift from the person with the most personal investment in the restaurant (apart from the chef or owner) to the person with the least?

When we get to the table, the real work begins. Almost all restaurants have some form of the canned waiter spiel: “Hello, my name is Bob and I’ll be your server this evening….” But have you trained Bob to read a table, to try to understand if they want a 10-minute monologue detailing the highlights of the menu, or if they seem like they would prefer a lighter touch, a more hands-off approach? One of the biggest flaws I see with today’s brand of customer service is trying to force one kind of scripted service onto every single table. Again, service should be personal, and a truly great waiter can read the signals well enough to understand what an individual customer wants and needs. And a truly great restaurant allows its waiters to adjust service as needed.

Another delicate point of contact is the moment when the food has been served and the waiter is checking back with the table. “How is everything?” is the usual line. But have you actually trained your staff for what to do when everything isn’t okay? The number of times I’ve seen someone say “actually…”—only to have the waiter look uncomfortable and run away—is ridiculous. Chances are this is not the waiter’s fault—they’re either very badly trained or so scared of what will happen if they inform the manager that someone complained they’d rather just ignore the problem. As a critic, I rarely complain about a dish. But I’ve only had one waiter actually inquire when they noticed I’d barely eaten something and then insist I let them know why. Most waiters would very much like to make it better, but management is responsible for giving them the tools to do so.

Take a minute to honestly ask yourself if you’re thinking about what each customer might want and need from your establishment. And if you can sincerely say that you address those needs, then I salute you. Because as much as the hospitality industry relies on good customer relations, true service is hard to find.

Feature, Labor & Employees