In the week before Christmas, it became a subject of particular interest when restaurants would be open over the holidays. This information was necessary for me partly for professional reasons: For my review schedule, I wanted to make sure I could get to the restaurants I needed to review in time to meet deadlines. But it was also necessary for regular reasons, like having family in town, wanting to take them out and not wanting to drive across town to find a place closed. In my attempts to figure out the holiday schedules of a couple of restaurants, a familiar problem arose: Most restaurants don't answer their phones any more. Not during business hours. Not before business hours. Not at all.
There are varying degrees of phone avoidance. The most common runs on the basic premise that there's only one reason a person would need personal interaction when she calls a restaurant — and that's to make a reservation. In this scenario, you invariably get a recording listing hours, location and parking information, and a directive to either go and make a reservation online or leave a message for a reservation and they'll call you back. Often this call back is not going to happen until the following day.
Having worked in restaurants, and having started that career the way many people start their service careers — as a hostess — I can attest to the fact that about 85% of calls that come in to most restaurants are, in fact, to get directions or hours or a reservation. But what of the remaining 15%?
When trying to call Scopa, the new Italian restaurant in Venice, I got the message that reservations were taken between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., and to leave a message, which would be returned during those hours. What if I had been calling because I was late for my reservation? Or because I was lost and couldn't find the restaurant (which, incidentally, has no sign)?
If someone were trying to plan a complicated week full of family commitments (which I was), don't you think not being able to secure a reservation until after 2 p.m. the following day might cause that person to give up and call somewhere else, somewhere that might allow a plan to be made now? If, say, I wondered if the restaurant sells gift certificates, how might I find that out? There are so many reasons someone might take her business elsewhere because she can't get in touch with a sentient being.
Is it difficult for a restaurant to take reservations during service hours? Sure. But it's not that hard. I'd rather be put on hold by a real person who is juggling other tasks than effectively be put on hold for 18 hours by an answering machine.
Scopa is not alone in its phone strategy; in fact, it's the norm. There have been many, many times I've driven across town to a restaurant that would not answer the phone, only to find the place closed. I wish websites were reliable indicators of things like hours, but they aren't. Hours change. Owners forget to update websites. Phone messages still say “All other information can be found on our website.” But often, it really can't.
Level two on the phone-avoidance scale is a message that gives basic info and then hangs up. Not even a chance to leave a message. For instance, the Sycamore Kitchen never, ever answers its phone — we know this because we have had many reasons to call the restaurant over time, wondering if it has certain items or can accommodate certain requests. These pieces of information are not available on the website. And there's no way to request a call-back — the machine simply hangs up on you once it's done with its hours and location spiel.
The bottom line is that restaurants are part of the service industry, which means customer service is the most important factor in the operation. And the most basic customer service you can provide is human interaction, whenever possible. Even if it is to give address or hours, a friendly and helpful voice on the other end of the phone line is a very good way to begin the customer interaction. And a frustrating phone experience that reminds you of dealing with the cable company is the exact opposite of the impression you want to create.
For all the cash that restaurants spend these days on PR and fancy (often unhelpful) websites, the best public relations you can actually practice is helpful service. Answering your phones might mean spending a wee bit extra on the salary of an extra hostess here and there, but I assure you it's money well spent.
Unless, of course, you fit into level three on the phone-avoidance scale: Trois Mec doesn't have a phone at all.
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