A while ago, I visited my favourite hotpot restaurant with some friends. We’d been queuing for a while and were next in line to be seated, when a woman in the queue behind us came forward and started haranguing the server, claiming that she had been waiting for almost an hour.
The server remained calm and explained that the estimated waiting time during dinner was indeed about an hour. Also, seeing as it’s a hotpot restaurant, he couldn’t possibly impose a time limit on diners. Grumbling stridently, she fell back in line.
Ten minutes later, when the queue did not move at all, she struck again – this time, with more vitriol.
Frustrated and at a loss, the server looked to his manager who, to our surprise, turned to us and asked if we’d mind letting the angry customer go first.
Despite feeling sorry for the server, we said ‘no’: We were good customers who had waited patiently for our turn and we did not feel a need to give up our spot just because an abusive customer tried to bully her way to the front of the queue.
In the end, someone behind us must have caved in because right after we were seated, the woman and her friends were shown to a table, too.
The episode left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t appreciate how the establishment tried to bend over backwards for an unreasonable customer – at the expense of its well-behaved ones – and I was outraged at the person who capitulated and made our group look like the bad guys for ignoring the server’s plight, even though we were clearly in the right.
Needless to say, it is no longer my favourite hotpot restaurant.
Afterwards, I re-examined my past experiences dining out with some people and realised why I was so affected by the hotpot encounter.
I have been bothered by my friends’ unpleasant, unnecessary face-offs with service staff – I had to be extra-polite to the staff to make up for the rudeness of my friends later – and finally admitted to myself that that was the real reason I’ve stopped accepting dinner dates with them (sorry, not sorry).
But it got me thinking: Do Singaporeans take customer service for granted? Worse still, is the F&B industry in the practice of pandering to rude customers now?
Thankfully, the answer appears to be no.
According to Aamir Ghani, 43, owner and director of Park Bench Deli and 1KS, the restaurants have a strong stance on first-come-first-served, and don’t condone harassment by customers.
“We’re happy to host anyone who wants to dine with us, but we don’t tolerate disrespect. If a customer does become aggressive, we would firmly, but politely, tell them to come back another day or join us when there isn’t such a long wait.”
Ghani, who has had to pull some customers aside for a gentle talking-to at times, also dealt with his fair share of unreasonable demands when it comes to customised orders.
“Some customers may feel that they have a right to insist on having their sandwiches made a certain way. But I’ll always tell them that while we’re more than happy to accommodate to a certain degree, we can’t compromise our recipes, too. As a business, we need to stay true to our products,” he said.
It’s a sentiment that Ivan Yeo, 36, chef-owner of The 1925 Brewing Co. shares, adding that letting a “customer-is-king” mentality dictate how you run your business can actually set off a negative chain reaction in other patrons.
“Take yourself, for example. When that incident happened to you, did you immediately think: ‘Oh, does that mean that if I kick up enough of a fuss, I can get my way and jump the queue, too?” he asked.
Yeo was right – the thought had crossed my mind fleetingly, even if I’d never act on it. Really.
He continued: “This entitled mindset is not something we want to encourage. Besides, it would only cause our other customers – those who have been waiting patiently and eagerly in anticipation of a good time – to feel short-changed on their experience with us. So, we’d rather lose that customer in order to ‘protect’ the rest.”
However, Yeo admitted that some eateries – especially if they’re new – may adopt this practice. “When we first opened our doors in 2014, we were intent on pleasing every customer, too; we weren’t sure what boundaries needed to be drawn until later.”
Three years on, the savvy business owner now has a strategy to make sure no customer would attempt the same stunt I encountered: If a disgruntled patron shows signs of acting up, the server would politely inform him or her of the estimated waiting time, adding that if time is a constraint, perhaps he or she might consider going somewhere else.
“It’s only fair to let your customers know how long they’re expected to wait, so that they can decide if they wish to stay or go. But in making the announcement loud enough for guests around them to hear, we’re hoping that it’d serve as a gentle reminder that we would not tolerate heckling behaviour,” he asserted.
Both Jing Ting, 23, marketing personnel at The Affogato Bar, and Chien Fong, 32, service crew at Chir Chir Singapore echoed similar views.
The former emphasised the fact that businesses need to learn how to put their foot down when dealing with difficult customers.
“Some customers may feel that since they’re paying good money, they deserve the best of the best. Or when it comes to queuing up, their time is more valuable than others. We strive to provide great service, but at the same time, we seek to set an example – both for our staff and for other customers – that such conduct will not be condoned,” said Jing Ting.
Chien Fong, on the other hand, offered a more positive perspective of the Singapore customer and a possible explanation for why some restaurants may allow for concessions.
“Most of our diners have been pretty receptive when we’ve had to explain why we’re not able to accede to their requests. When we do get the rare demanding customer, a manager or someone senior would step in, and they’d usually fall in line.
“While we don’t entertain queue-jumpers, we may take individual circumstances into account. For example, if a customer has been queuing for an hour with his elderly, or disabled, parents, we’ll provide chairs for them to sit on while waiting. In this particular instance, we may consider asking other customers in the line if they’d like to let them go first – and there will be some who’ll kindly agree.”
So, how can businesses still provide good service without perpetuating rude or abusive customer behaviour?
Ghani, for one, believes that excellent service standards don’t necessarily require you to go above and beyond your duties.
He explained: “As long as you’re attentive and make an effort to communicate with your guests, you’re good. Most times, customers just want to know what’s going on; waiting a long time amid radio silence breeds animosity. Good customer service means knowing how to deflect that frustration effectively.
“In the case of your hotpot encounter, perhaps all the server needed to do was constantly check in on the customers. And knowing that it’s going to be a long wait, take a drink out to them and apologise for the delay.”
Now, I see what he meant – I would have been greatly mollified with a refreshing drink and an apology while waiting. And I bet the woman would have been, too.