The Fine Art of Telling a Customer to F Off

A hospitality pro shares his four-step guide for letting customers know that their bad behavior won't be tolerated.

busy restaurant
Photo: Alena Kravchenko / Getty Images

Regardless of the visible hardship in the restaurant industry, the public still demands chipper and prompt service from people like me. The phrase, "not as good as before the pandemic" appears frequently in online reviews, as if all it takes is to simply pick ourselves up, shake it off, and get right back to work.

But remember, we are desperate. So no matter what the guest throws our way, we just smile, apologize (if necessary) and say, "Yes!"

Wait, what?

When did it become ingrained in our collective psyche that we should take abuse from complete strangers? Why is it that managers, owners, and staff are too petrified to stand up for themselves? Amidst all the fear, doubt, and desperation, have we lost our sense of self-worth?

Allow me to remind you, comrades, that you are in control! You are beautiful! Your restaurant is your home. That means your rules.

It is time that we said "enough is enough" to those who conflate service with servitude.

It is time that we said "enough is enough" to those who conflate service with servitude. When pushed too far, we should reach deep into our recipe book for an old classic: by combining a little dash of poise, two splashes of vigor, and a twist of charm, we can and should occasionally say, "f@$k off."

I am not literally advocating for you to start flipping the bird to your tables. The goal is to look more carefully at the exceedingly blurry line between honoring the guest and maintaining clear boundaries to curtail unacceptable behavior. How we approach this dilemma will reshape the meaning of hospitality in the modern era of restaurants.

We should start by acknowledging the sad truth that we cannot change how other people behave in restaurants. Focusing our efforts here is a frustrating and demoralizing waste of time. Instead, we should channel our energy into improving how we manage ourselves and the difficult situations we encounter.

Setting boundaries is about refining your product design and marketing strategy as much as it is about self-defense. Restaurants often make the mistake of trying to be everything to everyone, appeasing the customer at all costs. However, successful marketing is not about finding as many customers as you can. It is about having a laser-focused quality product that is built to attract as many of the right customers as you can. It is a hard, but critically important decision to turn some people away in favor of optimizing your business for what you are truly meant to be.

Consider this: I'm the partner and general manager of a restaurant in Boston, A long time ago in a pre-pandemic galaxy far, far away, a party berated one of my servers because they were having trouble understanding her accent. They brought her to tears. After they refused my request to apologize, I politely insisted that they pack up and leave the restaurant.

On paper, these people were worth accommodating. They live locally, they dine at the restaurant frequently, they have money, and of course, they would slander us. It would have been easy to take the table myself or reassign it to another server. But then what? Enabling this behavior would impact the way I was perceived by my employees and send a clear message that my team was secondary to a few dollars and a bad review.

You know what happened? The guests on either side of their table clapped as we escorted them outside. It turns out that everyone in the vicinity was offended by their deplorable behavior. It was a beautiful thing to see fellow customers rise up in support of the restaurant.

I am not flaunting heroics. but I am proud of this moment.

I would argue that the decision to kick them out enhanced our brand equity and corporate culture. Cutting off the wrong customer should not be seen as turning away business. Rather, it is a strategic decision to solidify company values, increase staff morale, and maintain product-market fit. A well-allocated "f off" is a net financial positive, not a loss.

Keep in mind that showing someone the door is an absolute last resort. The desired outcome is always customer retention. The biggest difference is how we get there. Instead of bowing and profusely apologizing regardless of the circumstance, we can resolve conflict and build stronger guest relationships on equal footing.

The bulk of the change is psychological. It is as simple as finding the humility to take critical feedback but also having the confidence to respectfully dialogue about the restaurant's perspective when fielding an unfounded guest complaint.

So how do we actually do this? I've developed is a four-step guide on how to stand up for yourself in a service position without sacrificing economic and reputational value for your restaurant. It is not a perfect science, and it is certainly not always easy. Think of it as the fine art of "f off."

1. Don't go looking for a fight

This might be hard to hear, but the truth is that most guest complaints are legitimate, even if they are presented obnoxiously. Pushing back against guest entitlement only works if people are, in fact, being entitled.

If your restaurant is routinely receiving complaints, I am sorry to report that you have a product design issue, not a guest issue. Do not ignore the data because you dislike what it says. Additionally, it is always the responsibility of ownership to provide the proper resources and training to help their staff perform adequately and when necessary, navigate difficult customer interactions.

At the same time, we should consider the possibility that some people are just awkward, or they communicate differently. Perhaps they thought you were being rude.

I speak from personal experience that my own brand of social anxiety can be perceived as anything from disapproval to apathy. It's just me having a secret panic attack.

Miscommunications happen. I speak from personal experience that my own brand of social anxiety can be perceived as anything from disapproval to apathy. It's just me having a secret panic attack.

Of course, anxiety is not an excuse for bad behavior. But the point remains that too many managers and staff charge into service with preemptive worries about all the horrible guests they will encounter. This mentality is toxic.

2. Do not lose your temper

This includes forgoing any form of unnecessary sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness. Victory does not belong to the person who raises their voice the loudest or gets the nastiest.

This is equally true for the guest. It is never appropriate for a patron to raise their voice, curse, or invade personal space. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying, "I will not allow you to swear or raise your voice at me." If they are unwilling to comply with a request for human decency, sayonara dude!

Victory does not belong to the person who raises their voice the loudest or gets the nastiest.

I know that verbal smackdown you have been rehearsing in the mirror seems like it would be so gratifying to unleash. But who looks silly in the grocery store? The parent who gets angry at a screaming child or a parent who calmly and methodically delivers an ultimatum to their kid? Let the person who is acting inappropriately embarrass themselves, not you.

3. Solicit feedback

Invite and embrace constant criticism. Always own your mistakes. When someone leaves you a bad review or they complain, get in there to find out what happened. Extend the olive branch and they will be extremely likely to listen when you finally speak.

This does not apply to customers who are threatening, hateful, or violent. These folks are not worth pursuing because they are not interested in building a healthy relationship.

4. State your claim

Lay out the case for what the customer does not fully appreciate or cannot see from their point of view. It is not a fight or even a debate. Do not make excuses either. You are simply sharing information. Remember that you are a fully competent professional engaging in a respectful conversation. Get it out of your head that you are a groveling humble servant.

If you are forced to set the record straight, a cold calculating delivery is much more effective, impressive, and honestly, much more badass. Think Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (just nonviolent of course). As they say, revenge is a dish best served cold.

Over the course of the pandemic, I received several negative reviews citing service issues that were directly related to COVID dining restrictions. It was so frustrating to see guests publicly blame us for issues beyond our control.

My initial reaction was likely the same as yours: "f off!"

But for once, I followed my own advice. I contacted the reviewers to solicit their honest feedback. I listened carefully; forcing myself to absorb any and all culpability for their perceived service failure. After thanking them for their opinion, I calmly and respectfully stated my claim. Something to the effect of:

"I think you need to better consider what we are dealing with in this operating environment," and "It is not entirely fair for you to judge us based on these circumstances." Always ending with, "Do me a favor, reach out to me directly when you are ready to come back and I would be happy to show you what we are all about."

No comps, no fawning, no gratuitous showdown. Just sincere dialogue. Person to person.

Did I receive a heartfelt apology? No. But it felt good and at least there are a handful more people who understand what it takes to work in a restaurant right now. Maybe they will bring that with them on their next visit. Until then, I will let you manage the rest.

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