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The Moment of Truth

If you have worked in a restaurant, you likely have come across a few of the restaurant industry’s most coveted catchphrases. “The guest is always right,” “There is no I in team,” and “Serve em’ with a smile” are three of the more popular restaurant catchphrases. Of course, we also have “The moment of truth,” the consummate fork in the road that determines much of our business fate.

Hotel scion, J. W. Marriott, pioneered many of hospitality industry’s guest service standards. Many restaurant industry analysts give Marriott credit for coming up with the phrase, “The moment of truth.” Marriott never defined when the moment of truth occurs during a guest’s experience. He believed it happens throughout a dining or lodging visit, from the moment when guests walk through the front door, to the effusive thank you that guests receive, as they leave a restaurant or hotel.

Is it possible to identify when the moments of truth typically occurs during guest dining experiences? Is it how we greet guests at the front door, greet guests at the bar, greet guests at the table, or my favorite GMAT answer, all of the above? Does a moment of truth occur when we bring the rolls, appetizers, entrees, or dessert? In fact, the answer to these questions is my least favorite GMAT answer, none of the above. The moment of truth, the one guest interaction that is more important to the success of your restaurant than any other moment during a guest’s meal, is when a guest issues a complaint about the quality of a product or service.

If you want to be a successful restaurant operator, you must know how to handle guest complaints AND teach your team how to handle them as well.


You must have a sense of urgency to resolve a guest complaint, or you risk a guest complaint escalating into an unmanageable situation. When you are informed of a guest complaint, there is not a magic carpet fast enough to take you to the guest’s table. Consider how fast we want our servers and bartenders to greet guests. The same principle applies to handling guest complaints. Unless there is a fire in the kitchen, you have roughly thirty seconds to respond to guest complaints.


During the thirty seconds, you must block out all of the shift’s negative events. A guest who issues a complaint does not care about your dishwasher walking out or the forty-five minute ticket times. You must have a server’s heart, one that overflows with empathy, as you approach a table to handle a guest complaint. Use a reassuring tone of voice and the proper choice of word to express your sincere apologies. You can use the phrases, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention” or “This has happen to me as well.” to build the level of trust that you need to satisfy a guest.

Active Listening

This does not mean performing calisthenics, while the guest unloads on you. This means giving your full attention to the guest. This means turning off all of your wireless communication devices, before you approach the table. This means asking the guest to come with you to an area of the restaurant conducive to one-on-one conversations. One of the first things to do is ask for the guest’s name, and then using his or her name throughout the conversation. Repeat back what you hear and never interrupt a guest. Possibly the most important aspect of active listening is eye contact, not the beady eye look Marty Feldman displayed in Young Frankenstein, but the subtle, focused eye contact that assures a guest you are listening.

Talk About a Resolution

Far too many restaurant operators want to cut to the chase and resolve guest complaints, before they take the time to express empathy and actively listen. They view guest complaints in the same light they view the taxman: get the painful process over as soon as possible. Avoid the urge to skip steps one and two of the guest complaint process. Resolution only occurs after you understand the problem and the guest feels you are taking steps to correct it. You can resolve a guest complaint by offering a free meal, gift card, or sometimes, a heartfelt apology.

Another restaurant industry catchphrase that we hear goes something like this: “Satisfied guests rarely tell anyone about their good experiences, but unhappy guests will tell ten of their closest friends.” The problem is most unhappy guests never express their disappointed with their dining experience. They just leave the restaurant, never to come back. So, thanking guests for informing you of their bad experiences is not just a human resources gimmick. It is the first step in the process of turning a disgruntled guest into a loyal, lifelong patron of your restaurant. Because of this, you should welcome every chance that you get to handle guest complaints.