Build a Winning Restaurant Serving Staff: Part 5

Restaurant CustomerThis is the final post in our five part look at creating a top-notch restaurant serving staff. In part one we laid out the basics – menu knowledge and essential tools of the trade. Part two looked at reading tables and anticipation, part three focused on the mechanics and politics of serving, and part four discussed upselling.

We conclude with a look at dealing with difficult guests, as well as a few notes on social media use (or misuse).

First, here’s what every good server needs to remember when confronted with an angry guest:

The Buck Stops with You

Sometimes you’ll make a mistake entering an order. Other times, the kitchen will be at fault. Either way it’s the server that faces the guest’s wrath. It’s a reality that waitstaff have to deal with.

One thing that irks us is seeing front-of-house staff bickering with chefs about who’s at fault for a missing or incorrect order. Meanwhile, the guest is still waiting for a proper plate. The Blame Game serves nobody and it has no place in the restaurant, at least during service. Not only is the customer in question suffering, but the rest of that server’s section is not being attended to while their waiter/waitress engages in pointless arguments with the kitchen.

There’s nothing wrong with sorting out legitimate concerns during staff meetings or after shifts. In fact, we actively encourage these issues to be hashed out during all-hands meetings. During service, however, stay focused on getting the customer’s issue solved as quickly as possible.

Handling Customer Issues

Regardless of how well you perform, you’ll eventually face an angry guest. Here’s a few things to keep in mind when dealing with those difficult patrons.

Don’t take it personally. Do not internalize the situation. You have no idea what’s causing this person to behave angrily. Sometimes there’s more going on under the surface than you realize. This isn’t about you, it’s about the situation. It’s tough sometimes but a good server learns to develop a thick skin.

Assume the best. Customers will lie, there’s no doubt about that. You simply can’t assume that’s the default setting for most people, however. Assume your guests are being honest about their issue(s).

Remain calm. Sounds obvious, right? Yes, and it’s so important we’re still going to list it. The rest of your tables – and everyone else’s tables – are watching. You’ll be silently applauded by many if you keep cool and handle the situation with aplomb.

Watch your body language. Back in part two we noted the importance of reading a guest’s non-verbal cues. Well, guess what? They’re reading yours as well. Avoid the exasperated sigh, the slight roll of the eyes or any otherwise defensive gestures such as crossing your arms over your chest.

Own it. As noted above, regardless of where the mistake/problem originated, it’s your job to deal with it. It’s not your fault, but it’s your problem. That may not be fair but it comes with the territory. Offer a sincere apology for any mistakes and rectify the situation as quickly as possible.

Involve management when needed. While it’s important to show the guest you’re taking responsibility for a situation, it may still be necessary to involve the manager on duty. Sometimes simply involving management can diffuse a tense situation, even if that manager is offering the same solution(s) as the server. It lets guests know their concerns are being taken seriously. And sometimes they simply need to hear a solution from someone they feel has more authority.

The show must go on. This one bad apple can’t ruin your shift. You’ve got other guests to attend to. Vent about the troublesome guest later and stay focused on your other patrons. Many of them will likely be nicer – and tip better – if they’ve just seen you endure bad treatment.

We’ve already discussed the importance of reading a table, anticipating guest needs, developing menu knowledge, the importance of timing, and more. All of this should go a long way towards preventing customer issues from arising in the first place.

To wrap up, we’d like to touch on a few more ways serving staff can avoid guest complaints and bad reviews.

The Exit Experience

Service expert Micah Solomon says the exit experience is every bit as crucial to a guest’s perception of your restaurant. He advises that “even the slightest hint that a server is ‘over’ one party and on to the next toward the end of a meal dampens the entire dining experience.” Are your guests obviously tourists? Perhaps they’d like entertainment recommendations, or even a cab. It’s important to remember that service doesn’t stop when the credit card slip has been signed.

Discretion When Needed

Speaking of credit cards, is there anything more awkward for a server than having to let someone know their card was declined? It will happen to your staff, count on it. Fortunately there are ways to handle the situation that will limit embarrassment for all involved.

1. You could simply inform the guest that there appears to be a problem processing the card. Do so quietly, and diplomatically.


2. We’ve heard of servers choosing to pass this information on to the customer in writing. Discreetly slipping a note inside the billfold as the check is returned. Just a simple note reading “The card does not appear to be working, do you have another we could try?”

This approach allows the guest to quietly grab a new card, slip it into the billfold, and give it back to you as you return. If the conversation is still ongoing at the table, there’s a good chance nobody else even noticed the delay.

Social Media and the Rise of Tip Shaming

So you’ve done everything right, and now that credit card slip is ready to be closed off. Unfortunately, this guest felt a tip wasn’t necessary this time; you’ve been stiffed.

It’s tempting to take to Twitter or Facebook to complain about lousy customers and bad tips. We strongly recommend avoiding this practice.

While we sympathize with our hard-working friends in the serving game, the potential downside of venting about specific customers is simply not worth that brief moment of catharsis one gets from shaming a bad tipper. Take this recent example of a waitress in Ohio who lost her job for this very reason.

Even on those occasions when a customer makes your day with a fantastic tip, exercise a bit of caution before sharing these experiences with your social networks. Even if you’ve hidden names and credit card numbers, we still feel it’s in bad taste to post about generous tips, particularly from people in the public eye such as a sports star or local politician.

Admittedly there’s no hard and fast rule here, but we’re of the mind that a tip is a private transaction. Respect people’s privacy and avoid problems for you and the restaurant. If you’d like to let the world know your day was made by a wonderfully generous tip, keep it vague. “Some customers really make your day!” or “I was reminded today just how generous some people can be. Great shift!” or something to that effect.

We won’t go so far as to suggest every restaurant implement an official set-in-stone social media policy, but it may be worth including some suggestions on how to conduct one’s self on social media as part of employee training materials.

Speaking of social media, be sure to download the free ebook, Social Media for Restaurants, at the button below. In it, you’ll find tips for restaurants looking to get started on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more. 

social media for restaurants


This post originally appeared on’s Restaurant Strategy Blog.


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