Robin Abrahams, who writes the "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe, had an interesting dilemma to solve recently. In her September 16 column, she took on the following letter:
My husband and I recently ate at a well-known restaurant in Waltham. I brought my leftovers home and found a dead fly in the food. When I called the restaurant, the manager casually replied, “Sorry, these things happen.” After spending considerable money at the restaurant, I would think the manager would be more concerned. Is this the reaction most restaurants have when a patron calls with a complaint?
Abrahams, a Kansas City native, used to work with me at a midtown restaurant (she was the beautiful bartender who knew how to shake up a mean martini) so she knows quite a bit about the workings of a restaurant. Her response to the woman with the loused-up leftovers was reasonable: Decide, before you even talk to the manager, what you want.
Abrahams wrote: "Managers and other people in customer-facing jobs ought to take the initiative to make things right for a disgruntled customer, but frequently they don’t. When you are faced with a bad product or service, it’s best to decide in advance what you’d like the company to do in response to your complaint — replace your product? Comp part of your bill? (This is also a good reality check for you, the customer. Do you actually want things to be made better, or do you just want to yell at someone?)"
I'd say the customer probably wanted to vent some justified anger, although I've seen much worse things than a dead fly in a carryout box, I'm sad to say. Still, the manager should have handled things with a little more grace. A peace offering is always nice. A gift certificate, maybe? But long-suffering managers shouldn't be used as punching bags. In person or on the phone.
"Restaurant managers only have control over a few things in a restaurant," Abrahams says. "Mostly food and service. But a lot of the letters I get from patrons are complaining about things a manager has no control over, Mostly other patrons in the restaurant: Patrons that smell. Patrons who don't take responsibility for their obnoxious children. Loud customers. Drunk customers."
Most managers I've worked with over the years prefer not to deal with difficult customers. They let the weary servers take the abuse. Instead of going over to a table and confronting a miffed patron, many managers will just cop out: "Give them their bill and maybe they'll leave." The good news is, those customers usually do leave. And don't often return, which can be a good thing, too.
That doesn't mean that disgruntled customers shouldn't insist on talking to a manager when the restaurant doesn't deliver on good food or service. If there's a problem, someone needs to bring it to an owner or manager's attention. Most restaurant patrons prefer not to kick up a fuss.
"The theory there," Abrahams says, "is that customers don't want an awkward or potentially embarrassing conversation in a public place. If they wanted an awkward conversation, they could have stayed home and eaten with their family."