SERVICE: Smile, even when customers are rude

Oct. 2, 2005

A delivery customer peeks into the pizza box, frowns and barks, "I didn't order this!"

A diner shoves his food back toward the waiter and says gruffly, "This isn't right! Fix it!"

With phones ringing all around her, the order taker asks a customer if she can hold for a moment, but the woman says, "Forget it!" and hangs up.


Paul Paz

all been there, been treated just like that — and will again if we remain in the foodservice industry for any length of time. Having someone treat your rudely is tough; if bad enough, it sends your guts lurching like an off-balance washing machine.

But if we want customers to come back — even rude ones whose money does pay our bills — we choke back the urge to retaliate, put on a happy face and maneuver to the next challenge. Simply put, the phrase, "fake it until you make it," sums up much of what we must do to serve the public over the long haul.

You'd never know it

Over the years I have observed countless customer service professionals with the uncanny ability to retain a genuine sense of hospitality under stress, people who embody the notion of grace under pressure. One of my associates credited his "turn it on, then turn it off" skill to his grandmother, who could project civility amid chaos. When the phone would ring in her house, she would yell to all within earshot, "When I pick up this phone, I don't want to hear a peep out of anybody!" She'd then snatch up the receiver and — while glaring at everyone with "dagger eyes" — cheerfully answer, "Heelllooo!" Not even a hint of the distress surrounding her was apparent in her voice.

The same applies when we're in the midst of the rush, pizzas are flowing out of the ovens and customers are clamoring for attention. The service skills of the professional must include self-control so well maintained under stress or pressure that one can say or do the right thing despite the desire to do otherwise.

As I travel the country training and speaking, I'm commonly asked, what can be done about customers who are mean spirited and/or unreasonable?

I'm sure I disappoint some when I answer, "We are not in the business of correcting people behaving badly. Unless the customer is breaking the law or threatening others, they are nothing more than an occupational hazard."

However that's not to say challenging customers are not distressful and disruptive. One of the deepest-held human needs is to be appreciated, so when someone treats us rudely when we are doing our personal best, the pain can hurt. It is particularly uncomfortable when we're "on-stage," such as in the middle of the dining room or on the porch in front of neighbors, and we're browbeaten by a churlish customer. Those situations make even the best pros wonder if it's all worth it.

Don't take it personally

We're often told, "Don't take it personally," when we're chewed out by rude customers. Though that's tough to accomplish, it's attainable. Not internalizing a customer's unwarranted criticism allows me a moment of emotional relief. It allows me to brush myself off mentally and move on to the next thing. Some techniques that help facilitate this

start quoteThe service skills of the professional must include self-control so well maintained under stress or pressure that one can say or do the right thing despite the desire to do otherwise.end quote

 include going somewhere for a few deep soothing sighs, or even a quick visit to the walk-in freezer for some energetic screaming.

And while you're relaxing or burning off some steam, consider this undeniable fact: Only a small percentage of all the people we serve are rude. If we're easily wounded by negative customers' words, we'll remember the rude ones instead of the nice ones, and that runs counter to reality; the vast majority of the people we serve are wonderful. In that 90-second cool-down period, try to think of customers who are good to you. It'll lighten your mood and remind you that -- even if you get stiffed by the jerk who just yelled at you -- the nice ones will take care of you.

Don't forget that fuming over bad customers is a choice. You have to choose to sustain a bad mood. Resolve to break your bad mood by stepping up to the next service opportunity with a fresh attitude. Yes, that means fake it 'til you make it, if you have to.

In the meantime, Make It Fun... Make It Easy... Make Some Money!

Paul Paz is a career professional waiter, hospitality consultant and author. His books on service can be found on at

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Topics: Service

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