5 Principles for Great Restaurant Customer Service

August 19, 2015
5 Principles for Great Restaurant Customer Service

Restaurants are one of the few truly universal industries because almost everyone has familiarity with them.

From a customer service perspective, this makes restaurant customer service particularly challenging  because almost every customer has both established service expectations and well-formed service triggers.

Those expectations are often pegged to price or to impressions created by the physical environment.

In many cases, expectations are derived from the industry segment. We don’t expect the same service from Burger King as we do from Spago. A quick service restaurant (fast food) is obviously expected to be a completely different experience from a fine dining restaurant.

Where the industry gets tricky is that the segments are not always clearly defined, particularly in the mind of the consumer. Major brands are easiest to peg. Burger King is fast food. Panera is fast casual. Morton’s is fine dining.

But what about the family-owned Italian corner restaurant? Or the hip, modern downtown restaurant/bar? Or the eclectic American ten table restaurant? The lines are not always clear.

Add to that the standard individualized expectations that occur in all customer service scenarios — how fast should fast food be, just how casual is fast casual — and you can quickly see the challenges of the industry, challenges which have been exacerbated by a host of reality shows dedicated to chefs and restaurants that have turned millions of ordinary consumers into amateur restaurant critics.

Fundamental Restaurant Customer Service

For a restaurant experience to be great, both the product and the service must score. A failure in either department often leads to a substandard experience. The server is incredible but the food is dry and stale. Bad experience. The food is amazing but the server simply cant be bothered to refill your drink for the entire meal. Bad experience.

Too many restaurants fail on at least one level consistently. It’s no wonder that both this study and this one show the three-year failure rate in this highly competitive industry to be 60%, significantly faster and a bit higher than the 5-year, 49% failure rate for small business in general.*

Yet, all restaurants function on the same basic principles, delivering food and service that meets or exceeds expectations, and as such, the same basic experience principles apply to restaurants from Jack In The Box to Le Cirque.

Here are five principles all restaurants should focus on to improve restaurant customer service:

Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines1. Set expectations carefully.

As in all customer experiences, expectation management is half the ball game. For restaurants, however, it is particularly important due to the exceptionally blurred lines between restaurant formats. Customers need to have expectations set on the brand level, i.e., what are the basic service expectations of your restaurant, and on the individual experience level. i.e., is the kitchen “in the weeds” tonight and running behind.

2. Provide consistent products.

Of the typical experience failures that can occur in a restaurant, few are worse than going to get a favorite dish and having it done poorly. From cold fries in the drive through to an overcooked main course, an inconsistent product quickly taints experiences and brand perceptions.

Once is often forgiven from loyal customers; more than once quickly begins to deteriorate loyalty and brand perception. Consistency of product is important, as long as it is not consistently bad.

3. Provide consistent service.

Inconsistent service is the Achilles heel of the restaurant industry. Cashiers, servers, and host staff play such an integral role in the dining experience, and in many cases, are the greatest portion of that experience. When their service interactions differ significantly from the customer’s previous experience, it stands out.

The fundamental building blocks of all service are important here — good hiring, training, and brand standards, to name a few — but past that, restaurant staff should be prepared for the most common reactive service situations. They should be prepared for the unreasonable customer, the special that ran out an hour ago, and the fact that they are covering 30% more tables tonight because Billy called out sick.

It’s high-pressure, frontline service, and teams need the tools and training to deliver it consistently well.

4. Manage wait times thoroughly.

All too often, eating out is about waiting out. In fast food, no amount of time is too short. In fine dining, time of service is usually not a challenge, but wait time can be. Restaurants must manage a variability of demand that is rare in most industries.

Managing wait times through backup capacity, cross training, and most importantly, customer communication is an important part of making sure wait time doesn’t become hate time.

5. Train on effective communication.

The thread that runs through all of the points above is the need for timely, thoughtful communication. Wait staff, managers, and even bussers should be trained on effective customer service language. It is not enough to communicate; staff needs to be trained to communicate effectively and professionally.

Many a well-intentioned server has delivered the right information but in the wrong words and the wrong tone, negating the impact of their message.

Of course, restaurant customer experiences require a lot more than just these five items. From restaurant cleanliness to brand management, running a restaurant necessitates a holistic experience that hits the customers on more than one level.

Proactive service gestures are also important and somewhat expected in the industry. Food is cheap relative to the customer lifetime value of most restaurant patrons. This is one reason that Starbucks will comp or remake your coffee without blinking an eye.

With one study calculating the lifetime value of a Starbucks customer at $14,000 over 20 years; giving you a cup of coffee to make up for an incorrectly prepared product or an excessive wait costs them probably less than fifty cents on average.

Restaurant customer service has many layers, and it is easy for leaders to get sidetracked by the operational minutiae and to forget the fundamental service focus that is necessary for long term success. By focusing on the five service principles above, restaurants can make sure to follow Stephen Covey’s old adage of putting “first things first.”

* The general small business rate seems to include restaurants, so one would need the separated data to get clear rates on restaurant versus “all others” failure rates.

23 thoughts on “5 Principles for Great Restaurant Customer Service”

  1. I think wait times at restaurant are something you have to be aware of. It is smart to make sure the food gets out at a reasonable time. The customers come to eat. They are hungry so they decided to come in and get something to eat. As a customer to a lot of restaurants, I don’t like waiting a long time for my food.

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  3. When the customer is unhappy , they should be well greeted and treated with empathy which will pacify them much faster than any offered food . Customers feel special by this gesture of the restaurant and makes it a point to spread this happy feeling as word of mouth. Apart from the food customers expect a great ambiance and hospitality from the fine dining restaurants.

  4. I have always loved to cook, and Italian food is my favorite. I have recently thought about starting an Italian catering business, and I am researching what people look for in customer service. Even though it is more specific to restaurants, I’m grateful I found your post because your five principles can apply to catering as well. Thank you for these tips!

  5. I like that you said that staff and managers should be trained how to effectively and professionally communicate with customers. My husband and I are interested in franchising a restaurant in the future. We both love the food industry, and we can feel that our success will come to owning restaurants. We want our customers to be satisfied with our services to keep them.

    1. Thank you Sharon! I’m sure you know how incredibly competitive the restaurant business is. It’s almost impossible to win with just good food; you’ve got to provide a great customer experience. It’s great that you’re focused on that at the beginning. Best of luck!

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  9. kasagga Jamiru

    thanks for the knowledge and that’s exactly what all restaurants should do to improve on the service. thanks

  10. I trust you can answer a question in place of a comment. Question is: is it common practice for a restaurant to offer customers a dinner “special” without divulging the price? This happened to me last evening at a famous restaurant here in Dayton. The Valentine’s Day special was a “Porterhouse steak for two” which turned out to cost us $75.00! It came with salad, rolls, and only one side. If we had ordered off the menu, the single Porterhouse steak, at a price of $39.95 included salad, rolls, and two sides. Incidentally, it was not the quality of the menu steak, tough and with substantial fat around the edges. Is this a rip-off or what??? Thank you

    1. Well Robert, from the customer service/experience perspective, this seems like a terrible way for the restaurant to approach it. Hidden pricing is not common in that industry, so already they’ve created a lack of transparency and then, worse, they disappointed you and your wife. A bad meal is one thing; it happens. What they did was undermine your trust — that’s a whole different thing. Wishing you a better Valentine’s dinner next year!

  11. Thanks for mentioning that both the food and the service must be at par for a restaurant to be called great. My brother told me that he wants to have his own restaurant soon since he likes cooking. I’ve heard that there are companies that offer to train your service staff for you, so it might be a good idea to mention that to him in the future.

  12. As you mentioned, a few things are more frustrating in a restaurant than ordering a favorite dish and having it prepared incorrectly. An uneven product quickly taints experiences and brand perceptions, from lukewarm fries in the drive-through to an overcooked main course. I like to dine in a fine dining restaurant here in Fort Lee, NJ, and I don’t like to experience good service since they are top-notch restaurants.

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