What makes a good customer experience?

Restaurant managers are often inundated with customer service requirements handed down from corporate to ensure guests receive consistent interaction and attention. But, do these one-size-fits-all approaches equal positive, meaningful customer experiences?

"Managers are in denial," said Mark Netsch, founder and president of PerformanceScope Inc., a restaurant performance consulting firm. "They do what I call, 'the manager drive-by,' where they barely slow down, if stop at all, and say, 'Hi folks, how was everything?' Then, you are obliged, because you've got a mouthful of food and aren't confrontational to say, 'fine.'"

Netsch said this type of interaction with guests is not a conducive environment for managers to obtain real feedback.

Just about anyone who has eaten in a restaurant has experienced the manager table visit. The interaction varies between a personable, yet professional approach in which the manager genuinely seems to be interested in the guests' responses, and the manager that interrupts conversations as he barely slows down walking past the guests.

"If handled correctly, table visits can be a good thing. Even if people don't have a complaint, it makes them feel noticed and important. When managers come over and make themselves comfortable and want to be your best friend is when things start to go south," said Dorothy Frisch, owner of Polished Service, a restaurant solutions consulting firm.

Over-familiarity is also a customer service practice that happens in a lot of restaurants. Managers and employees addressing guests with an informal salutation, such as "Hey, guys," whether it's a group of men or not, is commonplace in many establishments. Sometimes it works, but often it comes across as overly friendly and forced, Frisch said.

Another customer experience standard that managers use to track and measure performance is secret shopper evaluations. Netsch maintains that just because a manager or employee hits every item on the checklist doesn't mean the guest walked away with a positive or meaningful experience.

"One of the myths is that a perfect secret shopper score means you had a perfectly satisfied guest. Absolutely not," Netsch said. "It means your employee hit every service step and touchpoint, but it doesn't mean he or she was engaged with the guest at all."
Netsch and Frisch agree that what managers need to focus on is engagement and utilizing their "restaurant eyes."

Visibility, accessibility

Netsch cited an experience in which he was eating a Caesar salad in a restaurant and had picked out several brown romaine lettuce pieces and placed them aside. A manager walked by his table and stopped briefly to ask how everything was and left without ever addressing the issue.

"The last thing I want is to get into a confrontation with a defensive manager who maybe thinks I just want a free meal. Managers cannot leave it up to the customers to tell them when they're having problems. It's not their responsibility," Netsch said.

Using "restaurant eyes" to detect problems and act accordingly is essential, according to Netsch. Frisch said she wants to see managers walking the floor but in a manner that suggests approachability.

"I like to see managers be open and available. Sometimes I see managers that are dogging the footsteps of the staff and micromanaging, or pitching in because the restaurant is chronically understaffed," Frisch said. "The manager needs to be someone who is a visible presence and approachable." 

Frisch pointed out that table visits can be a touchpoint that is beneficial for managers if handled properly by making sure the guest is comfortable, showing genuine concern, reading body language and not interrupting.

"I hate anything that smacks of a scripted encounter," Frisch said. "Any time hospitality is distilled into a scripted event, you're going to run into problems. It's so easy for guests to see when a business has had some kind of customer training push."

Additionally, Frisch said that this kind of non-engagement keeps guests from making impulse decisions and can lead them to spend less. If a fast casual counter employee tries to push specific drink options on a customer, for example, often the guest feels rushed and insignificant and opts for the simplest thing: water.

"Corporations script this type of thing because they don't want to give the rank and file the option of doing it their own way. There's not a trust there," Frisch said. "It's a leap of faith to do everything with the customer in mind."