Is the customer always right?

By Tony Naylor

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Tony Naylor is the customer always right

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Restaurant employees are becoming less subservient but, online and on the restaurant floor, diners are more combative than ever. It is an explosive mix

I recently contributed to a hospitality industry forum at the Chester Grosvenor Hotel, during which an audience member asked we panellists: “Is the customer always right?” It is an apparently simple question to which, in 2019, as the ensuing debate illustrated, there is no definitive answer. Weeks later, it is still nagging at me.

In many ways, that very notion belongs to a bygone subservient age where guests were by definition rich, deferred to and their foibles indulged no matter how cranky. The power dynamic was different. From what relatives have told me about working in ‘posh’ Manchester restaurants in the 1950s and ’60s, even well-liked guests often behaved with an air of patronising largesse – for instance, without asking, buying drinks and food for staff members, rather than leaving a cash tip.

That would not fly today. Indeed, the industry feels like it is approaching a tipping-point (pardon the pun), in terms of employee-customer relations. Progress is still patchy, but a combination of factors (the skills crisis foregrounding staff welfare; millennial woke politics and #metoo – social media’s democratisation of public debate), has created an environment where hospitality staff are increasingly asserting their right to dignity in the workplace.

Far from the customer always being right, if they misbehave, on a sliding-scale from plain rudeness to acts of aggression or sexual harassment, they are now liable to be publicly shamed in CCTV images, published email exchanges and robust TripAdvisor responses. In 2019, a growing number of operators refuse to take any shit, and don’t mind arguing that out on Twitter. We are finally discussing the onus on diners to treat staff with respect.

Paradoxically, however, this is occurring at a time when, also emboldened by the voice that social media gives them, a minority of entitled guests seem ever more demanding. Are they growing in number? Do we just hear more from them? I don’t know. But I have a hunch that the anti-elites mood that has swept Britain in recent years (journalists, politicians, experts generally), is affecting restaurants, too.

Certain diners view restaurants as inherently suspicious. They are reluctant to accept the house rules or the professional wisdom of managers and chefs. Everyone is out to rip them off, unfairly dictate to them, has ignored their personal needs – and, boy, are they going to let Facebook know about it.

Thorough training on complaint-handling is, therefore, essential. But there can be no concession to those pompous shysters who, using bad TripAdvisor reviews as a threat, see every restaurant bill as an open negotiation about what should be knocked-off. Firmly, politely, but without deviation, managers must hold their ground on clearly communicated policies (eg, booking deposits, cakeage, corkage, time-slots etc.). Not every diner can have bespoke treatment. That way madness lies.

Why? Because, to be blunt about it, a minority of customers are outright lunatics – baffled that the world does not bend to suit them and deaf to all reason. Will they make a fuss online? Yes. Should you try to ignore them? Mostly. Can it seem like a big deal? At the time, yes. But it will blow over. The silent majority can and do read between the lines in such squabbles. Splitting opinion is not always negative, in fact.

No restaurant can please everyone and, using social media effectively, it has never been easier for restaurants to be upfront about what they are and how they operate, and to find their natural audience. One which, hopefully, sees the dining room as a forum of mutual respect, where diners are, literally, privileged guests as much as paying clients.

This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the March issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here​​​

Follow Tony on Twitter: @naylor_tony

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