The Guest is Not Always Right—But They Must be Satisfied

I learned this principle a long time ago and it has served me well over the years. There is an old saying that the customer is always right. Ask anyone in the service industry and I’m sure they would give you countless examples of their experience where this was not the case.

I opened a restaurant in Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas in 1999 called Red Square. Red Square’s claim to fame was that we had the world’s largest vodka list in North America. We had over 140 different vodka brands including many that we directly imported from Russia that could not be obtained anywhere else in the United States. Our staff was incredibly well-versed on all the different vodkas, ingredients, and distillation processes.

After we had been open about six months, three people came in and sat at the lounge and ordered three Ketel One vodka martinis. Our bartender made them, the cocktail server served them, and five minutes later, the martinis were brought back to the bar. The bartender inquired what was wrong and the cocktail server said “The guest says that they drink Ketel One all the time and these martinis were not made with Ketel One vodka.” The bartender grabbed the bar back, put a tray in his hand, put three martini glasses on the tray, a shaker cup, a bottle of vermouth, and a bottle of Ketel One. They proceeded to the table and, while the barback held the tray, the bartender proceeded to make three new martinis tableside. When the guest looked up at the bartended and asked what he was doing, the bartender replied, “I wanted you to see that we were using Ketel One to make your martinis as you requested.” The bartender completed the martinis, set them on the table and walked away with the barback.

A manager, who was working the room and table touching, happened by the cocktail table and inquired how everything was. The guests began to berate the manager about how he felt embarrassed by the bartender’s action. The manager apologized profusely, comped the three martinis at $36. The guests finished the martinis and left the restaurant happy….. right? ……WRONG!

Three days later, I received a two-paged letter of complaint from the guest. A two-paged typed written letter of complaint…….. Do you know how pissed off you have to be to write a two-paged letter of complaint? A typical guest that has a great experience in a restaurant might tell someone. A typical guest who has a bad experience in a restaurant will tell everyone.

I responded to the guest in writing, apologizing profusely and sent them a gift certificate for dinner for 4 to please come back and re-try Red Square. Because the dinner was free, the guest ordered $95 Beluga caviars, $75 lobsters and bottles of wine. The bartender, in his infinite wisdom to train the guest, cost me over $600 and who knows if the guest ever came back to Red Square after that “free” visit.

When I pulled the bartender aside and inquired as to what he was thinking, he asked me what he should have done. I replied, that he should have made the Ketel One martinis and just sent them to the table. He asked, “What if they sent those back as well?” I replied, “At that point, you get a manager to visit the table.”

I have learned that the guest is never someone to argue or match wits with. Just give them what they want. I tell my cooks all the time, “If a guest orders a medium rare steak and you cook it perfectly medium rare and send it out, and they send it back and say it’s raw, then it’s raw to them. So cook it medium well, call it medium rare and send it back out to the guest.”

The guest is clearly not always right, but they must be satisfied. The guest perception of their experience is the only perception that matters, even if they are not always right!

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