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When Customer Service Bumps up Against Economic Reality

Cliff Ennico on

On a recent business trip to Orlando, Florida, I was called upon to find a good local restaurant for two important Florida-based contacts who wanted to meet with me over dinner.

As it happened, both of them liked steakhouses, and the hotel where I was staying boasted one of the top steakhouses in the area.

I made it a point to check out the restaurant -- gorgeous interior design, an impressive wine list and write-ups from just about every gourmet magazine imaginable. It also had a large bar area with seats, but this was clearly separated from the more formal dining area. Duly impressed, I made a reservation for three at 6:00 p.m.

When my guests arrived at the hotel, I was surprised to find a jazz trio playing in the bar area of the restaurant. Not bad. We sat down, ordered our meals (which, for the record, were delicious) and began our business discussions.

All of a sudden, around 6:30 p.m., the noise level in the bar rose so much that my colleagues and I could not hear ourselves think. At the same time, the restaurant wait staff disappeared -- we did not see a waiter for at least 15 to 20 minutes. We and the other couples having dinner all commented on the change in atmosphere.

When I excused myself to go to the men's room, I found 35 tipsy people sitting around a large table in the bar area. Wearing Hawaiian shirts and board shorts, they were screaming at one another, singing along with the band and breaking into choruses of "happy birthday" every few minutes.

Virtually all of the wait staff was attending to this raucous party.

When I asked a waitress what was going on, I was told it was a convention of surfing enthusiasts (Cowabunga! Gnarly, dude!) who were staying at the hotel and had just showed up en masse to have dinner together.

When I complained that the restaurant was ignoring its other (presumably higher-paying) guests and blowing its image as a high-class venue for expense-account diners, the waitress said she would speak to the manager. I asked that someone tell the party to pipe down, as it was disturbing other diners. The manager never showed up. The party continued in full swing. And the dining room patrons did not see a waiter for another 20 minutes. Two tables of guests left the restaurant without paying their bill, and no one stopped them.

Needless to say, my colleagues were a bit put out. One of them said: "Cliff, if we had wanted this sort of environment, we could have gone to TGI Fridays or Hooters! This is ridiculous for what we're paying." To appease them, I treated to dinner. The waiter received no tip. I apologized but told him that the restaurant's failure to control the party might have cost me much more: a relationship with some key clients (when stuff like that happens, everyone questions your judgment, not the restaurant's).

On our way out the door (the party still in full swing, with dancing at the bar and high-volume requests for the jazz trio to play Beach Boys classics), I once again asked for the manager but was told he was too busy to speak to me because he was personally waiting tables for the party. I had already made up my mind to write a column about that evening: about how restaurants and other small businesses need to cultivate the image their clientele demands and stick with it; avoid giving their customers flea-market service at Cartier prices, etc.

But that's when things -- and my mood -- changed.

The lady at the cash register apologized profusely for the chaos and told me: "We really had no choice but to take these surfer people. You are right. We pride ourselves on being a high-class establishment. But the tourist business has been off badly in Orlando this year, and that's affected the local business community. Frankly we're not seeing as many customers like you. When a party of 35 people shows up unannounced, unfortunately we cannot turn them away. We need their money too badly."

I'm still not happy with the way the restaurant managed things that evening -- someone (preferably the manager) should have explained the situation to me and my guests, and offered some sort of discount (or at least a free drink) as an apology for the disruption. They should have kept at least one waiter focused on the dining room so customers didn't have to wait an hour for their creamed spinach.

Still, it's hard to fault the lady's logic. Coping with troubled times often means throwing away the rulebook and doing whatever it takes to survive. Gnarly, dude.

Cliff Ennico (crennico@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.

 

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