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RESOURCES_StraightAhead_How to Retain Guests....and Lose Them
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How to Retain Guests....and Lose Them

Hackettstown has a population of about 11,000 and is located in north central New Jersey, approximately 55 miles west of New York City. With the exception of the quick-service segment, all of the family dining facilities were owned by independents—that is, until the year 2000, when a regional dinner-house chain opened. It has since been joined by three national operations and, needless to say, this has changed the food-service landscape.

Although the community has grown, the addition of at least 500 restaurant seats in a relatively short period of time has re-shaped the competitive climate and has been a wake-up call for the independents and the regional chain, which more or less had an "exclusive" on all of the advertising and purchasing advantages available as part of a chain. I do not know how the independents reacted to this competitive growth, but based on the following incident relayed to me by a knowledgeable friend it appears that the management of the regional chain took it seriously.

My friend and two guests visited the operation for dinner, and his guests ordered salads with their meals. They were not happy with the salads and informed their server who told them that, since it was an a la carte item, she would take one dollar off each one and went about her business. Rather than cause a fuss, the group finished their meal, which was most satisfying. On their way out, my friend, who was the host, received the obligatory "how was everything?" inquiry from the manager. He told her of the salad incident. She asked him to wait while she tracked down his server, which she did, and then proceeded to refund not only the price of the salads but two desserts as well. Now there is nothing extraordinary about her actions, but what I did find interesting were her comments to my friend, which went something like this. "I'm sorry about the salad; I have made an adjustment on your check. I also complimented your desserts and do hope you will be back." My friend thanked her and said that complimentary desserts were unnecessary. She said, "Sir, we are very mindful that if we don't make every effort to satisfy you, the competition will. I do hope we will have the pleasure of serving you again." He assured her they would.

Compare that to the following incident experienced by another knowledgeable friend in a well-known Manhattan establishment. Having been the recipient of very uneven service throughout the entire meal, including a lesson on the wines of France delivered in a patronizing fashion in front of his guests, the manager's conversation with my friend went something like this. "I trust you have had an enjoyable evening?" To which my friend responded, "Quite frankly, the service wasn't up to your normally high standards." The manager's response left a lot to be desired. He proceeded to tell the guest that he couldn't understand how that was possible and, in fact, found it hard to believe. The waiter in question was one of their best. He almost became argumentative. At this point, my friend went from being a regular guest to one who will never return to the establishment. He said to me, "It is one thing to be annoyed enough to convey your unhappiness to management when asked and quite another to have your judgment challenged. While the amount I spent should have no bearing on the treatment I received, my check for four people was in excess of $450." The reasons for the dialogue between these guests and management were relatively the same, but the end response and result from each incident was dramatically different. How do you think your staff would have handled them?

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About the Author
You might say that Fred Sampson was born with food service in his DNA, working at age 12 in his family restaurant in Philadelphia after school and on week-ends, followed by a career that included director of feeding at Temple University’s main campus in Philadelphia, vice president of a regional casual dining chain and finally as President and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association for 30 years. He is still active as a consultant and writer All of this has enriched his knowledge and love for the industry. He has often said, “I have never considered myself an ‘expert’ on the industry but rather a qualified observer and I write from that perspective.” 

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