Dealing with Difficult Customers: A Bartender’s Guide

by | Oct 1, 2018 | Better Bartending | 0 comments

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When I arrived for my closing shift the other night, the mid-shift bartender (as usual) gave me a quick status report.

“I gave Jim a single and a double already,” he said. “I’m not serving him anymore.”

“Is he drunk?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “I just don’t like him.”

I wasn’t surprised. I don’t like him either.

“Jim” or whatever his name is a middle aged dude who has a miraculous talent for getting on people’s nerves. He’ll get into politics or some conspiracy theory with a stranger who will then want to leave. He makes the female employees uncomfortable. He thinks he deserves special treatment because he’s a great tipper, but he isn’t and he doesn’t.

He has a few drinks, but his abrasiveness is not a product of overconsumption. It’s his nature right down to the bone.

So what should we do? Can you be eighty-sixed for excessive obnoxiousness?

Hope it’s the Drink

When a guest’s behavior is a problem, I hope it’s because of too much alcohol. We know how to deal with that. Cut them off. They’ll probably get a ride home and it’s over.

But what if it’s not because of their BAC? What they say, how they act and how they’re treating other guests is unacceptable. How do you solve this problem?

Is it your problem?

First of all, what is your job? To sell food and drinks for profit and gratuity to everyone except those who are under age or have had too much to drink already. Are you the personality police? People are people and they’re all different, right?

Yes and no. You want a place where everyone is welcome and comfortable. You want everyone to have fun, spread the word, come back and bring friends. This won’t happen if some jerk, creep, chauvinist, racist or weirdo spoils their fun.

Who do you want to come back? The troublemakers or the victims? Sometimes you have to choose.

You’re running the party here.

So who is a problem?

I have no trouble with weird or unique. I invite it and embrace it. My favorite places to hang out are unpredictable and filled with characters. I know I’ll always see, hear or experience something unexpected. I want to operate that kind of bar.

But I have a problem when weird and unique make others want to leave. That’s when weird and unique should be leaving. Some examples are:

  • The Unwanted. This is almost always a guy, but I have had to rescue a young man from a cougar attack before. One of the most common troubles in bars is when a fellow gives attention to a lady and she wants none of it. He won’t take no for an answer and keeps trying to convince her that she needs him.
  • The Third Wheel. A (probably) older man or woman gets too close to a young couple. The Wheel asks too many personal questions, gets into their relationship and follows them around. The Wheel buys drinks and eventually spoils their good time.
  • The Lobbyist. A person way too passionate about politics wants to challenge everyone’s beliefs, choices and lifestyle. Many people will stay out of the discussion, but when one Lobbyist finds another they’re like two volatile chemicals in the same beaker.
  • The Bigot. Whether it’s religion, race, sexuality or whatnot, this person is right and others are wrong. He or she seeks out others that are right to band together against those that are wrong.
  • The Regular. This person spends enough time and money at the bar that he thinks he deserves special treatment. The rules are not for him. He’s one of the insiders.

These types of people are inflammatory even when alcohol is not involved. Single handedly they can shift the tone of your party. When people scrape against them they’ll either cause an altercation or avoid them. They may avoid so aggressively they leave and don’t come back.

Then they’re telling friends about your creepy, uncomfortable, political, racist, sexist bar.

You need to nip this in the bud.

This doesn’t mean getting rid of the problem. You can have a bomb in the building after you’ve defused it. How do you disarm each explosive situation?

The Unwanted

Let’s face it: people hook up at bars. I met my wife at a bar. Social drinking is a mating ritual.

But not everyone should go home with everyone else. Say hello, start a conversation, offer a drink but if it ain’t working, drop the subject.

Here’s how I do it: I have a Little Sister Rule. Every woman, (and even some of the men), are my little sister and will be respected as such. Get it?

Maybe my little sister is strong and independent and doesn’t need any big-brothering. I need to read that or else I could offend her by stepping in. Many women can shoot down guys just fine.

I need to keep an ear on the situation, make eye contact with her often and be ready to step in. Is she young and inexperienced? Much more likely to need some intervention.

Tell The Unwanted directly what he can’t figure out on his own. She’s not interested so move on.

I’d rather have her come back than him anyway.

The Third Wheel

The Wheel can be tricky because it usually starts innocently. The Wheel wants to be a friend. Maybe she (but probably he) compliments the couple, buys a round and asks them about themselves. They’re glad to have the attention (and the drinks). There’s probably a couple decades of age difference, so the young couple doesn’t feel threatened.

But The Wheel is projecting. He has a battered relationship history behind him and is living vicariously. He sees what should have been in this couple and before long he’ll want in. He’ll see himself in the guy and his exes in her.

They’ll get more and more uncomfortable. Hopefully they’re strong enough to say no thanks to the next round and find their own space. If they’re young and naive, they won’t see the danger in this.

When you step in, change the subject. Get him talking about sports, food, weather or anything.Give the couple a chance to escape and hope they take it.

The Lobbyist

This person can’t get me into a political discussion. I don’t talk about politics, religion or war at work. I either gently divert the conversation or overtly say it’s my professional policy not to discuss it.

When football conversations turn to anthem debates, I’m out of there.

But guests debating politics amongst themselves? Go for it. A bar is a great place for friendly discussion. Someone here disagrees with you and will defend their viewpoint. Laughter is best. They say the customer is always right. Well, what if two customers disagree?

As long as it stays friendly, there’s no problem. Keep an ear on it. When tempers run too hot, voices get too loud and rebuttals get too personal, be there to intervene. You may have to say “let’s agree to disagree” or “I think you’re both right” to let some steam out of the pressure cooker. Then divert the conversation to something else.

The Bigot

I typically have a broad tolerance for various opinions, lifestyles, viewpoints and personalities. I have none when it comes to hateful talk about race, religion, sexuality, gender or any other exclusivity.

I have a special problem: I’m a clean cut white boy. I look like a lot of average caucasian citizens of America. This means those with heterosexual white supremacist views think I’m just like them. They talk around me like I’m one of them.

I’m not. My reactions reach beyond logic. As I explain to you how to rationally work your way through various bartending challenges, I’ll admit this topic gets me hot headed.

Talk like a misogynist, use the N-word, deride another’s religion, belittle homosexuals or attribute negative characteristics to skin color and I’m likely to pop off. I’ll tell you swiftly and with emphasis that it’s not accepted in here.

Yes, I want everyone to be happy in my bar and to say good things, but I have no problem if the skinhead community feels unwelcome. If this kind of patron complains to the management about me, I invite it.

The Regular

This might be the toughest challenge of them all. This person may pay a significant portion of your bills. This may be the hand that feeds you. Can you bite it?

Your regulars are very important, but not if they jeopardize the business or turn off other customers. They don’t get to cut in line, monopolize your time, hurt the bottom line or get you in trouble with the liquor board.

A regular might deserve a heavier pour, but don’t give a way drinks or wreck your pour cost over one. Remind him that if both of you don’t protect the business, it won’t be here anymore.

You and your regular know each other well and have great conversations, but you have to stick and move. Slide out of the conversation by saying: “Let me pour these folks a couple of drinks. I’ll be right back.”

And the law does not change for people just because they go to the same bar a lot. Your regulars do not get to drink more or drive drunk just because they’ve made the trip so many times. Cutting them off should actually be easier than with a stranger. You know how to talk to them. They shouldn’t want to get you or the house in trouble. You’ll be happy to see them again once they’ve slept it off. You’ll still be their friend.

 

“I have to be here, but you don’t.”

That quote I stole from another bartender who hangs out at my place. He was telling me about a political argument that got out of hand. That’s what he told them.

The bottom line is: no guest should be bad for business. I’ll tolerate all kinds of quirkiness and absurdity until it crosses that line.

If you make people want to leave the bar, you need to stop. That’s it.

It ain’t easy, but it’s the social gymnastics we’re built for and it comes with the territory.

 

About the Author: Eighty Six

Eighty Six, also known as David Klenda, has worked the front of the house since George Bush’s dad was president and OJ was famous for being a football player. He’s been writing poetry and fiction longer than that. He’ll write freelance about anything for a buck, but is so glad to be writing about something he knows and loves. Currently he is making a Spokane neighborhood dive a little more crafty.