Hoss's Steak and Sea House, located in Duncansville, Pa., prides itself on its customer orientation, but it was stumped on how to reduce the most frequent complaint on comment cards: The steak wasn't cooked the way the customer wanted it.

Grilling the chef wasn't the answer. According to Kay Cheskey, director of service training, the real problem was variation in customer perception. The kitchen's perception of medium-rare would never match that of every customer. Cheskey's solution: identify the perception mismatch earlier in the service process. As soon as a meal is brought to the table, servers are now trained to ask, "Would you like to cut into your steak to see if it's prepared the way you like it?" rather than waiting several minutes before asking, "Is everything okay?"

This small change makes a big difference, according to Cheskey. The sooner a problem is identified, the more likely a customer will be satisfied. Many customers feel uncomfortable complaining about a meal that's been in front of them for several minutes, and if they do, they end up eating a recooked meal after their companions have finished. By asking the question immediately, the server makes it easier to request a change, resulting in the customer's being able to eat recooked food several minutes sooner. This tactic sends a message to guests that the restaurant is serious about customer satisfaction.

"Customer reaction has been positive," says Cheskey. "Guests view it as an added service, not an interruption. A significant number of customers use the comment cards to say 'thanks for asking,' and the number of complaints has dropped."

Copyright 1997 G+J USA Publishing