Improving Customer Service

Issue # 66 of 70 




John T. Self, Ph.D.
By: Dr. John T. Self


This Table is Reserved


There was a feature article in last week's Wall Street Journal complaining about the restaurant industry's new-found rudeness. The article points out that this perceived rudeness manifests itself in charging customers who either cancel their reservations after-5 PM of the same day or do not even show up at all.

It is unfortunate that this is seen to be rude as this is the result of a truly painful decision by restaurant owners brought about by a minority of customers. Most restaurants grin(read: scowl) and bear it so as not to risk alienating their customers. However, for select restaurants that have a substantial check average coupled with limited seating, dealing with no-shows is an economic necessity. With these restaurants, even a small number of no-shows can mean the difference between success and disaster.

To have reservations function correctly, the restaurant must turn down customers, especially walk-ins, who want to dine at the same time as customers who have reservations. Turning down anyone who wants to dine with you is difficult enough, but to turn down customers only to have the reservation party not show up either is totally unacceptable.

It boils down to a dilemma for restaurants: risk irritating, or worse, losing your customers by charging them when they don't honor their reservations or just ignore it and go on about your business, fuming over lost revenues. In all fairness, at least for the moment, most of the restaurants that do charge for no-shows do so only for large parties, not smaller ones.

Reservations are a customer service that is taken for granted. But look around at the number and kinds of restaurants that take reservations today. Most mainstream restaurant chains do not take reservations even though they did years ago. It wasn't worth their trouble. However, the higher-end dining segment must take reservations as a condition of the prices they charge.

While restaurateurs and managers understand the complexity of reservations, most customers do not. It takes much more co-ordination and awareness to implement a reservation system than simply reciting the common: "May I take your name, please?" For the record, customers shouldn't have to understand the reservation system, it should just work flawlessly and do so out of sight. It is just another tool for ensuring smooth customer service.

When reservations work correctly, the customer is treated as a valued individual. It is wonderful to walk into your favorite restaurant, simply say your name and instantly be whisked to your table, rather than feel like cattle fighting your way to the hostess and then standing for an hour with the herd.

While I personally think that charging for cancellations is a painful necessity, it does, on the other hand, place the burden of responsibility on the restaurant to honor each customer's reservation and to be seated within 5 or 10 minutes of the reservation. They should do this with a guarantee that if anyone is not seated within a specified time, they will receive some form of compensation. Guaranteed. After all, what is fair for one must be fair for the other.

John T. Self is a lecturer at The Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly Pomona). Prior to entering academia, Dr. Self spent fifteen years in the restaurant industry. While in the corporate world, he worked for several chains including Chili's and Steak and Ale, and as vice president of a regional restaurant chain overseeing six restaurants with sales of over twenty million dollars. He has also owned three independent restaurants, including a comedy club.
Dr. Self has also been involved in the development of international hospitality programs. While at Golden Gate University, he started the partnership with Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China and is continuing in that involvement at Cal Poly.


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Text © Dr. John T. Self, 1997,1998. Part of the original Sideroad.