Your Party. Your Rules. It’s Okay to Say No to Your Customers by Nicole Valentin
A couple of weeks ago I went to purchase a cake for a fellow bartender’s last shift. I have a bit of a crass sense of humor and I wanted to have the bakery write something rather naughty on the cake. “Oh no, we can’t write that,” The bakery employee said. “But why not?” I asked. “Because it’s against our policy.” I found myself getting flustered. I had this whole plan in my head about writing this crazy thing on his cake and how funny it would be. And this employee, with his policies, was standing in my way. I began to bargain with him. “Well, could you write this? Or this? Or what about this?” All of the answers came back, “No.” I was starting to get heated. I began to half-heartedly utter the worst phrase anyone standing behind a register could hear, “But, I mean, After all, isn’t the customer always…” And then it hit me mid sentence: I had turned into the “customer is always right” person, fuming at a humorless man wearing a hair net, in the middle of the Greenwise Publix Bakery. It was a low moment for me.
The customer is not always right. I know this because I work in hospitality.
“Why don’t you have Dewar’s? Aren’t you a bar?”
“Sir, we don’t carry Dewar’s. But we have 25 other scotches on our back bar that I can recommend for you.”
“But I like Dewar’s. Have the kitchen up some potato chips.”
“Sir. We don’t have potato chips. We have truffle popcorn. We have duck fries.”
“What do you mean you don’t have potato chips? What kind of bar is this? Just forget it. Forget it.”
That conversation took place at my bar last week. Perhaps I should have ran out and purchased some Dewar’s or asked the kitchen to make an off menu item. But I didn’t. Because I believe in conscientious hospitality. The word hospitality eludes to a relationship between a host and a guest, not a dictatorship over the host. As a restaurant owner, you are the host. You are hosting the party. And it’s YOUR party. You make the rules.
Many people who work in hospitality forget this point. The threat of receiving a bad yelp review or not hitting last year’s sales sways us to enter into abusive relationships with our patrons, allowing them to dictate their experience. If we really want to be truly hospitable, the evening has got to come with a few predetermined rules to make things flow more smoothly. You have to stay in charge of the night and not falter because someone decides they need to have it his or her way. It’s not Burger King.
If you constantly give in, you stand for nothing, and people will learn to take advantage. It’s not their fault they do this, it’s yours because you let them. Breaking policies like splitting checks for large parties a maximum number of ways, extending the time the kitchen closing time, and offering a discount to a disgruntled guest when there is no fault of the restaurant, can actually have negative effects in the long run for your business. Know what parameters you want to have in place and then don’t falter because one person doesn’t like them.
Not everyone who walks through your doors is going to understand your concept. Some may grasp a bit of it, while others will hate it entirely. But those customers are people you are better off without. I was reminded of this fact this very evening I am writing this article. I had a man at my bar wait 15 to 20 minutes for a drink order (which is not unheard of in a craft bar at peak volume), and then complained about it with such ferocity that it upset everyone else in the restaurant. Here’s the kicker: He was greeted immediately upon arrival, told that we were at an unexpected high volume and that drink tickets would be 20 minutes. He was given terms and conditions which he agreed to. But, regardless of setting his expectations, he was hoping for a different outcome. And when that proved to be a falsehood, he insisted on aggravating the situation. I asked myself as I was being tongue-lashed by this person in a busy restaurant, with drink tickets spewing out of my machine that he was keeping me from making, “Is this someone I want to invite back into my establishment?” Absolutely not. I don’t want to do business with someone who behaves this way. So why should I bend over backwards, or comp things for someone who doesn’t deserve it? I shouldn’t. It’s ok to say no to a customer.
As a restaurant owner, you have the right to let the patron know that your rules for your bar are in place for a reason. Entitlement is a nasty look on anyone. And when you’re on the receiving end of an angry, entitled person, it’s important to remind yourself that you are always in the drivers seat. Not every situation needs to result in an apology with a comp’d round of drinks, or free food, or a coupon to come back. You don’t have to take it because someone doesn’t understand the DNA of your vision. You can’t please everyone. I would argue that you shouldn’t.
You should tailor your business to the people who appreciate what you’re doing; the people who think like you and get your concept. They will continue to come back again and again. Does an artist tailor their artwork to everyone? No. They follow their own intuition and create what they want to create from their own instincts. The same standard should be in place at your restaurant. I doubt you got into this business so you could tailor your vision to everyone else’s point of view.
I’m not saying don’t listen to constructive criticism. You absolutely should listen to it, and take it all into consideration. But you must pick your battles and determine who is being constructive and who is just being difficult. Don’t give in all of the time. People will respect you for it and begin to follow the rules you set in place. If your menu says no substitutions, then don’t substitute anything. That rule is in place for a reason. Most likely the kitchen is small and can’t handle amendments to the menu. If you have a dress code, be strict about it. People who follow it will be happy that you didn’t let the guy in a t-shirt and flip flops in while they took an hour showering and dressing nicely to come to your place. By following your own rules, you are thanking the people that already respect them. The rule breakers are the ones that don’t care about your code of conduct and will likely not return regardless of what you do. Liken it to a relationship. Do you want to be with someone who doesn’t respect you; who insults you; who doesn’t get you? If you won’t allow it in your personal life, why allow it in your business.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”