Alison Griffiths

When things aren’t up to snuff at restaurants, I complain. Voicing my opinion about service and food is part of being a smart consumer. Good restaurants appreciate such candour and try to fix the problem often by deducting an item from the bill or providing a credit towards the next meal.

Why should we pay for something eaten that is inferior or poorly served? Few would hesitate to return an item to a store that breaks, frays or simply doesn’t suit. But restaurants are different. Likely it has to do with the social setting. With family or friends around, it’s easier just to accept sub-standard food or service than make a fuss.

Acquaintances and readers frequently tell me about bad experiences while dining out and while they pass on their displeasure to others, the business itself hears nothing. As a result, the restaurant has no chance of improving and may not be aware there’s a problem.

Bad word of mouth is an absolute killer for restaurants. In their 2012 Global Customer Service Barometer, American Express found that 63 per cent of Canadians always tell other people about bad customer experiences. The survey wasn’t restaurant specific but I believe the figure would be far higher if it had focused on the food industry. Further, 61 per cent reported that the company in question lost sales because of the bad experience.

On the flip side, the American Express survey found that 54 per cent always tell others about a good customer experience and a whopping 70 per cent of Canadians are willing to spend more in the places where they received excellent care and attention – so there’s a direct payoff for good service.

There’s a fine art to complaining. To start with, there’s no need to be unpleasant and if there was something good about the meal, either the food or the service, mention that first. And be specific about the problem: e.g. food too cold, too much salt or poorly trained wait staff.

If you do it right and the restaurant responds professionally I’ve found it to be a positive experience. One incident I recall happened years ago when my youngest daughter, then sixteen, and I were eating at a family restaurant in California.

The food was high quality and the young waitress very attentive. But my daughter’s hamburger came with onions on it, which she loathes. No biggie, she just picked them off. I considered not mentioning it but, being a mother, thought this might be a teachable moment so I told the waitress about the onions while assuring her we weren’t upset.

Within moments the manager was at our table offering to deduct the cost of the burger from the tab. As the exchange progressed, my teenager sunk into an embarrassed gloom.

Fortunately, the waitress sized up the situation and thanked us for bringing the problem to her attention. “What if you had an allergy to nuts and the kitchen staff ignored my instructions,” she pointed out. “That could be very bad.”

Bingo!

My daughter was further mollified when two complimentary pieces of chocolate cake were delivered to our table.

Not every establishment responds so positively. Last week I ate with a friend at a high-end restaurant in Toronto. The kitchen was slow and got both orders wrong. Though the server apologized there was no compensation offered. The next $200 I spend on a fine dining experience won’t be there.

Commonly, I hear excuses in response to a complaint — we are very busy or some staff didn’t show up. Recently, after surly service and a 45-minute wait for brunch, I emailed the restaurant, which offered all the usual excuses. Not satisfied I replied that a better response would have been to offer a credit for a future meal.

This is a really smart way to do business. A credit gets you back in the restaurant, shows good will, but actually costs less than 50 cents on the dollar. I’ve received credits for everything from appetizers to $300 full course meals including wine.

The restaurant above, by the way, has yet to respond to my somewhat bold but completely reasonable suggestion.

Call me a crabby diner, but I also like to think I’m making things better for the next person — who might just be you.

Contact Alison at griffiths.alison@gmail.com or www.alisongriffiths.ca.