The 5 Best Customer Service Practices: Restaurants

Restaurants are one of our most frequent experiences as customers, and I would dare say that they often set the standard for what we feel is or isn’t good customer service. In the customer experience training I do for clients, I often ask employees, “Which places or companies provide you with great customer service experiences?” Eight times out of ten they will name a restaurant. What do the best restaurants do to provide customer service that causes customers to, not only return, but to become such enthusiastic fans? Here is a list based on my own preferences and observations:

1. Restaurants that focus on the customer take reservations using available technologies.

Restaurants with great customer service don’t tell you, “We don’t take reservations. It’s first come, first serve.” That is going to mean a definite wait at most restaurants. Customer focused restaurants gladly take reservations but maintain a few tables for walk-ups and unexpected guests. With all of the possible means of receiving reservations available to restaurants today, such as Open Table, the restaurant’s own website, mobile phone texting and Urban Spoon, I can’t think of a reason that restaurants still are so resistant to reservations. If a restaurant is concerned about customers not showing after making a reservation, perhaps take a credit card number as a deposit and inform the customer that they will be charged a fee if they are a no show. But the time has come for efficiency and an end to meaningless customer waits. And no, I don’t want to buy a drink at the bar because you made me wait.

2. Servers that provide excellent service know how to be attentive to a customer’s needs without interrupting the customer.

It bothers me to no end when a server butts in to a conversation, especially a noticeably serious one, with no hesitation or apology for interruption of the conversation. There is a time to be chatty, and a time not to be. All customers appreciate consistent attention to their needs. No customer likes being visited every 3-5 minutes by someone asking a question while they are attempting to have a conversation. It’s a balancing act, but I appreciate servers who take it on themselves to take care of a customer without having to speak or interrupt every time.

3. Servers at restaurants with excellent customer service do not abandon the customer for long periods without service or updates.

If the kitchen is running slow, be honest with the customer when they are ordering about the wait that they can expect, suggest foods that might take less time, or perhaps provide a complimentary appetizer to delight the customer while waiting for their order. If the bar is backed up with orders and customers, tell the customer that it might be a few minutes on the drinks, then come back around in a few minutes to update the customer. Customers don’t like waits at all, but they will accept waits for great quality so long as someone shows them attention and keeps them informed. It is the feeling of abandonment that creates anxiety for customers, and it is a difficult first impression to change. You can pretty much be assured that the rest of the experience is going to be challenging for customer and the server.

4. If a customer asks a server or host, “What is your favorite thing on the menu?” don’t point them to the most expensive item or wine on the menu first. It is perceived as inauthentic and dishonest.

Instead, authentically tell the customer what one’s favorite item is, and then perhaps suggest a more expensive item as a very respectable alternative.

5. Restaurants with great customer service welcome business tabs and they happily split checks for customers in groups.

As a business traveler, I often may need to receive a separate check from the person who has joined me for lunch or dinner. Other times, I am in a group, and we engage in endless anxiety because the restaurant will only receive three credit cards per table and no one has cash. When I am in the South and Midwest, restaurants generally are glad to split the check for every person at a table. When I dine in Los Angeles or New York City, restaurants and waiters sneer at having to issue separate checks for everyone in a group. This really gets my goat, no pun intended. There is no excuse for it. Yes, your computers are able to handle it. No, not everyone pays for everyone else at their table like a celebrity or CEO. No, it does not take more time. I’ve never waited any longer for a check in Nashville in a group of 5 than I have in Los Angeles, and yet restaurants continue to make this excuse. We live in a debit and credit card age, and restaurants need to accommodate it. We simply don’t carry cash on us, and it’s time for restaurants to move beyond this practice. If that sounds “common,” so be it. It’s great service that matters to people.

I would love to hear your list. Bon appetit!

And P.S. Don’t bring the entree before I’ve finished with the appetizer. 🙂

Todd Bouldin is a customer experience consultant and trainer with a specialty in the hospitality industry. To see Todd’s reviews of restaurants across the nation, see his Yelp profile at:

3 Responses to “The 5 Best Customer Service Practices: Restaurants”
  1. Phillip says:

    Here are some things that we like as well:
    1. Servers are polite, engage in some conversation, but don’t linger at the table and prevent our having our own conversations.

    2. They don’t hide the automatic tip as a “service charge” and then have a separate line for “tip” on the check, so that those who are not aware double tip.

    3. Servers are good with kids (e.g., bringing cups with lids, extra napkins, not getty impatient with children).

    4. This is just a pet peeve, but when the manager comes by, as they seem to at every restaurant now, I would rather be asked, “How is everything?” rather than “Is your food excellent?” or “Is everything excellent?” Give me an open-ended question.

  2. toddbouldin says:

    Phillip, I love those. Great ideas. I especially agree with #4 in any customer service context.

  3. eviedejesus says:

    Catering to children is VERY important to parents. Especially if they had to wait to be seated. Having a child size table with crayons and paper or legos in the waiting area would be great. Restaurants that don’t have activity pages and crayons for the children should offer something else. I love the restaurants that offer dough for the kids to play with. With toddlers….waiters should ask if there is anything they can bring out with the drinks for the kids (like finger food – so they don’t get crabby) and ask if they should hold the kid’s meals until the adult meals come out or just bring them out sooner – MOST parents would say bring them out as soon as they are ready. Besides children eat super slow and are usually the ones eating deserts, so they need a headstart anyway. I think All restaurants should have an enclosed back room for large groups so that they don’t interrupt the entire restaurant, Large groups get very loud and it’s very annoyong when you paying for a calm atmosphere to have to deal with not being able to hear the people at your table. When a restaurant has a waiting area that is usually pretty full (like Carraba’s) they should offer some samples while the people wait. This will keep them happy and might get them to order a new item on the menu that they would not have without having tasted it first. If the restaurant is understaffed for the night, the waiter should let them know right off the bat with an apology so people know they might be waiting a few minutes extra. Honest COMMUNICATION is so important in customer relations. Lastly – I can’t stand it when a restaurant won’t allow you to taste something on their menu because they are all rationed out. If someone is not sure they would like a dish, they should be able to taste a small sample. It’s the little things that matter. Clean, comfortable bathrooms are also a must.

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