10 Things Your Customers Hate About You

How to deliver service that leaves your guests with a smile.

The Golden Rule for restaurants: Don’t piss off the guest. 

Right or wrong, a peeved patron is a lose-lose scenario for everyone. Some issues are inevitable (long waits for reservations on overbooked nights), while others are about getting back to basics (diners don’t want to sit at dirty tables). Brush up on the biggest service no-nos, and learn how to save face before it’s too late.  

No. 1:  Servers who disappear for long stretches of time.

Diner needs are simple. They want to be seated quickly, their order taken and the food served in a timely fashion (and an explanation if it’s late). They also don’t want to wait for the check. Diners don’t notice the behind-the-scenes chaos making it happen. But they’ll notice anything messing with the flow—and that’s what they’ll remember. 

Simple time management and focus go a long way here, but adequate staffing will prevent stretching servers too thin. Even the best servers may drop the ball on bringing the check when they’re inundated. Staff up during peak times to make sure waiters aren’t overloaded. Make sure servers have strategies to keep each other covered when they’re in the weeds.

No. 2: Constantly refilling water glasses to the point where it’s invasive. 

There’s a fine line between taking care of diners and becoming disruptive. Unless someone is noticeably thirsty and gulping down glass after glass, most guests appreciate a “less is more” approach to water refills. Take a cue from operations coping with drought-ravaged regions in California, which has restrictions prohibiting restaurants from offering water without guest consent. 

The Patio on Goldfinch in San Diego switched up glassware from a 16-ounce Collins-type glass to a smaller, more eco-friendly 12-ounce double old-fashioned style glass. “This subtle change means less water when filling up and less waste when the guest opts not to drink it,” says Chris Simmons, general manager. Offering carafes on tables is another way to cut down on interrupting the table, so diners can serve themselves.

No. 3: Delivering food before replacing dinnerware. 

If your restaurant prefers to clear plates and cutlery between courses, make sure servers are on top of replacing those items immediately. Otherwise, you risk serving up a side of aggravation when the food arrives at the table and there’s no way to eat it. 

Teamwork makes the dream work, says Sandy DiCicco, CEO and operating partner of hospitality staffing agency The Grand Restaurant Group in Escondido, California. Ongoing communication and designating roles can help ensure that service standards don’t slip. “One of the first things we do when we hire new servers is teach them to work together and ask for help to ensure the best dining experience for our guests,” she says. “Part of that training is making sure a food runner will never deliver food to an unmarked table.” 

No. 4: Seating diners before the table is cleared. 

No one wants to sit down to a mess. And nothing adds insult to injury like asking patrons to move their things while the table is cleaned. Establish a protocol between staff members where bussers wipe down tables entirely before giving the green light to the host stand that the next party can be seated. Cleanliness shouldn’t be an afterthought, and neither should your guests.

No. 5: Clearing the table while guests are still eating.

Rushing diners to scarf down their meals is a surefire way to whittle down the tip. There’s an art to turning tables quickly; the secret is paying attention. “We teach our staff to clear the table when everyone at the table is finished enjoying,” says DiCicco, who owns and operates Bellamy’sBandy Canyon Ranch and the soon-to-open Ponsaty’s in Southern California. “Clearing one guest before the entire table is finished not only disrupts the guests but also can make those who aren’t finished feel rushed.”  

No. 6: Asking diners to vacate their table to make room for another party.

This awkward scenario is often inevitable when a restaurant is overbooked and guests are overstaying their welcome. But that doesn’t make diners feel any less like herded cattle. Andreas Schreiner, founding partner and managing director of Miami’s Pubbelly Restaurant Group, suggests softening the blow by offering to move guests to the bar and sending out a round of drinks or dessert. 

No. 7: Cozying up just a little too close to your guests.

Quirky nicknames like “babe” or “honey” really don’t have a place outside of kitschy diners on interstates. Even then, it’s sometimes a stretch. And sitting down in the booth with your diners? Forget about it. The motive is obvious: It’s a simple tactic to cozy up to customers. The problem is a lot of customers are not cool with it. Rather than risk offense, remind your front of the house staff of the basics: Smile, offer smart suggestions, be familiar with the menu, make regular table appearances and treat diners with respect. These seemingly simple things go a long way without having to rely on hokey monikers. 

No. 8: Telling diners that everything on the menu is great. 

When guests struggle to decide what to order and ask for feedback, they’re looking for specifics, not, “It just depends what you’re in the mood for.” Not only is this frustrating, but it also displays a lack of intel. Try incorporating regular menu tastings, so servers can speak to the menu they’re selling. 

“A good server will be able to speak to any differences and make the customer experience that much better by knowing his or her menu inside and out, and be able to recommend dishes over others by describing them accurately,” says Schreiner.  

No. 9: Making customers with reservations wait for more than several minutes.

Stuff happens. Diners linger longer than expected, and reservations get clogged. It’s a headache, but it’s only going to get worse if you agitate your incoming customers by ignoring them or giving them the runaround. Have hosts provide estimates when possible. If the delay is longer than a few minutes, acknowledge it with an apologetic gratis cocktail or appetizer while they wait. 

No. 10: Piling dishes high like a circus act as a way to clear tables.

It’s pretty nerve-wracking to witness someone pile dirty dishes up their arm while hoping that they don’t crash to the floor. No one is going to be happy if plates come clattering down.

“Properly trained staff should be able to clear tables the correct way, always turned away from the guest, bending down and asking for permission when crossing over to pick up anything,” says Schreiner. Teach your employees that the most important thing isn’t to clear the table all at once, but to do so carefully.