The hospitality buck must stop at the top

Thursday 29th April 1999 00:00

Bella Pasta operates 77 restaurants in locations from Inverness to Jersey, and five new restaurants are under development.

It employs 3,000 workers, plus team members, and encourages a culture of informality and open communication.

A lot has been written about how to handle guest complaints - let the complainant say their piece without interruption; demonstrate your understanding of their situation without necessarily accepting the blame; carry out a full investigation; and, where appropriate, compensate the guest.

There are also numerous training programmes that teach teams how to convert people from disappointed guests into firm advocates of the brand.

I don't want to go over old ground, but I would like to add a caveat: that the managing director and/or chief executive of a business should take a keen interest in guest complaints and be prepared to deal with them personally.

It says to the guest that you are taking them seriously. It says to your own team that you are by their side through thick and thin. It demonstrates your commitment to getting things right.

If you asked my colleagues in the business, they would probably tell you I am a fairly relaxed character - until it comes to service. Giving good service is the nub of what we do on the hospitality industry. I think we do it well, and on those rare occasions when something goes wrong, I think we are pretty good at putting it right.

A few weeks ago I visited the Uxbridge branch of a well-known bank, which has recently converted to a building society, to pay a cheque into my wife's account. I queued for what seemed like hours, but when my turn finally came, the computer rejected the passbook.

I won't bore you with the technical problems, but suffice it to say I left the branch feeling less than happy with the system and distinctly unhappy with the attitude of the manager. Instead of apologising and trying to sort the problem out, he implied that the inability of their machine to accept a payment was somehow my fault.

I was seething by the time I arrived back at my own office and got straight on the phone to the bank's head office, asking for the chief executive's fax number. I faxed through a letter within an hour of the incident taking place and sat back confident of receiving an equally timely response.

Sure enough, three hours later I had a response - from the Uxbridge manager, saying that they had solved the problem and I could now go down to the branch and pay in my cheque. He didn't say why their system had gone wrong in the first place, nor did I receive a reply from the chief executive.

I have since pursued a response from the top man and each time I have been fended off by the local manager, the area manager and his personal assistant. This has continued for several weeks. I now have an awful suspicion that he didn't see my original letter and that the people who dealt with it in the first place are too deep in the mire to show him my subsequent missives.

As a shareholder in his business, however, I shall have no qualms about turning up at the annual general meeting (AGM) with my sheaf of correspondence - and then he'll have to listen to me. All this because the manager mishandled my complaint in the first place.

Businesses outside the hospitality industry would do well to take a leaf out of our book.

It's an odd claim to fame, but I believe we are better at handling guest complaints than most other so-called service industries. I know, for example, that the chief executives of at least three major hotel groups all put their names in the firing line for guest complaints.

If, heaven forbid, you were to have a poor experience at a Bella Pasta restaurant and wrote to me about it, I would investigate your complaint and reply in person, not delegate the task to a junior member of the team.

I believe that this approach is widespread in the hospitality industry, but if there is any senior executive reading this who thinks they may be shielded from guest complaints by a well-meaning team, I suggest they find out what is really happening as soon as possible.

Better to face an angry guest's complaint now rather than at the next AGM.

A final word about guest comments: they're not always bad news. When I receive a letter complimenting one of our restaurants on excellent service, I write and thank the guest, then I copy the letter to the team and to their area manager. It's great to be able to deliver bouquets as well as brickbats and, thank heavens, they are almost as frequent. n

Stephen Evans is managing director of BrightReasons Restaurants, which owns the Bella Pasta brand


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