Thursday, March 08, 2007

Service Pt II -- Reservations and Faxes

The other evening, I attended a promotional event for a downtown steakhouse and their new line of bar drinks. For reasons I can't quite comprehend, the bartenders were explaining how many ounces of puree to add versus liquor to each person making for extremely long drink lines in a cramped, tiny room. Few people seemed to care about what was in the "foam" they added on top of each drink. Most just wanted a cocktail. The event was crowded, understaffed, and short on food. We crowded in to the long and slow bar line and struck up a conversation with a restaurant customer who had actually paid to attend. He wasn't happy.

He had made reservations over the phone, then been informed that he had to pre-pay for the event. Perfectly willing to pay the $70 for he and his wife, he was ready to read his credit card number over the phone, but the hostess said she had to fax the form to him. Who has fax machines these days? He had no fax machine on his end and she offered no alternative. After some inconvenient wrangling, much more trouble than two $35 reservations were worth, he ended up appearing in person to pre-pay the event.

This isn't the first report of a fax demand from a restaurant that's been causing a stir. Last week, Frank Bruni, on his blog Diner's Journal, posted a reader's saga about getting reservations at Cafe Boulud (Reasonable Precaution or Unreasonable Demand?) The issue? many restaurants in NYC require a credit card to hold reservations for parties of 6 or more and will take it over the phone. While some threaten to charge a no-show fee that can be $25-150 per person, few actually do. However, Chef Daniel Boulud's restaurants including upper east side flagship Daniel and the popular Cafe Boulud, will charge you if you don't show up. And in order to do so -- and not have you contest and reverse the charges, they need your signature. They fax you a form and require you to sign and fax it back. While this might make sense for them, few diners have home fax machines, and for those who don't work in a corporate office with a fax they can "borrow," fewer want to spend the time and money running down to their local Kinko's. Restaurateurs in response to Bruni's column have said that they usually don't charge diners for no shows, but when they do, the charges are often disputed. And with no signature, credit card companies won't pay.

Our line companion was irritated. Aside from having no access to a fax machine, he didn't understand why they couldn't use the three-digit security number on the back. (I'm not sure I understand myself why they couldn't do that.) And it begs the question. How much pressure is too much? How much hassle can your customers bear? And why aren't managers thinking of ways to make it easiest for customers to patronize their establishment? We know people make reservations they don't keep. And we know there have to be some protections. But why can't staff be trained -- and empowered -- to make informed customer service decisions based on what's best for the customer and not most convenient for the restaurant?

We know there are two-sides to every story. The wonderful Georgette Farkas, PR director for all of Boulud's restaurants, replied to Bruni, offering an explanation but no real solution to the fax problem. But even in Indianapolis, a city with so many steakhouses competing for the same customers, one would think everyone from reservations takers to front-line managers would be more aware of procedures and issues that inconvenience their customers. It makes me wonder yet again, how much influence do customer service issues have over a diner's overall impression of the meal, the food, and the experience.

1 comment:

christine (myplateoryours) said...

And I continue to wonder why the restuarants don't just take a deposit over Paypal, and charge it off against the price of the dinner. It's perfectly reasonable to charge a no-show fee I think, but the gymnastics to do it can be offputting. Paypal is simple and cheap.