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Thursday, March 18,2010

Getting served

By Lauren Duncan

Study shows customer service on the decline

Think of the last meal you paid for. How was the service? Did a server fill your water glass before it emptied, or were you left stranded and parched? Did an employee smile graciously, or did he barely glance up as he took your order behind the counter?

According to a study recently released by the Empathica Consumer Insights Panel, the latter may be more likely. The study, which polled 13,000 American and Canadian consumers, revealed that the majority of consumers believe customer service is getting worse. Americans were especially concerned, with 55 percent of them claiming that their recent customer service experiences have been less desirable than in the past.

“There is less and less awareness of what good service is,” says Rudy Miick, owner of a Boulder-based restaurant and hospitality consulting company, Miick & Associates. In a culture of ATMs and automated voicemails, people are becoming conditioned to being comfortable with a lesser standard of service, he says.

In restaurants, this translates into the increase of “quick-service” or “fast-casual” eateries, where customers order food at a counter, and where low cost and efficiency are the priorities.

“The whole service model is that less is more,” Miick says of this style of dining.

Due to an increasingly fast-paced culture and more people living on a budget, quick-service restaurants are on the rise, furthering a society of people who become desensitized to blank stares and lackluster greetings. But Miick adds that on the other end of this spectrum educated consumers are demanding more.

“A segment of the population that is college-educated, world-traveled, watching TV, is more knowledgeable,” he says. “They don’t want just pasta; they want organic, local pasta made fresh this morning.”

Such polarization creates two populations: one that has learned to settle for dull service and another that expects nothing less than five-star. It’s understandable that consumers would be concerned.

According to Gary Edwards, executive vice president of client services at Empathica, the weak economy plays a large role. As people are dining out less, they want their experience to be as valuable as possible.

“When a family goes out, their expectations are not going down just because they’re spending half of what they used to,” Edwards says. In fact, their expectations are going up.

The survey broke responses down regionally, and found that consumers in the Southern United States were more apt to say customer service is declining. That region also was strongest in its assertion that customer service is more important than good food. “Anecdotally, the South is known for its hospitality,” Edwards says. “We may just have a cultural difference where expectations are higher.” In the West, 19.3 percent of consumers said service was more important than food.

Mary Johnson, a longtime resident of Boulder and a frequent diner at local restaurants, believes service is almost on par with the quality of the food.

“I want a good quality, good tasting meal. But whether I appreciate it fully depends quite a bit on the wait staff,” Johnson says. “You can have an outstanding tasting meal and not enjoy it because the service is poor.”

Miick says he believes both are equally critical. “Irrespective of the food, service is what will drive the business,” he says. “If it’s between good food and good food, service is the driver.”

Good service can be defined in many ways, especially depending on the type of restaurant. While an employee at a quick-service restaurant such as Noodles & Company isn’t required to describe specials, as is done in fine dining restaurants, universal protocol exists to make customers feel welcome. Johnson says that in upscale eateries, she hopes hosts will establish a friendly relationship and that servers will explain unclear menu items. If she’s a frequent guest, she hopes for some acknowledgement that she’s been there before. At fast food joints, Johnson expects the same level of friendliness in the different atmosphere. She recalls a particular employee at Good Times burger restaurant who has customer service nailed.

“She’s friendly, she takes the order quickly and she always acknowledges you when you come up to the window,” Johnson says. “She provides service that makes you want to go back.”

This kind of service — the kind that makes customers want to return — requires hard work on the part of the restaurant owner. According to Miick, it’s the difference between assuming employees know what good service is and actually defining it.

“Those operators that have actually slowed down to define service excellence are actually achieving it,” he says.

This could mean defining how the initial guest greeting should be executed or how often an employee should return to a guest’s table.

At Boulder’s Flagstaff House Restaurant, employees are trained vigorously to offer impeccable service.

“We sit down with employees a couple times a week during their training,” says owner Scott Monette. “We do role playing where I pretend like I’m a customer asking questions.”

This level of training has earned Flagstaff its reputation of one of the area’s best restaurants in terms of customer service.

“If you have a bad experience walking in the door, you’re going to be more critical of what you’re eating and tasting,” Monette says.

Customers such as those polled in the Empathica survey will no doubt help dictate the future of customer service.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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