TRICKY CUSTOMERS? Kill Christmas complaints by reading energy like a book

By Nick Clarke of Hop Hospo

As we approach the annual Everest that is Christmas, I’ve always felt that it’s not just something we should try and ‘survive’ but actually something that we can attempt to enjoy. We can use it as an opportunity to test ourselves, and even as an opportunity to improve the way we manage ourselves, our team and our guests. I’m not saying we pretend that it’s going to be a breeze, but instead that we assess the mammoth task in front of us realistically, prepare for it appropriately and see the challenges ahead as opportunities for growth as opposed to a cascade of adversity, anxiety and stress. Taking that latter mindset to climb Everest isn’t going to get us very far.
But even with the utmost preparation there will always be curveballs that come our way during a service. The unpredictable nature of guests, especially when alcohol is involved, can turn even the most well-planned shifts into an avalanche of stress and anxiety. So I wanted to share a few ideas on how to nip guest problems in the bud before they escalate into something bigger. Essentially, how to manage a room skillfully and effectively – a skill that we can use far beyond this season. This is not about complaint handling per se, but rather how to spot potential complaints or conflicts before they arise.

Guests, especially British ones, won’t necessarily tell you something is wrong, or that they’re unhappy with a dish. Most of the time, they’ll sit with the issue, let it brew, maybe speak to their other guests about it, let it build a bit more and then eventually tell one of the team. That’s why it seems that guests suddenly snap about something minor, like receiving the wrong drink. In reality it’s not sudden – it’s actually been a steady build-up of stress and anxiety on their part for the last ten minutes.

But that steady build-up can be averted. The key is to spot these signs when they first begin. A guest won’t immediately tell you when something is wrong, but they will certainly show it; you just have to know what to look for. At Hop, we call this process unobtrusive hospitality.

What we’re looking for is shifts in energy. I know that might sound a bit yogic and intangible, but every guest will come in with a certain energy. Think about energy as a mixture of verbal, physical and emotional communication. Those are the instruments in our orchestra of energy. If I start to change my thoughts, my physicality and my volume, my energy will shift. I might have an inward energy, physically taking up less space and a quieter voice – that means the energy goes in towards me. Or I might have an outward energy, physically taking up more room than I need, speaking louder than I need to – pushing the energy out past people. Or I might have a relaxed energy where it’s neither introverted nor extroverted but allows for a free-flowing two-way connection.

Start to make a mental note of these different energy types as they come in. Now, what we’re looking for is shifts. If someone has that relaxed, two-way energy and then halfway through their meal, it starts going into the pushed state, it’s a clear sign that something isn’t going right. Now, it could be they feel uncomfortable with their guests, or it could be that something has gone wrong with the order. Once you notice the shift in the guest, just walk past the table with open energy – that means appearing relaxed, and inviting that two-way connection, looking to subtly make eye contact. The guest will see you and will usually let you know exactly what they need.

If you see the opposite, a guest starting to dip into the introverted energy from being open and relaxed, it’s another sign that something isn’t right. Maybe they’ve got fed up with their boss banging on about sales targets, or maybe their steak is overcooked. This time we’ll need to be a little more intrusive to get their attention, they won’t notice us if we simply walk by. Try and find an excuse to go to the table, clear a plate, fill up the water, offer a drink, it doesn’t matter what it is, but look for the eye contact as you’re doing the task. You’re giving the guest an opportunity to connect with you and tell you what they need. Again, if you do this well the guest will usually open up and explain what’s wrong.

If we repeat this process, stopping every 5-10 minutes and just looking for those shifts in energy and then responding appropriately as mentioned above, we not only stop any issues escalating into complaints, but we’re also managing the energy of the room. The goal is to get and then keep guests in that open, relaxed, connected state – which is way more enjoyable for them of course, but more importantly, more enjoyable (and easier to manage) for us and for our team. Not only are we reducing the amount of complaints we’ll have and the amount of stress we’ll experience, but more importantly we’re cultivating the energy we want in our business – and that’s going to keep reaping rewards for months and years to come.

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