Things For People

No strong convictions about this blog site to speak of. Just occasional musings inspired by things that transpire outside my window: LAPD helicopters searching for fugitives, transvestite prostitutes wrestling with their pimps at 3am, and the chubby kid next door who sings in the shower 4 times per day.

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Customer Service

There is a lot of discussion about the quality of customer service these days. Letters to the editor, radio call-in shows, etc. "Just ain't like it used to be...blah, blah, blah." I'd like to take a moment to discuss the quality of customers these days, just to put everything into perspective. Let's first take a look at the typical customer service representative -- Probably between the ages of 20 and 30, deeply in debt from college/automobile/home loans, maybe with a child. Maybe single with a child. This person once had, and likely still has ambition. Probably entered some sort of customer service field because it would help develop "people skills." This person wants to be reasonably safe, comfortable, and secure. Logically, one might conclude that this person would want to be as helpful as possible in their particular customer service job, as this is a quality which enables the customer service representative to advance in the field. With that in mind, it is perhaps unlikely to expect that the customer service representative wakes up every morning and decides, "I cannot wait to ruin someone's day -- maybe I can tell someone 'no' and back it up with the old 'that's just policy' routine. Or better yet, I can't wait for the fun I have when someone belittles my intelligence because they didn't read the directions on their VCR. Then we can argue and argue and argue. Then they can demand to speak to my supervisor and I'll get a nice reprimand." No, they probably don't think along these lines. More realistically, the customer service representative says some kind of prayer for patience and understanding, knowing that the average American is totally self-interested and determined to get what he/she wants, regardless of whether it is earned or deserved.

Having spent a good long while in the restaurant industry, I have experienced every possible customer service scenario imaginable. With this knowledge, I am providing the following guide to achieving the best possible customer service during your next visit to a restaurant.

"How to Be A Good Restaurant Customer"

1. Don't call a restaurant to ask them how busy they will be at such and such time. Ostensibly you are asking this question because you want to be able to micromanage every unforseen detail of your life. Subconsciously, you are in effect asking for a verbal contract that allows you to swell with righteous indignation if the restaurant is busier than they thought it would be. I have never seen a crystal ball at a host stand. The answer is, "We don't know." If the restaurant is successful, it will probably be busy. If it is not successful, you should probably eat somewhere else anyway. Plan accordingly. You would be surprised at how many times we have to answer this question on any given day. If the restaurant doesn't take reservations, it isn't to thwart your ambitions. If they take reservations for 6 or more, that means if you have 5 people in your party, they won't take your reservation. The short reason for that is 5 is a number less than 6, and whining will not change a universally agreed upon numerical system. The long reason is that in a small restaurant, if every restaurant in the table is reserved and all of the reservations are late, walk-in customers have nowhere to sit despite the fact that there is a restaurant full of empty tables. Don't make a reservation for 6 and show up as 5 with the old, "Herbert had to cancel." We're not stupid, and we're not non-profit. You are taking money away from the staff and from the restaurant when you try to bend a restaurant's policy to suit your needs. You will probably just end up waiting in line like the rest of the patient people who understand that businesses have reasons for running things the way that they do. Don't go to a busy restaurant during its peak hours and tell the staff you are in a hurry. There is virtually no way that you will be satisfied, and you will leave angry because the restaurant made you late to your next engagement. Do the math there and see if it adds up.

2. After arriving at the restaurant, wait patiently for your table. Don't ask the host every 10 minutes when your table is going to be ready. It's like a child in the back seat asking, "Are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet?" If you are asking about your table, so is every other person who can't seem to see that the restaurant is full. The answer is, "Your table will be ready when the people sitting at the tables finish eating." The host has no control over how long a family sits at a table. Can you imagine how a restaurant would do if you were told you had to hurry up and finish eating so that the next family can sit down? Your paranoia that the host will cut someone in front of you is unfounded. There is no need to walk around the restaurant to check how soon the tables will be finished. The host will do that. That's what they were hired for. I know that when I go out to eat I find it a little disturbing when strange people are hovering around my table, staring at me and my food. Restaurants aspire to make everyone happy. No matter how rude, how drunk, how cheap, or how loud you are. Restaurants will try to please you and will embarass themselves by tossing aside anything resembling dignity or justice to do so. Later I will discuss why you should not take advantage of this characteristic.

3. If you are sitting at the bar waiting for your table, order something and tip the bartender. It seems that no one has any money these days -- just credit cards. If that's the case, run it with the bartender and tip him, and then run it again with your server. If that's too inconvenient, it might become just as inconvenient for the bartender to put the top shelf liquor that you're paying for into your Pina Colada. Once he sees where you're sitting after taking up space at his bar and then giving him nothing, you may be drinking lots of bay rum out of a plastic bottle for premium prices. Yum yum, drink up.

4. When you have been seated at your table, stop talking when the waiter approaches. You can finish your conversation when the waiter leaves. This includes cell phones. Many waiters won't even approach a table if someone is talking on a cell phone, no matter how spastically you wave your arms to get the waiter's attention. Why? Because it's rude, and invariably there will be some kind of miscommunication while you argue with grandma over the phone about the green Christmas lights while trying to explain to the waiter that you can't eat red bell peppers. Waiters smile and crack jokes and make it look like their job is a real joy. They literally have 50-100 crucial things they are trying to remember and keep organized at any given time, and 15 to 20 other people at other tables demanding the waiter's undivided attention at all times. The waiter's job is to bring you what you want promptly and efficiently. It's just one of those fundamantal things about eating in a restaurant. Help the waiter do that by listening to what they have to say. They aren't there to make friends with you. They are there to provide valuable information that will improve your overall experience. I can't tell you how many times I have recited all of the ingredients in a special when 75% of the people at the table bothered to acknowledge my existence, only to be chastized for not telling the table about the peanuts and how they're allergic, when I had in fact told them about that very thing. Make eye contact with the waiter. Waiting tables can be a humiliating job at times. Customers who show even the most rudimentary level of respect can count on great service.

5. Order in a reasonable amount of time. For instance, if you sit at a table nursing a beer for an hour before ordering any food, you are essentially taking money away from the server. Restaurants are not lounges. In a lounge, you more or less order your own drinks from the bar, or sit at a table and spend money all night. In a standard restaurant, waiters make their money by customers coming and going -- sheer volume. If you take your sweet time ordering (i.e. more than 15 minutes), you have become an afterthought in the waiter's mind. Chances are you will be the last table on the server's list of things to pay attention to, because the waiter is now focused on giving the other tables extra special care to compensate for the money lost while you take up space in his/her section.

6. Don't create your own menu. Unless you're allergic to a particular food item or overly sensitive to spice, eat what's on the menu. If the restaurant is generally health conscious, you can rest assured that the chef, who spent years in culinary school and has likely studied the basics of nutrition has designed a menu that is reasonably tasty and health-conscious for the right price. Obviously if you hate cucumber, ask to have it removed. But don't ask to have a pasta dish that is made with cream sauce, linguini, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and scallops to be made with fettucini, broccoli, pine nuts, shrimp, and onions. The kitchen moves fast, they make what's on the menu every day, and English is often not their first language. When you design your own menu, it will probably take longer, and might not come out to your specifications. As a result you will complain and demand some compensation and tell all of your friends that the food at such and such restaurant is terrible. But remember -- you designed the menu. If you don't like the fare at a particular restaurant, eat somewhere else. At Burger King you can have it your way. It says so on the sign. Another scenario I've experienced more often than is humanly reasonable is this one: A person sits at the table, never looks at the menu, and then orders something like chicken fried steak. "I'm sorry sir, we don't carry chicken fried steak." "Well, what do you have then?" "Umm...why don't we open up the menu and take a look."

7. Get to know your server. I don't mean where they live, when they were born, etc. Pay attention to what they look like. This person is working for you. You are paying for their service. If you need something, talk to the person with whom you have been dealing since you sat down. If you know that you are high-maintenance (you know who you are) anticipate all of those idiosyncratic things you need and let the waiter know in advance. Otherwise you will be playing fetch with the waiter every time he/she brings you an item. They have other tables to attend to. The world doesn't start when you wake up and stop when you go to bed. Don't ask every other server who walks near your table for stuff. They are focused on taking care of the people who have hired their services in other sections of the restaurant. It is always amusing to see a table ordering from the bussers who walk by. The busser smiles and nods, and the people at the table have the "now that's how you get things done" kind of satisfied expressions on their faces. Fact is -- the busser has no idea what you just said and you probably won't get what you just asked for, even though you will blame your waiter for forgetting to bring it. The bussers don't usually speak English, but they work very, very hard to make sure that the tables are ready for people at the front who keep asking "When is my table ready, when is my table ready, when is my table ready?" Let them do their job. If you're wondering where your server is when you need something, you can bet they are tied up by a customer who thinks the server is their server and has them running back and forth for minutia. We aren't allowed to say no. Again, this is not something to abuse. Those of you who suffer from separation anxiety need not worry. The server will be back in a reasonable amount of time. It's their job to do so. If they have done a truly poor job, you can make that clear by the way that you tip. 20% for great service, 15% for average service, 10% for below average. It is never in your best interests to tip a server 0. I've met a few servers who always seemed like they were on the verge of going postal for any reason. Maybe she was a coke addict. Maybe his wife was leaving him. You don't want to end up on the front page of the paper over a meal do you?

8. When you have finished eating and don't intend to order anything else, pay your bill, and go away. If you sit at a table for 2 hours after completing your meal, you are effectively opening up a server's wallet, removing money from it, and lighting it on fire. It's cute that you haven't seen your ex in 5 years. Why not go back to your place and make out with him?

9. Paying the bill -- Don't argue in front of the waiter about who is going to pay the bill e.g. -- wrestling each other to give the credit card to the waiter, grabbing the check from the waiter and then wrestling over who gets to look at it, insisting that the waiter let you pay rather than the other guy. Let's face it -- we don't have time for that nonsense. Picture a group of schoolchildren in a sandbox. The teacher stands over the kids wrestling over a ball, yelling about it, and then blaming the teacher for not doing the right thing. It is not our responsibility to decide who pays the bill, nor do we care who pays the bill, so long as it is paid. Learn to make a decision and stick to it. That way you can avoid this absurd scenario. If you want to separate your checks, tell the waiter in advance. If you are a large party, pay with one bill. No, it is not because waiters are lazy and can't do math. Waiters walk roughly 5 miles per night with something in their hands at all times, running numbers like a calculator. It is because it is a waste of everyone's time. Invariably, someone from the party leaves early, drinks too much and forgets what he/she ordered, or doesn't effectively communicate what needs to go on each bill. While 7 credit cards are being run, one gets denied, and we have to fetch another one. Meanwhile, the 4 other tables that we are trying to take care of are wondering, "Where the hell is my waiter?" So in all of this melee', our tips are dropping with each passing moment. But clearly, it is our fault -- never the customer's.

10. When everything is said and done, if you truly feel that you have had a bad experience, don't tell on your waiter. Again, unless the waiter is drunk, rude, or dangerous, vote with your tip. You could have a good waiter who just happens to be having a rough night, or is dealing with a number of factors that cannot be controlled (kitchen is backed up, entire rack of glasses broke in the dish area, so forth and so on). They work hard at a job that doesn't pay a hell of a lot. Often they are single parents and/or are trying to put themselves through school. Will it really improve your quality of life by trying to get them fired? Remember the sandbox scenario? "Where's teacher? I'm telling, I'm telling, I'm telling!"

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things you can do to get stellar service. Much of it comes down to common sense and simple decency. Things like -- not coming into a restaurant after it is closed and demanding to be seated (so that the employees can be home when their spouses expect them); not telling the restaurant employees how they can be doing their job better (feel free to leave us a business card and we'll come to your office to tell you how to do yours); asking when your food is going to be ready over and over again (most likely it will be ready when it is finished cooking), etc.

Getting back to why you should not abuse the restaurant's staff (which is probably why Europeans don't like Americans very much), there are "things" that can take place in a restaurant that you won't see. These "things" are not, of course, sanctioned by the restaurant. You won't even know that anything "strange" has taken place. For those customers who are merely obnoxious and childish, waiters will gather and discuss what an incredible moron you are. We will walk by one by one just to get a look at the bizarre, ridiculous specimen of a human being at table 67. Like a person at the zoo going to the baboon cage to look at those weird, weird butts. We will then regroup and dissect those very attributes about which you are most self-conscious (what a fat pig, look at that ridiculous toupee', holy crap that nose is hideous). For those customers who are downright offensive and demeaning, other "things" which you will remain unaware of may occur. And we'll just keep on smiling. Use your imagination -- like we do. I'll leave it at that.

I know, I know -- there are plenty of you out there who love to come back with the retort, "Nobody's forcing you to take a job in a restaurant." That's right pal. That's exactly right. Instead, we could be carjackers. Carjackers who noticed what you drove while you were berating the valet guy.

And finally -- when it just absolutely ruins your entire week or requires an additional trip to the therapist because your dressing didn't come out on the side, or because the lemons were slices rather than wedges, or because the beer wasn't quite cold enough -- maybe you can trade places with the woman in Indonesia who has an untreated broken jaw and has been walking barefoot through raw sewage for three months searching for her baby's corpse.

Bon Appetit!