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Is your investment at risk from servers

who are rude and/or indifferent?

By Mason Harris
Life’s short. Eat out more.®

Your dining customers do not see the care you take in preparing their food. The human “face” of your restaurant includes the waiters, waitresses, hosts, and an occasional manager who interacts with them. More than the quality of your food, these associates and employees determine the success of your restaurant.

How much have you invested in your restaurant? What did it cost you to select your site, negotiate the lease, engage an architect, hire a general contractor, obtain licenses and certifications, equip your kitchen, furnish customer areas, and purchase utensils ranging from dishes to flatware? I’m reluctant to even ask about the replacement cost for the cool salt and pepper shakers that some of your customers seem to feel are “parting gifts” they’re entitled to receive just for having dined with you.

What about the “sweat and blood” you’ve invested? Literally. It’s rare to find an owner, chef or manager who hasn’t sweated off some pounds working an extra-long shift while short-handed. And the blood? Please – your restaurant is full of sharp, pointy things – like knives and ill-mannered diners. Try to find a chef or manager who hasn’t cut himself at least once in the kitchen, or been wounded by the Customer from Hell.

This quick calculation of your investment may lead to a number, but the actual dollar amount is less important than understanding that the investment is significant, both financially and emotionally. Plus, it is never ending, kind of like new diet crazes that lead to constant menu revisions.

Yet this big financial and emotional investment is totally at risk when the “face” you present to your dining customers is a source of dissatisfaction to them.

Good, rude, and indifferent – I see them everyday.

I eat out frequently and have had the pleasure of interacting with servers of varying competence, skills, memory, personality, and tray-carrying abilities. My impression of a restaurant is based on numerous factors, including how I was greeted, the atmosphere and décor, menu options and design, lighting, sound, food quality and presentation, but most importantly, the service.

I’m not the only one who feels service is the most critical factor in any decision to return again to a particular restaurant. It has been demonstrated that a restaurant with exceptional service but mediocre food will generate more loyalty than a restaurant that provides great food served by a staff of indifferent or even rude servers. (Of course, your obvious challenge is to provide both good food and service. Once you have accomplished this objective, increasing competition, particularly from the national chains, will keep you awake at night.)

I have observed three types of servers: good, rude and indifferent.
Perfection isn’t required for a server to be “good.” Mistakes in meal preparation or delays in serving the food happen, but the good servers are back frequently enough to make me feel that I haven’t been forgotten while my food is establishing a long-term relationship with the heat lamp.

The following is obvious, but considering your investment, it’s a necessary reminder. Rude and indifferent servers will diminish customer loyalty. Even worse, not quickly resolving these server problems will cause you to steadily lose business.

Rude servers are rare but they are out there. Fortunately, since diners tend to actively complain about rude servers, management gets immediate feedback and is in a position to resolve this problem quickly.

As a restaurateur, your bigger problem is actually the indifferent server, because you may be clueless about why your customer base and profits are shrinking. Customers typically do not actively complain about the server who rarely comes back to the table, doesn’t refill drinks, or is generally inattentive. If your food is good enough, I and other dining customers will return again. But if we experience indifferent service over and over, we’re likely to return less frequently, if at all.


Too many restaurateurs put good effort into initial server training, but neglect the follow-up. On a daily basis we ensure that our servers know the “specials” and we encourage them to gently up-sell wine, appetizers, dessert and coffee when possible. However, we fail our servers (and customers) when we don’t reinforce the need to be attentive.

Server motivation is critical. Their jobs are hard and recognition from you for the positive feedback you receive from customers is important. Your success is mutually beneficial. Satisfied diners leave bigger tips and return more frequently.

Aside from better and ongoing training, what else can we do? Have your Managers interact more frequently with diners and you’ll receive more frequent and honest feedback. Implement a “mystery diner” program to “test” your servers, food quality, and other staff. Encourage feedback through written Comment Forms and email if you have an email program.

Remember, the server is the primary “face” of your restaurant to your customers. If the service I receive is bad, I view it as an insight into your entire operation. I start thinking about the care you put into the food I’m eating and the cleanliness of your kitchen. If I repeatedly experience server problems over multiple visits, I’m gone as a customer and you’ll never know why. Then the blood you shed in the kitchen should be considered self-inflicted, not accidental.

Mason Harris offers the Restaurant Association of Maryland (RAM) endorsed YouGotMeals permission-based email marketing program for restaurants. A frequent speaker on marketing and loyalty programs, Mason is also writing a book specifically for restaurant owners and managers. You could be in the book! Feel free to share your questions, comments, and experiences related to this column, restaurant marketing, and diner loyalty with Mason via email at mharris@yougotmeals.com, or sign up for his e-newsletter at www.yougotmeals.com.

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