Ihop, Ryans and Customer Service Hell


From as far back as my first visits to the US, I was always (generally) impressed with the standard of customer service that was shown by wait staff in restaurants and diners. Sure there were exceptions and a lot if insincere 'Have a Great Day' comments but the whole experience was generally better than the equivalent in the UK.

I had always assumed that there were probably a couple of core reasons for the elevated levels of service. Firstly, basic wages for wait staff are terrible and the workers rely on tips as the major part of their income. Fast, efficient, polite service will mean a steady flow of happy customers and therefore more tips. Secondly, there was a far greater 'service culture' in the US. Eating out is a more general occurrence than in the UK and with so many restaurants to choose from, excellent service is often the distinguishing factor. Treat a customer well, make them happy and then reap the benefits of their returning custom.

Since moving to Memphis, I am continually astounded by the poor customer service and standards that I seem to find in 'everyday' restaurants. Now I have tried to think this one through and I do not believe I am a demanding customer, but at the same time I am not going to accept anything less than I am being asked to pay for. I am realistic to understand that my waiter is probably over worked for his poor wages and is often a the mercy of an unsupportive manager or chef but at the same time there are certain standards that I would expect.

1.) Be Polite - just smile, say hello, look at me when I am talking to you and listen when I am making my order. I encourage suggestions about menu items and even nice comments about my kids but I don't want your life story or a diatribe about how you have had to work a double shift. That is not to say I am not sympathetic but I am here with my family for a meal and I have enough baggage of my own to worry about.

2.) Please offer to refill my drink. Again,I am realistic and understand that you probably have half a dozen tables to manage but if i am sitting for more than ten minutes with an empty glass then I am going to feel neglected. On a similar note, please do not just line up three drinks per person on the table so you don't have to come back - it crowds the tables, give the kids something else to knock over and just makes me think you are just trying to avoid having to revisit my table.

3.) Set expectations about how long my order will take. If the restaurant is backed up and my entree will take thirty minutes then tell me up front. Setting my expectations will allow me to manage my hungry children and will save me gunning for the manager's scalp after twenty minutes. Tell me nothing and leave me at the table without sight of my waiter and I am just going to get frustrated and start knocking percentages off your tip until you return. To be honest, tell me my food is going to take a little longer, will probably just encourage me to order a cold appetizer in addition - this should be a smart move for you.

4.) This is a golden rule. If i am frustrated and angry to the point where I ask to speak to the restaurant manager, please don't make me have to ask more than once. Now I can understand how some people might abuse this rule as a fast track to getting their meal 'comped' but I would sincerely encourage you to take me seriously - a face to face conversation might be an annoyance if you are busy but I can assure you that the outcome is likely to be far better than ignoring me and letting me write a complaint letter to your corporate body. As a manager, If I ask to speak to you, I am tying to be positive and trying to give you an opportunity to resolve the issues that I have. I never want to be told that the manager is too busy to talk to me - if that is the case you are probably in the wrong job and I will feel it is my duty to tell you this.

Today, we spent two hours trying to find a restaurant that would serve us breakfast. First stop was Ryans, a breakfast buffet restaurant that is usually a cheap easy place to take the kids. We had to ask twice for straws for the kids drinks, the buffet was cold and empty and our waitress was asked twice to see if she could sort it out. The manager had to be asked twice to talk to us and never once said sorry or did anything constructive to fix things. You cannot sit three small, hungry children down in a restaurant and then ask them to wait 25 minutes for something to eat. To be fair, we were offered (and accepted out money back) but there was no apology, no smiles, no niceness, just a nasty begrudging attitude and some lame story about how they had some problems in the kitchen. I can understand problems but see Rule 4!.

Our next stop was IHOP over the road. On arrival we joked with the manager that would have to go some to do worse than Ryan's had just done - little were we to know that he obviously saw this as some kind of challenge. We waited ten minutes (acceptable) before a young waitress wafted past us and uttered the phrase... 'Cmon Anderson' Do i look like a Golden retriever? Call me sir, don't call me anything if you like; just look me in the eye and politely invite me to follow you to the table. Common courtesy costs nothing.

One 'polite conversation ' with the waitress and a similar conversation with the manager later and I was hoping that the IHOP alarm bells were ringing and that the remainder of our visit might be accompanied by a more respectable standard of service. No such luck. We waited 25 minutes for our food and watched half our order appear whilst the other half 'was backed up somewhere in the kitchen'. Our drinks were not refilled, our request for a side plate for one of the children was not met and the most laughable moment came when the the restaurant manager asked us whether anybody was siting at the opposite table before he placed some guests there.

Can anything be learned form this morning? Well yes, at least one simple thing...if you want me as a customer then at least try to make me feel welcome. It doesn't matter whether I am going to IHOP or the Four Seasons, I am choosing your restaurant and I expect to be treated right. Making a stand against poor service is uncomfortable and I can understand some people feeling uncomfortable but if we make a stand together something might change.