Getting Guest Comfort Right

“Check Your LAMA!” was something a colleague drilled into my head many years ago. He had worked for Maggiano’s, and it was/is a reference to the four pillars of guest comfort. It’s an acronym for Lights, Atmosphere, Music, and Ambience. I’ve always found it very easy for restaurant employees to become desensitized to these things as they spend more and more time inside their restaurants. It seems the longer a manager or owner has been coming to work in any one location, the more blind they become to the things that affect the guest experience.

One of the most effective tools I learned to break this spell is what I call, “touching the curb”. Prior to each shift, the host staff arrives and begins checking reservations, tidying the front desk, wiping menus, etc. But what they often fail to do is calibrate their eyes to see what the guest sees versus what they see from the desk. Therefore, just prior to service, I insist that the lead host and/or manager walk straight out the front door… without looking back!… and keep walking until they reach the curb across the street (looking both ways, of course)…or until they get far enough away from the restaurant to be able to see the restaurant as a customer (I dunno… 20 yards?). Then they turn around. This forces the host / hostess / manager / owner to see the restaurant as a passerby or arriving guest might see it. They’ll suddenly see the trash on the sidewalk or the sign light bulb that is out…the same things they walked right past on their way into work. It allows them to see if a local college has somehow convinced an employee to allow them to tape a sign in the window for their sports team schedule. It reveals smudgy windows, messy valet uniforms, crooked signs, dirty awnings, and graffiti.

From “the curb” they walk back to the restaurant with these guest eyes, paying attention to the condition of the sidewalk, the cleanliness of the door handle, or the presence of cigarette butts. When they enter the building wearing these eyes, they experience the smells, the music, and the temperature. They get a certain feeling when they see a server at the front desk massaging a hostess (ew) or a guest’s discomfort at seeing congregating servers suddenly disperse after glaring derisively at the person interrupting their fun. Humans are amazing in their ability to sort and process gobs of information with just a glance, and no human is more alert than a customer arriving at a new environment for what they hope will be a memorable experience. If the place smells like Pine Sol (think BP gas station), or the lighting is too bright, or the music is inappropriate or too loud (or soft), and it’s freezing cold, that curb toucher should be able to pick it up and be in a position to correct it before the first guest arrives.

If you sort through Yelp, you’ll get to the root of what bugs customers. Restaurants often knock the value of Yelp or Trip Advisor reviews, saying the reviewers are being unreasonable or overly sensitive. I happen to think Yelp reviews are a Godsend for restaurants because they share raw emotion…and their star review offers the degree to which that feeling affected their experience.  Buried in those comments are specific things like “lights were bright” or “music was loud” or “it was cold”. But then there are not-so-specific things that reveal that something bothered them that they couldn’t put their finger on, so they blame something else. Things like “we were NOT taken care of” or “my soup was cold” or “I didn’t like the server’s attitude”. Many times, guests are ticked off at the feeling they had when they walked in, so they start searching for issues that justify that bad feeling. If guests get to their seat and are already annoyed (whether they know why they’re annoyed or not), you’re exposed to receiving a tough review all because something completely within your control was ignored. With competition being what it is today, restaurants need to win the fight for loyalty and return visits. Getting the LAMA right is the easiest and fastest way to protect your guests from bad experiences and to protect your restaurant from bad reviews…even if the soup is actually cold.

Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting