We Didn’t Feel Welcome

Might You Be Running an “Elitist Club?”

My wife, Maggie, and I recently celebrated our first wedding anniversary. We had a memorable and fun weekend stay at the Antietam Overlook Farm (photo on left). This amazing, 95-acre mountaintop bed and breakfast in Keedysville, MD, happens to be owned by a longtime friend, who – along with his staff – made us feel quite welcome; completely taken care of.

We spent two nights there, enjoying delicious, creative breakfasts and taking in the charm of nearby 250-year-old Shepherdstown, along with history-drenched Harpers Ferry and Antietam. We enjoyed the inn’s outdoor hot tub (more than once), biked along the C&O canal and visited many quaint little shops and restaurants, all while enjoying perfect weekend weather.

One highlight quickly became the “low-light”

On our second night, the innkeeper recommended that we visit a Shepherdstown restaurant touted as the “nicest” among the area’s numerous dining options. She graciously offered to make the reservation on our behalf. This would be our official “Anniversary Dinner” and this particular restaurant was supposedly the “it” place. Upon our arrival we were told by the host, “We’re just waiting for a few tables to settle their bill so we can free up a table and seat you. In the meantime, you can visit our bar.”

Restaurant Server(By the way, never once have I witnessed a host/ess offering menus to review while you wait – doing so would obviously give waiting guests something to do, while preparing them for their server – “Can I get you folks started with something to drink?” “Yes, and we’re also ready to order our food.” – The server makes fewer trips, the guests (and server) have a more efficient experience and the restaurant gets its table back that much quicker, to then serve even more waiting guests! Not rocket science … but I digress.)

We headed over to the not-so-busy bar, where we stood ignored for four long minutes while two bartenders, a waitress and hostess all walked by. No one ever acknowledged our presence. We felt invisible. Finally, we were seated at a small table up front in the main dining room – a nice window seat – where we sat for another three long minutes before someone came by with menus. After about another five minutes our waitress finally arrived and asked what we’d like to drink. (Of course, we should have received water almost immediately and did not.) Maggie chose the New York Strip and I went with the Chilean Sea Bass (to be fair, my entire dish was delicious). About six minutes after ordering, our glass of wine finally arrived along with our waters. Time check: 18 minutes after arrival and we’re just receiving beverages.

But this isn’t about slow service

While the service was indeed slow AND Maggie’s steak had to be sent back (twice) for being undercooked AND our waitress barely spoke to us the few times she stopped by AND the owner carried as much of an elitist attitude as everyone else on staff (displaying a negative disposition and never admitting that the steak was undercooked (even as blood pooled on the plate)) AND no one bothered to wish us a “Happy Anniversary” AND Maggie’s underdone/underwhelming steak was accompanied by two spoonfuls of boring mashed potatoes and the most sour greens we’ve ever tasted AND we only received blank stares and eventual shunning from our waitress after communicating these frustrations (she simply stopped visiting us and kept her back to us as she addressed nearby guests) … most of those things could have actually been forgiven – particularly on a night this special when we were feeling good and focused on celebrating; not looking for negativity. But this was about more than a mediocre meal or even slow service. This was about the entire experience – how our concerns were being handled, managed, and communicated. Our overall experience had a common thread running through it:

What we noticed – above all else – was that we didn’t feel welcome.

Unwelcome MatWhen any of us go out to eat, don’t we just want to feel taken care of? Isn’t that one of the built-in benefits of traveling to, and paying a restaurant; tipping its staff? Sadly, the staff at this restaurant was clearly not on our side. Instead we felt like they were on an opposing (elitist) team – they were “over there” and we were “over here” and we didn’t feel welcome. Their attitudes screamed, “It’s your fault. All of it. We’re the ‘it’ place in this town and you two are nothing but annoying customers.”

It’s an intangible thing but you may have noticed that you know (and feel) this “unwelcomeness” in certain situations; certain customer experiences.

 

I wonder if they learned anything…

As regular 20% tippers, the most we could justify at the end of this terrible experience was $6 on a $62 tab, but not without some coaching for our server. I wrote a note to her that read, “A little communication goes a long way. You can’t go silent and ignore your guests when things go wrong.” I can only hope she (and her bosses) learned something. Do you think they did?

By the way, what I really enjoy sharing most – via the social web – are our positive dining experiences. This was the first – and, I hope, the last time – I’ve given anyone a 1-star review on Yelp.

“I’m on your side”

An Impeccable Service Strategy from a Famous Restaurateur

Mean Hostess

“Can’t Do”

The other day I was waiting for some to-go food from a local dine-in/carryout restaurant. I was standing near the counter when a fellow patron – having just finished his meal – approached the counter and asked, “Do you guys have to-go cups?” The owner’s response was a quick, unfriendly and very matter-of-fact, “No.” Of course there are a dozen other (kinder) ways that owner could have responded to the request (or better yet found some container with which to improvise) … but no such luck.

Too often our frontline product and service providers are quick to say no. Sometimes, we’re even left with the feeling that they get some kind of satisfaction out of taking on this sort of can’t-do attitude. Below is one famous restaurateur’s answer to this all-too-common failure to serve.

Setting the Table

While 80 percent of New York City’s restaurants fail within the first five years*, there’s one restaurateur who’s “batting a thousand.” His name is Danny Meyer and his successes include Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and three cafes inside the Museum of Modern Art. The thoughts Meyer shares about hospitality/service in his book Setting the Table are innovative and refreshing. Here is one of my favorites:

“I’m on your side”: A little empathy goes a looooong way
“Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel … It is a process of making people believe ‘I’m on your side.’ ” –Danny Meyer

While reviewing customer feedback, Meyer realized his diners’ #1 complaint was not being able to secure the reservation time they wanted.Setting the Table

Think back on your own experiences of making restaurant reservations – especially in the pre-Internet days, when the only way to do it was by telephone. There usually isn’t a problem solver on the other end of the line, is there? Instead, you’re often on the receiving end of a cocky, can’t-do response (or a least an unhelpful tone) when the reservation book is full.

Before becoming an owner, Mr. Meyer worked in a busy, high-end restaurant. He took an “I’m on your side” approach to inbound calls for reservations. It went something like this:

“I understand how you feel and I wish I could just move you to the top of our list. 8:45 p.m. is the earliest slot available, but if you can provide a ‘window’ that might work for you, I’ll be rooting for a cancellation so that we can move you to a more suitable time slot.” Simple … yet impressive.

 

This is the very first time I’ve heard that question

I believe one of the main reasons front-line staff react the way they do is because they get so many of the same (seemingly stupid) questions over and over again. If you can get your team to return to their “beginner’s mind” and act as if every time is their first time fielding a client concern, I believe they’ll naturally express more empathy. It’s so important to remind ourselves that while we may be saying something for the hundredth time … it’s the customer’s very first time hearing it. We should always be sensitive to that.

By the way, this works from the other side of the counter, too.

A few days ago, I was trying to book award travel with United Airlines. My representative was not particularly kind or helpful in the beginning. But once I took an “I’m on your side” stance – expressing empathy for her and the antiquated process she must undergo in order to book travel with partner airlines – her tone almost instantly took a 180-degree turn for the better and she began offering ideas and solutions.

Buy the Book

I first read – or, more accurately, listened to – Danny Meyer’s book, Setting the Table, about five years ago. Clicking the link will take you to the Amazon.com page for the audio version, which is read by the author. At about $13, I think it’s an incredible value.

*http://www.businessinsider.com/new-york-restaurants-fail-rate-2011-8