If you ask the question . . . listen to the answer!

I’ve been doing the odd spot of dining out lately, mostly around the better budget-priced restaurants around my area. I like to find those places who can do it well for a reasonable cost. I look for adequate decor, good service, good food and most importantly, a pleasant atmosphere. If they can do all of this for a reasonable price and still make a decent profit they have my professional admiration. I think they are managing well.

The problem with frequenting budget restaurants is that when you strike a good one you then have a yardstick to measure all other restaurants against. All too often more ‘up-market’ establishments suffer in the comparison. This can be the catalyst for an interesting moment when the maitre’d in one of these up-market places glides up to your table and asks, ‘Did you enjoy your meal this evening, Sir?’ I usually tell the truth. The reaction can be bizarre, to say the least.

It seems that an increasing number of restaurateurs are insisting on their staff asking this question at the end of a meal, but not laying down any procedures or guidelines to appropriate reaction if the answer indicates that a customer is dissatisfied.

Take two recent examples, for instance . . .

During a recent holiday, I was staying with some friends at one of our premier ski resorts. We were in the ‘fine dining room’ (they had two very average restaurants); the place was Fawlty Towers without the humour. One of my friends ordered ‘prime beef’ and received a cremated forequarter chop surrounded by an unappetising mulch of nondescript vegetables — for $34.50!

Shortly after, the maitre’d popped the question, and we politely told him. His reaction was interesting to say the least. He said, ‘Yeah, I agree. The management here doesn’t care. They know that you’ll be gone in a couple of days and a new bunch will arrive to take your place.’ I wondered why he bothered to ask.

The second example was in an up-market suburban hotel; one of the new operations that is based on food service rather than beverage sales. Again, the meal was an expensive disaster followed by the automatic question. This time my girlfriend answered — carefully and politely, I might add, she is a softly-spoken English girl who does not like to upset people.

The manageress became extremely defensive and proceeded to blame the apprentice in the kitchen for the food. She then told us that she was not running a restaurant but a hotel bistro which was full most of the time. Customer service was not important. They were not looking for repeat trade (???). When the bill arrived, the words ‘Thank You’ had been struck out with a diagonal pen slash.

I always thought that you should inquire as to a customer’s enjoyment of a meal in order to rectify any dissatisfaction before they leave the establishment. The words of Tom Peters (‘A Passion for Excellence’) seem appropriate…

‘If you listen to your customers and treat them with common courtesy and decency, you can have the lion’s share of the market. BECAUSE YOU’LL BE ALONE!’