Surveying the Surveys

by Fred Sampson

With the exception of food preparation, I can think of no other food service activity that receives as much scrutiny and examination as service. There is no question that its execution—good or bad—can impact an operation almost to the same degree as the quality of the preparation, and yet I’m not sure that in some cases it receives the same level of managerial attention.

When one scans the many surveys on service, one notices that most of the consumer complaints pretty much follow a pattern. I have selected two surveys: one dealing with consumers was conducted by Restaurant Hospitality, and the other was taken by, with owners. Due to space limitations we have condensed their responses. First, 

Restaurant Hospitality

Restaurant guests are quite demanding when it comes to their servers. Here is what they prize:


Nine out of ten ask for the server’s recommendation, and 71 percent will take their advice.


Two-thirds of respondents say they expect to be greeted within three minutes of seating.

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The vast majority (91 percent) say they prefer their server to check their table once or twice—no more, no less—following the arrival of food.

A Familiar Face

Three-quarters have a preferred server at their favorite spot and more than half (56 percent) have requested a specific server.

A professional attitude

Nearly three-quarters claim to be impressed when a server doesn’t “auction off’ plates and remembers which dish each guest orders.

What do the results show? That taking care of the basics goes a long way toward burnishing a restaurant’s image. And since service is such an important element of the whole package, it makes sense to develop the best servers to help drive loyalty.
While loyalty is one of the rewards of maintaining a successful operation, it is critical in this current economic environment. More than 40 percent of consumers say they are so loyal to their favorite restaurants that promotions don’t factor into their decision to patronize these places, according to the NPD Group, a leading global market research company. Although more than one-third of consumers are still bargain seekers, this large group of loyal restaurant patrons value the overall experience more than price.

It has always been my contention that the word “value” when referring to restaurant meals includes more than just price; it is an important part of the trio that can almost guarantee success, the other two being “quality” and “service.” When you are providing all three, you have hit a “home run.”

The survey is noteworthy in that the respondents were operators. More than 500 operators shared their collective viewpoints on the impact that customer service, both good and bad, has on their restaurant. Not surprisingly, just about every respondent strongly agreed that the level of customer service they give has a direct and significant impact on their overall success.

In fact, on a scale of 1 to 10, the average respondent rated the importance at 9.5. Remarkably, though, when asked to rate the quality of customer service in their restaurant, they rated at an average of less, 7.5 out of 10.

When asked for the important factors when it comes to creating a consistently high level of customer service, this is how they responded: (84%) hiring the right people; (73%) treating employees well and providing a good place to work; (73%) constant, ongoing reinforcement of service standards; (70%) teaching employees the basic social skills such as smiling, eye contact, positive attitude, and conversational skills; (61%) educating servers on the correlation between good service and higher tips; and (41%) access to good customer service training resources.

I found the next part of this survey not only the most interesting but the most helpful in that once you identify the cause of a problem, you can be halfway on the road to solving it. Read on.

Reasons Cited for Poorer Levels of Customer Service

  • Operators who rated their own level of customer service at 7 or below, cited these reasons for not having better customer service:
  • Staff turnover
  • Inadequate management
  • Poor-quality labor force
  • Transient staff
  • Shortage of staff
  • Uncooperative staff
  • Not a priority, too busy running the business
  • Seasonal, changing staff
  • Failure to weed out “bad apples”
  • Quality of employees
  • Poor leadership
  • Complacent employees

As we scan the above, it would seem to me that while all of the reasons are valid, none of them are acceptable. Note that one of the first reasons for not having better customer service is “inadequate management.”

One last observation. In 95 percent of the customer service complaint surveys that I have read, the following are the two that top the list, irrespective of price range. They are: “How are you guys doing tonight?” (Particularly for parties with women.) And “Do you need change?” when picking up payment for the check, as opposed to “I’ll be right back with your change.” Guests do not want the server determining the amount of the tip. All change should be returned, even if it is only pennies.

Surveys have shown that the vast majority of guests who have received good to great service will tip accordingly, and when this happens, both the server and the house are having a good night. Comments may be sent to