In The Weeds: How to Apologize Like a Professional
Things have gotten a bit dicey lately between my mom and me when we are dining out. I was raised in a mid-sized Midwestern town and only went out to eat at fancy restaurants like The Sizzler when someone was celebrating a birthday. An all-you-can-eat salad bar, plus an add-on steak for $4.99? Don’t mind if I do! But now, after several years of working at a luxury hotel and several years of working at a luxury restaurant, my mom gets skiddish when I am back in my hometown for a visit and we are about to dine together. It starts in the selection discussion.
“Well, we usually just go to Carlos O’Kelly’s on Friday nights if that’s okay with you. It’s not fancy, but the queso dip is amazing.”
“Mom, of course it’s okay with me. I love cheese. Sounds good.”
“Well, I know it’s no Capital Grille, but it’s what we like.” Please take notice of the combination of self-effacing humor and thinly-veiled criticism.
When in a restaurant with my mother, it’s almost as if I’m a recently-made-it minor celebrity. When the server forgets to hold the onions on my Carlos’s Famous Enchiladas, my mom gets a little jumpy and apologizes on his behalf. I wonder if this is just a taste of what it’s like for Britney Spears to eat at the local burger joint in Kentwood, Louisiana?
But the truth is, I do notice service now…more than ever. I wouldn’t want to admit it to my family, but most of the time, it disappoints me. I long for the days when I didn’t notice the way someone spiels the specials or how they engage in upselling. As a high-end server or low-end bartender, I care about my guest’s experience. Whether I’m serving a $1,500 six-top of ballers or a salad and iced-tea guy behind the bar, I can’t relate to the servers who don’t even seem to notice or care when things go pear-shaped. In short, I want it to go great. And when it doesn’t, I am all about the apology.
At The Capital Grille, apologies (like everything else) were part of the training. Core value #5 or 6 or something was “We do it right or fix it fast. The guest wins moments of truth.” There were lots of discussions on this topic, but I most vividly remember the day we learned how to deliver a genuine apology by holding a hand over our hearts to say, “I’m sooooooooo sorry. Please allow me to alert my manager of this situation, so that we can 1) buy you a dessert or 2) (depending on your level of anger) buy your entire dinner or 3) (if you simply can’t be consoled) toss your salad…and I don’t mean field greens.”
Luckily for the guests, my Capital Grille managers were willing to go all the way to rectify a rectal situation. But sometimes, as in the case of this hilarious Monty Python skit, we went too far and made the guest uncomfortable. If we happened to pour vodka and soda instead of vodka and tonic, we would buy a round of drinks for the table. If we overcooked the steak, we would re-fire it and take it off the final bill. But when more than one mistake happened to one table, the servers and managers went into a full red alert. As the Monty Python manager said, “It’s the end!”
I never saw a manager go so far as stabbing himself with a fork, but I wouldn’t have been too surprised. Guests seemed to appreciate our efforts, but standing tableside as a manager tells someone that he won’t be able to sleep tonight if he doesn’t comp the entire bill because after three attempts, the salad dressing was too thick, can be a little awkward. Most guests don’t want to make trouble. They just want to eat the dinner they ordered and go home.
But a few, a shrewd few, have learned how to play the system. They complain and receive free wine. They complain and receive free appetizers. They complain and receive gift certificates for a future visit. And we hospitality types are left seething as we watch our potential gratuity walk out the door. We can only take a note from Monty Python and…. “Never…. kill a customer.” Easier said than done, my friends, easier said than done.
I just learned that Suze Orman will be in Kansas City as part of Oprah’s “Live Your Best Life” Seminar on Wednesday. As I mentioned, Orman encouraged Americans to save money during the recession by only dining out once a month and tipping only 10 percent. I’m seriously thinking of heckling her during her speech. If you see someone being dragged out of a convention center on CNN this week screaming, “Don’t tase me bro!”… it was probably me.