One particular pet-peeve of mine is the forced gratuity added to meals at tourist destinations and tawny restaurants – for small parties and large ones – and the shrug of “what can I do?” the waiters/waitresses offer while pointing to the “mandated by management” disclaimer. This is taking restaurants directly into a headwind of the Groundswell of well-connected clients. “This experience was remarkable – because the management says it was.”
“Your brand is what your customers say it is” – Groundswell, by Charlene Li, Josh Bernoff
Lest you think I’m a cheapskate, I tip generously for great service – but it’s meant to be a reward for what I saw as remarkable effort and a pleasant experience. If I’m forced to wait at my favorite Indian Restaurant, mouth on fire, for 10 minutes while the waiter refreshes my beer (bar usually 15 feet a way) – there will be a price to pay.
I recognize that the gratuity being entirely connected to “table service” may unfairly discriminate against the kitchen staff… so I would love the ability to tip the food and service separately or at least see how it was divided.
I do not run a restaurant but know people who do, and realize that it’s a hugely difficult financial challenge. Just watching restaurants come and go here in Lexington is evidence enough of the perils they endure. Family-oriented restaurants without high-profit alcohol sales to lean on have it even tougher.
But forcing consumers to pay a mandatory gratuity for a burger and fries is stretching things a bit far – and someday may face a legal challenge. One silver lining that may keep the practice intact is that automatic gratuity has a paper trail, and thus using it as a tax shelter is far more difficult.
Johny Rockets’ Mandatory Tip
I love 50’s diner-retro experiences and Johnny Rockets has always been a favorite – each time we’re passing through Newport KY or the Montgomery Road area of Cincinnati we stop in. I walked 2 miles to eat at one in Long Beach CA once. My kids love it, and despite the $50+ cost of a meal, I was a fan and I’ve even blogged about it . The restaurant is owned by Daniel Snyder and led by president Lee Sanders and they plan an extensive expansion to 1000 locations – so I might get my wish for one in Lexington metro.
No doubt, I had always thought I’d be a dedicated customer, but now I’m not as sure. Forcing a mandatory tip (no matter what the service level) has given me reason to raise eyebrows. I would have left a tip of roughly the same amount as the forced one, by the way, and left far happier knowing I had sent a message of my satisfaction.
So I was much more likely to go online to voice my opinion.
Consumer Ratings Online Are Moving to Mobile Devices
“Tipping is a deeply personal practice” says Henry Harteveldt – Travel Analyst with Forrester Research, and if restaurants remove the ability for us to take a stand against crappy service or food, what are we to do? Well, I have one idea of what’s going to happen in this Groundswell. The funnel is going to get flipped and the mobile device becomes the megaphone via ratings of these businesses.
Enter mobile restaurant rating and local search. Our voices are about to get quite a bit louder.
Restaurant ratings guides (such as Urbanspoon, pictured right) are now getting tied to GPS locators, local directories, and social networks. Combining that with the amazon iPhone interface makes it a pleasure to use. A bad experience will be read about by hundreds of other people – at the moment they are out looking for a place to eat.
GPS-enabled phones will allow patrons to find “well-rated” restaurants near their location and rate them on the spot. They allow us to send restaurant information to our phone with a click on our desktop computer, too – in case we found one we wanted to try from a social networking friend.
Smart Restaurants Will Leverage The Trend
For good restaurants with happy customers, this is a huge advantage.
If I had a successful restaurant in a foot-traffic area, I’d put a 24″ monitor in the window rotating my review listings for all to see.
I’d hand out small “rate-us” cards to customers after setting up a simple URL (e.g. restaurant.com/rate-us) that made the ratings on sites such as Yelp a one-click proposition.
I’d position a netbook-type computer dedicated to ratings where people could voice their opinions online instead of a tip and kicking in a bonus to the staff myself when great service is reported, and having heart-to-heart talks with staff when it didn’t.
“Some business owners will post their reviews on their door, or on the counter, to show them off, and that’s a subtle way of asking customers to write about them”
– Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman
Restaurants that stand out win.
I realize how hard it is to run a restaurant – and in no way do I wish to belittle that effort or the entrepreneurial risk it requires. But with these challenges you must remember that customers are everything – and they can be your ambassador on the connected web every day if you engage them. The “quiet middle” of the satisfaction bell curve gets you nowhere – you must look to amplify the fans and listen to the critics to stand out.
PS: See “Flipping the Funnel” – a nice little 18 page e-book by Seth Godin. [pdf]