Scammers…Or Merely Problem Children?

Posted on Sunday 7 January 2007

How do you know who’s looking to con a restaurant out of a free meal, and who is an innocent guest who would rather not have her salad garnished with a strand of hair?

Anastasia recently wrote “Ask The Gal” to inquire about the best way to judge which patrons deserve a comped meal. She felt her manager had improperly snubbed a group of guests who demanded a comp, when he later told her he was tired of being taken advantage of and wasn’t giving in to scammers anymore.

What a no-win game this is. Even when you know you are being had, if you call a scammer a scammer, you risk a barrage of harsh words and actions for all to hear and see–not the kind of atmosphere you want in your dining room at 8:30 on a Saturday evening. And, as far as I can tell, most people aren’t real-life scammers; they’re just unreasonable types with unreasonable demands and borderline egos.

Consider the following scenarios:

“I know I had a reservation for this evening. I made it myself. You obviously lost it,” complains the leader of a party of four at 8 p.m. when the house is packed and “real” reservations are running a half hour behind. If you are lucky, you find her name in the computer system that shows she’s a day early or a week late. If she’s not in the system, you punt, which usually means putting her near the top of the wait list and hoping she doesn’t get over-the-top angry.

Is she a scammer, or just an arrogant ass who is trying to save face with her pals because she forgot to make a reservation?

“This fish is overcooked and has no flavor!” declares one of eight guests in a party. That he has eaten three-quarters of it before making the server aware of this, is, well, a little suspicious. But the server, an old-school pro, whisks the offending plate away and offers to buy the gentleman’s meal and bring out another order at no charge. “I don’t want any more of your food,” the guest blusters. “And you better buy everyone’s meal at this table! I’ve never been so embarrassed.”

Is he a scammer or just an over-entitled, high-blood-pressure-about-to-blow type of guy?

“You do allow patrons to bring in their own wine, don’t you?” asked the guest over the phone as she made her reservation. I said, yes, but a corkage fee would be applied. She readily accepted this policy. Unfortunately, the wine turned out to be a cheap bottle of liqueur, and she wanted us to tell her guests it was a far more expensive brand. She also claimed we “ruined” her coat by spilling on it (which we did not, but we successfully removed the stain right then), and felt we’d overcharged her for several items. Yeah, she was that bad.

Scammer or just someone who can’t go through life without telling “white” lies every other minute?

The point is, it doesn’t matter. The problem is at hand, and it must be dealt with–now.

I don’t think a manager or owner must comp an entire meal, simply because one order of beef is too rare or someone’s wine has sediment in it. Sometimes restaurants screw up, and the good ones have good managers who know how to appropriately handle those situations–they fire a new entree and pour another glass of wine.

Sure, some patrons are pains in the ass, liars, or worse. I imagine that those same good managers would rather comp an entree, offer something toward a future meal, send apps or dessert to the table on the house to avoid an otherwise sure-to-unfold battle scene starring real or imagined indignity.

I detest liars, and I’d love to send them all packing AFTER I have charged them for every morsel they’ve eaten and every drop they’ve drunk. Sometimes, though, you gotta give a little to get them the hell out.

Then code them big-time in your reservation system.

6 Comments for 'Scammers…Or Merely Problem Children?'

  1.  
    January 7, 2007 | 10:21 pm
     

    It is most DEFINITELY a very thin line. There are plenty of legitimate mistakes made in restaurants on any given night. The great majority of people out there are not in my opinion scam artists, but there are certainly a few to say the least. Distinguishing the difference, knowing when to buckle down and not given an inch or totally give in is almost an art form. One that I have a long way to go to master myself.

    BD

  2.  
    January 8, 2007 | 1:27 pm
     

    I think in any business you just have to build in to the system that some people will try and rip you off and if it happens it happens. Like BD above, I don’t believe that many people are genuinely trying to scam, and if you try and cover yourself against them too much you end up destroying relationships with genuine customers.

    It reminds me of a small shop I saw once where in big, bold letters on the door it proclaimed “BREAKAGES WILL BE PAID FOR!”

    You can understand the frustration of the owner who had written the sign, but all it did was put everyone off from going in the shop to begin with. The number of sales lost far outweighed the cost of the occasional ornament accidently knocked off the shelf.

  3.  
    wineward
    January 8, 2007 | 8:52 pm
     

    I used to manage an extremely high-volume upscale-casual place in North Miami Beach. Any given day, probably 60-70% of the customers were regulars—most would eat there several times a week. As a whole they were loyal, but EXTREMELY demanding (sense of entitlement ran very high in this place). This company prided itself on striving for 100% customer satisfaction. As such, managers were required to vigorously work the floor, visiting tables and responding quickly to any complaints or criticism.

    Most of the complaints/problems were legit, and we were happy to acknowledge the problem, apologize, tell the guest how we proposed to solve the problem, and follow-up to make sure the incident had been resolved to their satisfaction. However, after only a few weeks on the job I had identified a handful of “problem children” who largely fell into two categories. Some were people who found something wrong with every meal they had in the place, usually after they’d finished most of the dish or drink in question. The others were people who just wanted more for free—“there was more pasta in my pasta last week, can we have a side pasta for free” , “there was too much ice in my vodka tonic, how ’bout another half a drink for free”, “these shrimp on my salad are awfully small for an additional $7.00 charge…”

    In the beginning I would bend over backwards to accomodate these people, but after several months I began setting firm, but reasonable boundaries for them. I told those who habitually found something wrong with a dish that I was sorry they were disappointed, and thanked them for the feedback, but asked that in the future they would let us know before they finished the dish so we could actually fix the problem. I would continue by explaining that it would be difficault for me to comp something they already ate/drank. If it was the first time I made this appeal, I would probably offer dessert or another drink on the house, but would definately not comp the dish they were complaining about. I even went so far as to ask one regular—with whom I had a good rapport—half-jokingly why he ever comes back when he is never safisfied.

    For the ones who kept asking for more, I had to assess whether they really did get shorted. If not, I would politely explain that we were very proud to offer excellent value, and I would firmly state that I didn’t see anything wrong with the dish/drink as it had been served. I would then offer to get them an alternative dish as quickly as possible, or get the requested extra portion for a nominal charge. From all this I can honestly say I never lost a customer from my firmness.

    In fact, It has been my experience that often managers throw comps at situations that don’t really warrant them. If you can fix their problem quickly, many people are satisfied with an acknowledgement and an apology (if it is sincere). Others may appreciate a comped dessert or digestif, but don’t expect their higher-priced item to be comped. Of course, there will always be the sap that demands you comp the entire check because of some perceived slight, but those are few and far between, and you don’t really want to cultivate his/her business anyway.

    The bottom line is that fielding complaints, solving problems, and offering comps is one of a restaurant manager’s most stressful endeavors—but one that does become easier with practice and with confidence in your products and staff. As I stated above—always remember to clarify/acknowledge the problem (managers should ALWAYS visit tables with problems/complaints), apologize sincerely, propose a solution or action, and follow-up to ensure satisfaction with the solution. Never throw comps automatically. Assess each individual situation. And like the Gal says, remember the ones you believe to be scammers and adjust your tactics the next time they complain.

  4.  
    January 10, 2007 | 1:55 pm
     

    I have spent the past month working at a department store and those same people shop at my store. Most of the customers are really nice, but there are a few — like the lady who tried to return a $225 studded denim jacket that “her sister” bought last May. OK. The return policy is within 90 days with a receipt and with tags. She still had the receipt and the jacket still had the tags, so I called a manager, who said to take the jacket back.

    Then the customer said that she wanted to re-buy the jacket!

    “Why don’t you just give the money to your sister?” I asked.

    “Because the price might have gone down since she bought it,” she answered.

    I called the manager again. I wasn’t going to touch this one with a ten-foot pole. Manager came over and told the customer that although we would take the jacket back and refund the entire purchase price, we would NOT re-sell it to her at a lower price. I was so glad to see someone with a backbone.

  5.  
    January 10, 2007 | 2:18 pm
     

    Holy cow I cant believe how entitled some people act. I have only ever hmy meal comped twice. Once when I had under cooked chicken and it was jst my meal and once when I found gum stuck to my plate under my salad. then they comped my husband and I entire meal. I dindnt even ask either time.

    You should have seen the manager talking to the kitchen staff though. He looked realy concerned. He figured the gum must have accidently made it through the dish washer.

    Thanx for writing I love your blog!

  6.  
    silver
    January 11, 2007 | 5:29 pm
     

    i really like what wineward said, and i have to totally agree.

    while never working in a restaurant, i’ve been the manager of a few busy coffee shop locations that tend to cater to the upper scale and those who want to be a part of the upper scale…

    and while i’ll bend over backwards to make people happy – i recognize that comping isn’t the only road to doing it.

    i’ve also had no problem letting people who abuse the company’s policies that if they’re always unsatisfied, or always getting the wrong drink then maybe they need to reevaluate if they should stay on as a customer…

    i think it really is about being genuine when fielding the complaint, and honestly trying to resolve the problem that people find much more satisfying then free stuff…

    although i remember i was in a fancy restaurant with a group of people and the waiter forgot my martini. when i asked about it (about 10 mins after he delivered the other drinks) he apologized and told me i’d get this plus another one for free. (woot)
    when another waiter (junior, or in training) brought me my 2nd comped drink, he spilled most of it on me!
    we cleaned it up quickly and i whispered to him “don’t tell the other one, i don’t know if i can take another 2 martinis!”

    we tipped really big that night!

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