If you're having a hard time making customers happy and you can't quite put a finger on why, the people behind a New York City restaurant may have some insight for you.

A decade ago, the restaurant served the same number of daily customers as today. Over the years, they'd added staff and reduced the number of menu items, which should have made the place more efficient. Yet, the manager wrote in the rants and raves section of Craigslist: "One of the most common complaints on review sites against us and many restaurants in the area is that the service was slow and/or they needed to wait a bit long for a table."

(The original post has been deleted from Craigslist, but you can find an archive here.)

Let's go to the videotape

Trying to figure things out, they reviewed old surveillance videos dating back 10 years. Watching 45 customer transactions from a July 2004 video, they found that the average transaction length--from the time customers sat down until the time they paid for their meal and left--was 1 hour and 5 minutes:

  • Three of 45 customers asked to switch tables.
  • Customers spent an average of 8 minutes deciding what to order.
  • Their food came out within an average of 6 minutes.
  • Two out of 45 customers sent their food back for one reason or another.
  • At the end of the meal, customers asked for their checks and paid within 5 minutes.

However, another video from July 2014 showed a different story--one in which transactions took an average of 1 hour and 55 minutes (50 minutes longer).

  • Eighteen out of 45 customers asked to switch tables.
  • Customers took an average of 21 minutes deciding what to order--most of which they spent taking photographs, using their smartphones, and interacting with waitstaff (often to ask for help connecting to Wi-Fi).
  • As in 2004, food began to arrive 6 minutes after ordering.
  • Then, 30 out of 45 customers took photographs rather than begin eating, either of the food or of each other. Nine of 45 customers sent their food back to reheat, and still more asked their waiters to take group photos.
  • Customers took 20 minutes longer after they were done eating to ask for the check, "[g]iven in most cases the customers are constantly busy on their phones," and "once the check was delivered it took 15 minutes longer than 10 years ago for them to pay and leave."
  • Finally, 8 of 45 customers bumped into other people because they were texting while walking on the way out of the restaurant.

Giving new meaning to the term, "waiter"

Is that it then? Smartphones are destroying our businesses? Granted, we should probably take these numbers with a grain of salt, as they're based on an Internet complaint, but since I checked my phone about 10 times even while writing this column, I'm going to put some stock in it.

Regardless of what industry you work in, you know that the Internet--and now the mobile Internet--has transformed it. Customers can check your competitors' prices instantly, decide whether to give you business based on what other people have said about you online, and redeem coupons and special deals seconds before they enter your business.

Yet it seems that technology might actually be doing something else--making customers more self-centered, and unintentionally but almost reflexively inconsiderate. That's a problem--and just about the only good news is that for true entrepreneurs, problems are always opportunities.

Want to read more, make suggestions, or even be featured in a future column? Contact me and sign up for my weekly email.