It was a pretty average second half of a double.  Our bar was hopping with happy hour customers.  I had just finished polishing my station and poured myself a nice cup of coffee.  Then one of my managers came to find me with a piece of paper in her hand.  Those of you who are servers know that managers carrying paper usually means bad news.  She handed it to me and said this came about you today.  It was an email and this is what it said:

“My wife and I celebrated our 24th anniversary today and your server, David Hayden at your Plaza location, made it extra special.  Without a doubt he is the best waiter I’ve ever had at any restaurant.”

It was nice to read and I put it in my pocket to add to my file of notes from guests.  This is where the story ends, but it is the beginning that makes it worth writing about.  They started off like any other table.  Seemed pleasant and in good moods.  I offered recommendation and they listened.  The wife was torn between the crab cakes and the shark (my recommendation).  I told her about both and she decided on the crab cakes.

I stopped by a couple times while they were waiting for their food.  Brought them their entrees.  I went to do my checkback and ask her about her shark when it hit me; she ordered the crab cakes.  This is not a mistake I make often and one that really can’t be fixed quickly during the lunch rush.  I asked her how the shark was and she raved about it.  I followed that up by saying, “unfortunately it still doesn’t taste like the crab cakes you ordered.”  They chuckled a little bit and acknowledged that they had caught the mistake.

The three things I did next were the difference between a complaint and a compliment letter.  This is how to turn a mistake into a positive with your guests.

Acknowledge and Own the Mistake: There is a difference between acknowledging and owning a mistake.  I probably could have let this table enjoy the rest of their shark and never even acknowledged the mistake was made.  The guest was happy with the shark and the temptation was there to just let it ride.  Acknowledging the mistake shows competency though.  It shows you made a mistake, which is human, but that you are enough of a professional to recognize it.  Owning the mistake means letting the table know that you are the one responsible.  It is easy to blame it on the kitchen or expeditor, but in that case you have cast doubt on the competency of the restaurant as a whole.  If you have the rapport with the table, you can own the mistake.  This lets them know who is at fault and that you are taking responsibility for it.

Offer and Apologize: The first action you want to take when you uncover a mistake is to offer to fix it.  I let her know that I could have an order of crab cakes out for her in about 8 minutes.  She declined and let me know that she was happier with the shark than she anticipated being with the crab cakes.  At this point there was little I could offer her and she was still a very happy guest.  Once you have offered everything you can to save the meal, then it is time to apologize.  If you apologize first, you leave the guest waiting longer for the problem to be fixed.  Address the problem right away and then move on to the apology.  The apology does not need to be long or tearful.  It does need to be sincere.  It needs to acknowledge that they were disappointed, but they should and can expect more from the restaurant.  Here is my signature apology:

“I know we let you down today and I am very sorry.  I know it doesn’t make this meal any better, but I assure you this is a rarity.  We wouldn’t still be open if it wasn’t.  I say this so as that you know that you can and should expect better from us than what happened tonight.  I also want you to know that if you will give us another chance, this is not a problem you will encounter.”

Compensate Anyway: Just because they don’t want a new entrée, doesn’t mean you are out of the woods.  Guests tend to be only slightly less passive aggressive than they women I date.  Just because they aren’t complaining, doesn’t mean they are happy.  Passive aggressive people in general, and guests in particular, just want to be acknowledged.  They tend not to stand up for themselves and feel like they get abused because of it.  This leads to 90% of negative reviews on restaurant websites.  This is why it is important to acknowledge them.  In this case, after my apology I immediately ordered them a dessert.  I went to my boss, told him the story, and he comped it.  I pre-bussed the table and returned within a minute with a complimentary dessert.  They were very happy, but the wife looked up and said, “you didn’t have to do that.”  This is where I sealed the deal with the line that makes passive aggressive people happier than any words ever spoken.

“I know.  You all have been great.  If you demanded a free dessert, I wouldn’t have fought as hard to get you one.  I have people all the time demand more for smaller mistake in order to prove that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.  I just think that sometimes us non-squeaky wheels deserve grease too.  Or in this case, chocolate.”

Tables where mistakes are made present you with a tremendous opportunity to show how much you care. These are the tables where you have the most to lose or gain.  How you fix a problem says more about you and the restaurant than the circumstances that lead up to it.  Learning how to turn a negative into a positive gives you the opportunity to build loyal guests for life.  The difference between a complaint and a compliment is how you handle your mistakes.

I am back from vacation and ready to write.  Should be some great stuff coming up this week.  Afraid you might miss it?  Become a fan of this blog on facebook through the handy dandy box on the right and you can sleep easy.

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