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Customer Courtesy 101


I Ate Oklahoma is brought to you in part by:

The customer is, at best, occasionally right.

“Uh, the customer is always right, Greg.”

That sounds like it was written by a customer trying to win an argument. Customers, like everyone else ever on earth, are frequently wrong because they are human and humans often suck. The same goes for servers at restaurants and managers and the people at the next table, humans all and equally mistake prone.

I asked a group of servers about this and one quite helpfully noted: 

“You know what’s just as bad as an insufferable guest? A pretentious and arrogant server or bartender.”

See? You’re not alone. Everybody screws up. But everybody should try their best not to screw up.

And if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re likely to be a customer at a restaurant rather than any of those other things, so let’s talk about the things we can control.

And before you say, “I don’t need to be courteous to people at a restaurant. It’s their job,” let me remind you that you, too, have a job (one hopes) and you wouldn’t let people talk down to you at your job. Just because serving is more customer-facing than most positions doesn’t mean that servers are less-worthy of courteous treatment.

1. Answer the question you’re asked

“Hello, I’m Amy and I’ll be your server today. How are you doi-”

“Iced tea, no ice.”

That’s not nice. You know it’s not nice. There’s something about being served that makes people less courteous to those doing the serving and that is completely the opposite of how it ought to be.

If someone asks how you are, you tell them how you are. Maybe ask how they are, like a real human would. Have a conversation with them. Don’t expect to sit and chat all day, because they have to get your and other people’s food, but be pleasant. Be kind.

And if you’re in a hurry, this is the time to tell your server, during that initial conversation. That way they don’t slowplay your order and try to stretch the evening out for you.

This person is a server, not a servant. Work with them and your meal has a much better chance of going well.

2. Repeat these phrases to yourself before you go into a restaurant

  • Please.
  • Thank you.
  • May I have...?

All the things you teach your children to say are things you should say. And if your kids are with you, believe you me, they’re paying attention to how you treat the waitstaff. They are sponges. Live the example. This goes for pretty much every other moment of your life, too, but it’s equally applicable here.

3. Make eye contact and remember names

Here’s one I got from a restaurant owner:

“Some customers, not all, but some, never look them in the eye. Or even acknowledge they’re there!”

Imagine how that feels for a minute. Think about how frustrating it is for you, when you’re trying to get your check or to ask for a refill, when you can’t catch the server’s eye from across the room. Now imagine being right there, right in front of you, and you won’t look up, listen or even stop talking.

I am terrible at remembering names. Absolutely awful. But I try. That’s the best you can do and it’s so much easier when you’re paying attention.

If this sounds like common sense, congratulations, because you're doing better than plenty of other people who don’t do this.

4. Read the room

Situational awareness is big. If the restaurant is jam-packed with people, then you know it’s busy and your server is likely dealing with a lot of orders and a lot of people and, as such, you cannot always be the No. 1 priority at every moment.

Empathy is the watchword. Consider what is going on for them and act accordingly.

That also goes for understanding where you are.

“Order for the bar you're at. It would be absurd for a customer to complain that they couldn't get sushi at McDonald's, yet somehow throwing a fit because the high-end craft bar they visit doesn't carry energy drinks makes sense? Go to the kind of bar that serves the kind of drinks you'd like. I don't order negronis at the Hilo and I don't order Red Bull at a craft space. Not every bar provides the same experience.”

5. Accept the fix

I’ve already talked about the importance of complaining the right way in “How To Complain,” but if you’ve taken the step of being brave and forthright and complaining to your server about a problem, the next step is letting them fix it.

As one server said:

“If you’re going to complain about your food/drink, LET ME FIX IT. It’s terribly frustrating to have a customer complain about something, then when I offer multiple ways to fix said problem, they refuse them all and just say, ‘It’s fine.’ Clearly it’s not though…”

6. Assorted other rules

These are pretty basic, but sometimes we need to work on the basics, right? It’s why basketball coaches spend time on passing and free throws.

  • Don’t tell your server you’re ready to order if you aren’t ready to order. The time they’re spending waiting for you to read the menu in front of you is time they can’t be helping other customers.
  • Try to get the drink orders for everyone ready at once. It saves time. You can’t always control other people in your party, but it’s nice if you can.
  • Do not touch your server. Don’t do it. Are you going to do it? Then remember: DON’T.
  • Don’t interrupt them when they’re with another table. You wouldn’t like it if the situation were reversed and someone was interrupting them while they were talking to your table.
  • No hand waving. Try to make eye contact or at most raise your hand as they pass. If they can’t stop at that exact moment, be sure they will come back to you as soon as they can.
  • Look after your kids. And look after yourself. Servers aren’t babysitters for your children and they shouldn’t have to take care of you if you get wasted. Just be responsible.
  • Tipping is still customary even if you don’t like it. Is the system broken? Yeah, probably. But until it’s fixed from the top down, your server depends on tips to live. You’re not “taking a stand” by refusing to tip; you’re just withholding money from people who need it.

All of this is not to say your server/bartender/chef/general manager is always blameless. They’re just as human as you are and, yes, sometimes they’re the ones behaving badly. But we can only control ourselves. Be the adult. Be the kind one. Believe me, the vast majority of people you deal with will appreciate it.

And if it leads to nothing else but people being a little nicer to each other, that’s enough, isn’t it?

About the Author

Founder and Eater-in-Chief of I Ate Oklahoma, Greg Elwell has been reviewing restaurants and writing about Oklahoma’s food culture for more than a decade. Where a normal person orders one meal, this guy gets three. He is almost certainly going to die young and those who love him most are fairly ambivalent about it. You can email Greg at greg@iateoklahoma.com.