Sunday, June 14, 2009

How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

With as many restaurants as there are in Denver, getting people to visit your restaurant instead of your competitor's is critical. On any given lunchtime or evening, a potential diner's first contact with your restaurant is often by phone. So imagine a restaurateur who answers his ringing phone, then proceeds to insult the caller and, in every way possible, tell the caller that he really doesn't care if you pay a visit to his restaurant or not. You laugh and wonder who would be idiotic enough to do such a thing, but I'm here to tell you that, in my dealings with restaurants, which is often by phone, it happens to me three or four times a day.

The device these operators have chosen to commit business suicide is called the answering machine, one of the mixed blessings of our modern, technical world. And don't get me wrong. I love answering machines in the right context. Nothing's more handy than calling someone who's not at his desk, and asking him to call back. You can leave wonderfully detailed messages, phone numbers, a time when it's best to contact you, etc.

But right now it's 11:45 in the morning, and I'm looking for a place to take a business associate to lunch. So I call a favorite restaurant, and I get a recorded message that tells me they open for lunch at 11:00, and to leave my name for a call-back. Wait a minute. They open at 11:00, and it's now 11:45. Sure, I could take a chance that they really are open, and that my message will be retrieved, and that I will have a reservation waiting for me. Or I could call another restaurant.

I opt for the latter. So, I call a terrific little Mexican restaurant. The phone rings a few times, then a mechanical voice comes on and says, "I'm sorry, but the party you are trying to reach is unavailable. Please try again later." These folks haven't even bothered to personalize their mailbox! Do I presume I might have gotten a wrong number? No. I proceed to choice number three.

At the next place I get a message that says, "Sorry, but the mailbox belonging to this party is full." If I could leave a request for a reservation, odds are they wouldn't pick it up until sometime after lunch anyway.

The next call gets a recorded message that instructs me to enter my code. It's set up for the owner of the mailbox to retrieve calls remotely!

Every one of these restaurants has lost my business by essentially telling me my phone call isn't important.

Answering machines are OK if they're used during off-hours and times when you're not open, but for at least an hour before you open for lunch or dinner, turn the damned thing off! If there's someone in the restaurant who can speak English and take calls, turn it off!

I can already hear the objections. "We get really busy at lunchtime, and often there's no one to answer the phone, so it would just ring endlessly, and callers might think we were closed." Would you also ignore someone who's just walked through the door because there was no one around to greet him? Same thing isn't it? A customer is a customer whether they're calling in or standing there in your doorway. Somebody has to make time to welcome them. That's why they call it the hospitality industry.

One restaurateur I dealt with a few years ago had a policy. The phone never rang more than twice before being answered. And whichever server answered the phone and booked the reservation got to wait on that party when they arrived. And you know what? That phone never rang more than twice when I called.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Seven Years Bad Luck

Nobody denies that running a restaurant is a tough business. In addition to having to deal with moody and often unreliable help, capricious diners and demanding landlords, you have to worry about employee theft, rising food prices, maintenance, the health department inspector, etc., etc. But sometimes it seems that restaurateurs go out of their way to make their own lives even more difficult.

Every one in the restaurant business agrees that word of mouth is important. When it's positive, it can really help business. But, when it's negative, it can be devastating. Recall the recent debacle with the Domino's employees that, thanks to U-Tube, went around the world in a matter of minutes. So, you'd think a restaurateur would do anything he could to minimize negative press.

Case in point--according to an article in the Charlotte Sun, Marlene Shields received a $50 gift certificate to The Perfect Caper, a restaurant in Punta Gorda, Florida, for her birthday. Seven years ago. In 2004, Hurricane Charley came ashore, and smashed Shields' home, which then had to be completely torn down and rebuilt. Understandably, the gift certificate was mislaid and, only recently, surfaced.

So Shields took the certificate to the restaurant where she was told that, because it was seven years old, they refused to honor it. I suppose one could argue that, even though Shields has gone through a lot of turmoil in the last five years, she was responsible for seeing that the certificate was redeemed in a reasonable amount of time. Then again, the restaurateur could look at the situation reasonably, and be a hero by honoring it. After all, a $50 certificate would cost him less than $20 in actual expenses. Think of all the positive press he could have gotten from it.

Instead, he comes across as the evil ogre who, unreasonably, refuses to honor the certificate. If I were a competitor, I'd step up immediately, and tell Shields that I'd be glad to accept that certificate at my restaurant, and I'd accept all the acolades that came along with such a gesture.