Saying ‘No’ to Guests

Face it – saying “no” is an integral part of the hospitality business. Items may not be available, or guests may not have access to products. Guests usually have high expectations – especially in upscale or pricey restaurants – and management will sometimes have to say “no”.

Most guests understand that “no” is part of life, and that not everything is always available in the restaurant business. However, some struggle with that concept. For this reason, saying “no” is an important skill that requires practice, patience, and no small degree of acting. Not every manager has what it takes to convey a heartfelt “no” and turn it around. But every manager should practice the fine art of saying “no”.

The fact is that there are a few tricks of the trade that managers should learn when rejecting a customer’s request. Here are some of them.

Don’t Actually Say “No”

A simple “no” on its own is not a good enough response, even when it’s all that really should be said. Instead, it’s important to offer an acceptable alternative that might fit the guest’s request. For example, suggest the mahi-mahi to a guest who orders rockfish, or offer a table by the balcony to a guest who asks for a table by the window.

“Never say ‘no’” is an important policy for many successful business people across a variety of customer-oriented industries. It’s more than recognition of the tired notion that the customer is always right. It’s a chance to steer the guest toward an alternative that’s better for both parties in the long run. Here are a few examples of phrases to learn when the real answer is “no”.

  • Product doesn’t meet our standards: This is a nice way of saying something is bad. It is in stock, but it doesn’t reach our normal standards, which (we are implying) are very high.
  • We have a limited supply: This is especially helpful and understandable after a busy weekend, or when demand has been particularly high for something.
  • It has been reserved for another party: Most guests understand the nature of the restaurant business, and that sometimes tables or menu items are reserved.
  • I’ll put you on our waiting list: Always take wait lists when reservations are not available. Avoid saying no and genuinely work to fit guests in, especially when confirming reservations on busy days.
  • Would — be suitable for you?: This avoids saying “no” by offering an alternative that may work instead.
  • I’m afraid it’s our policy: Every business has policies. Restaurants have last calls, closing times, stock limitations, purchase limitations, and product restrictions.

Restrictions on large parties and banquets are a very common situation for most restaurants. Specialized menus, minimum down payments, guest counts, and other rules present situations in which a manager will often have to decline a request. In each case, the best solution is to recommend an alternative that might fit guest needs better. A limited menu offers shorter wait times and more efficient service. Guest count restrictions make the venue more comfortable for the guest(s) of honor. The manager who can couch rejection in terms that serve the guests’ interests is turning a negative into a positive in order to keep restaurant guests happy.

Feel Their Pain

An effective manager finds a way to convey empathy and concern for the guest who can’t find what he wants, even when it seems impossible. Imagine it: the dining room is jammed packed, and the kitchen is rockin’ and rollin’ on one of the busiest nights of the year. Your reservation list has been booked for weeks, and a walk-in guest wants to complain that a table is not immediately available.

The effective manager has to find a way to convey empathy and concern, even where there are ten other pressing needs, even when the simple question of an open table for a walk-in seems ludicrous. Managers should practice finding empathy and concern from within – with pursed lips, shrugging shoulders, and head-shaking disappointment. The alternative – trying to manufacture the response during a busy moment – doesn’t always work.

Many guests need to absorb the sense that management cares for their misfortune when the answer is “no”. It’s important to express regret before moving on. The goal is to encourage guests to ask another question at another time, and not be turned off by the experience of being rejected.

Anticipate Conflicts to Avoid Them

This is especially important with gift cards, special offers, promotions, and special events. Restrictions that are spelled out on promotional items, coupons, and websites anticipate the potential for conflicts. A common example for many restaurants is holiday restrictions for coupons, which should be spelled on the language of the coupon or website from which it was purchased. Failing to do so can put a manager in a bad spot by forcing him to invent creative ways to say “no” over and over again. Some precise and concise printed restrictions can save plenty of time and hassle by forcing guests to see the writing on the wall (or on the coupon).

Using the Word “No”

There are a few words in business that have bad connotations, and none is worse than “no”. It should be avoided at all costs, and only used when being straightforward meets a sympathetic answer. The goal is to turn it into something positive, and to apologize if nothing else works.