On Hospitality, Part I

I have now spent two years in the hospitality industry. Hardly anything at all in the grand scheme of things, and, the whole time, while certainly in customer-facing positions, in situations that are far less rigid and structured than much of the industry.

I struggled early on. Balancing my natural inclination to correct (err…educate), with the need to fulfill a customer’s wishes to the best of our abilities, and then some. I’ve improved on that front, but I am still far more likely to display an involuntary look of confusion at (what I see as) an absurd request than to immediately say “of course, let me get that for you.”

And while I fully believe that it is my responsibility to provide service, to provide hospitality, I am still coming to terms with what exactly that means, and how far it extends.

After closing the restaurant the other night, I went downtown for a beer. I started chatting with the owner, also a customer of ours, about why I was there (particularly shitty night), and then the industry in general. A common topic of conversation among all industries lately is millenials, and their (our?) work ethic, or, as many see it, lack thereof. Charlie didn’t express the general frustrations of many (they’re lazy! they want to be promoted after 2 weeks! they just snapchat the whole time!), but instead commented on how he’s learned to manage differently with members of the generation, and how that management style is much more direct. Millenials want clear expectations, they want honesty, and they want positive feedback on a job well done, and corrective feedback when necessary. They do not want implications and passive aggression, to be left alone to figure out everything.

I bring this up because I think this directness and clarity is essential to my philosophy on hospitality. While I want everyone to leave my restaurant happy and satisfied, I do not believe the customer is always right. I believe that it is my responsibility as a representative of the restaurant to educate and guide the customer, and yes, in some instances, correct them. There is of course an art to this, one which I have far from mastered, but I believe that a restaurant, or any place of business in the world of hospitality, has an identity that circumscribes a reasonable set of expectations, and it is our role to manage customers’ desires inside of that set of expectations. How that management manifests itself can certainly vary. In my particular situation, it is everything from “Sorry, we are now an Italian restaurant, so we can no longer serve you the tacos that you used to get in this location when it was a different business” to “Yes, we are an Italian restaurant, and we are in America, but we are not an Italian American restaurant, so we do not serve chicken parm.” Granted, that second one requires a whole blog post unto itself, but the point is that some expectations are, more or less, objective (we are not the restaurant you’re looking for) and some are philosophical (we will not serve that dish because that is not the cuisine we represent), even though in these examples both are more or less the same issue (“I want this dish”).

But that’s the easy part. Explaining our food, getting people to understand our food, and then eventually eating, and enjoying our food. It’s everywhere else that it gets tricky. Back to the conversation at the bar the other night. The reason I was there, in addition to just wanting a drink after closing my last shift for the week, was that just before I left the restaurant, I happened to check our Yelp page, and found two brand new one-star reviews from that evening, both of which referenced me.

I am not (only) bringing this up to try and defend myself. I have complicated feelings on yelp and other review sites. They are a great, yet unreliable resource, that can just as often offer useful information as provide a forum for complainers who simply want a reaction.

I bring this up because both reviews involved situations where their dissatisfaction with the restaurant was amplified by my management of the expectations that should reasonably be attributed to our restaurant.

I’m not sure if sharing my side of the stories is necessary. It almost feels like it would just be a plea for “no, look, I’m right, I did the right thing!”. Oh well, it’s also cathartic to write it out.

In the first example, the customer had to wait longer than necessary for her order. That is a totally valid complaint. It was not busy, but we had someone new on the line, and things got mixed up. It is something that happens, and unfortunately there will occasionally be a customer who gets pissed off about it. While the customer was waiting for her order, I noticed a car waiting at the entrance to our driveway, stopped in a spot that would prevent any cars from entering or exiting the parking lot. Since we are a small restaurant with a small parking lot and we want our customers to have the opportunity to park in our lot, especially during the dinner rush, I approached the driver and asked if he would mind moving forward into the lot, allowing other cars to enter. He asked if there was a car trying to get in, and I said, no, not at the moment, but this is a busy hour, so there might be soon.

I think it is reasonable to expect our customers to be considerate of others who are trying to access the restaurant, and politely asking a driver to move to a new location which is not farther away (and is in fact closer) to an entrance fits within this set of expectations. And yet according to the customer who was waiting inside for her pizza and subsequent yelp kindling, this car that I asked to move was her Uber driver and it was the most heinous violation of customer service standards she had ever encountered.

I understand there are some instances in which we are just never going to win. We pissed her off by taking too long with her order, and so anything else was just going to fuel the fire. And if she wants to write a one star yelp review simply on the basis of the fact that she had to wait too long and she didn’t like the food, that’s fine. She has every right to do so. She even has every right to include my conversation with the driver, if she really thought it was that offensive. But I don’t regret asking him to move.

Just as how I don’t regret informing the second reviewer, who called extremely pissed off that we delivered his pizza and salad without napkins, forks or spices (?), that while we are happy to provide those items on request, we cannot afford to include them with every delivery by default.

I am confident that neither of these customers will give us their business again. I am also pretty confident, based on my interactions and the way they wrote their complaints, that there is nothing corrective I could have done after the initial offenses to change that fact. Okay, that is not entirely true. I could have driven out to the full-service hotel where the guest was staying and hand-delivered forks, napkins, and these mysterious “spices”. Or he could have called room service. Or he could have asked us to include them when he was on the phone with one of my staff for 15 minutes trying to figure out how to order a pizza and salad. But now I’m devolving into pettiness, and that’s only fun for a little while.

But I also feel that I represented our identity honestly. We do care about our customers, and we do want them to be able to park conveniently. We also want them to pay for what they’re getting, and most of them don’t need forks and napkins, so we’re not going to make them absorb the cost of providing utensils to everyone. And yes, sometimes we screw up and take too long to get out an order. There are explanations, but those are not relevant to the customer. That is one instance in which the customer is always right, and we probably could have defused that side of this particular situation a little better.

What this brings me to is my major question: is hospitality caring about every individual customer, or caring about your customers as a whole? I think it’s both, but with an emphasis on the latter. It is appreciating every individual customer, and interacting with them according to their needs, but within a set of parameters that is cognizant and respectful of the entirety of our customer base. In sum, I would rather educate (let’s be honest, piss off) one (drunk, wine-stained out of town) customer (right, not devolving into pettiness), such that twelve more regulars could park their cars conveniently.

We are a business, and we are a business with a particular set of qualities, that we execute according to a particular set of standards. We can’t be everything to everyone, we can only be what we are, and do our best to ensure our customers are educated and understand exactly what we can provide. For me, hospitality – as a business concept, Merriam & Webster are more than free to disagree – is about creating a welcoming identity, and doing our best to ensure that as many guests as possible experience that identity the way it is intended. But unfortunately, it’s impossible to reach everyone. And for the sake of our sanity, that is an important fact to accept.

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