April 18, 2014 6:38 pm

Meet the Tutters

‘Is it the food? The service? This audible punctuation of exasperation by a special breed of customer has a surprising explanation’
Illustration by Richard Allen of tutters©Richard Allen

It’s probably because I had a long and undistinguished career in marketing before I took over a restaurant that I have an abiding fascination with the behaviour of customers. I tend to group them into demographic or behavioural “segments”, the better to work out their motivations and meet their needs. To this end, I try to spend time in the dining room, interrogating the floor staff for insights that might improve things.

Recently, a waitress pointed out an entirely new kind of customer. He stood at the front desk, smartly dressed, accompanied by a woman who was showing all the signs of having submitted to a life of low-level public embarrassment. His face was locked in a moue of disapproval.

“This one’s a Tutter,” said the waitress.

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Tim Hayward

She greeted the couple, walked them across the room and offered them a choice of three tables. He havered, tutted and, finally, sat. Twenty seconds later, he’d exchanged places with his wife. Throughout the meal, he greeted each course and every interaction with staff with the same audible punctuation of exasperation.

At the end of the meal, I went to present the bill. “Was everything OK?”

“Really wonderful,” he gushed, an enormous beam of joy on his face.

I was fascinated, so began to dig deeper. Tutters are amazingly common, it seems – several a day in the busy season. They never actually complain, even when solicitous staff try to find out what’s causing the undercurrent of dissatisfaction.

“In the end,” said the waitress, “you realise it’s not about you at all . . . It’s not anger . . . There’s nothing wrong with the food or service, it’s just that they can’t handle somebody else being in control.”

That observation, like many that are forged in the cauldron of high-pressure service, is remarkably perceptive. The truth is that people are used to being in control of their circumstances in a commercial transaction. The better off and better educated they are, probably the more so (which tied neatly to the waitress’s comment that “the rich ones are usually worst”). And it’s when a customer walks off the street and puts themself in the hands of a service employee that the discomfort begins to manifest itself.

Of course, dining in a restaurant is a commercial transaction. The paying customer has every right in the world to have things exactly as they would like them. And there’s no reason that catering businesses cannot meet their needs or cater to their whims with 100 per cent accuracy. There are two business models for this. One is called “three-star Michelin”, the other is called “McDonald’s”. One offers total “customer is always right” assurance, the other a product so consistent that the customer exerts control by their brand choice.

We are businesses, yes, but what we trade in is the pleasure of food. Without standardisation or formality, that’s more difficult to control. When you’re invited for dinner by a friend, for example, you relinquish control to them in every respect. They choose what you eat, the environment in which you eat it, everything down to the background music. What kind of person – outside of Come Dine With Me – would have the insensitivity to judge that experience against a personal set of “key performance indicators”?

You can control your dining experience in so far as you make the selection of your restaurant but please trust us and let us give you a great time. Achieving a balance between business and hospitality is where success lies for the restaurateur.

I feel truly sorry for the Tutter. I eat out in restaurants, at all levels, and I walk in expecting to enjoy myself. If I don’t have a good time, I tell the staff why and I don’t go back. The Tutter, as the waitress pointed out, is not enjoying himself from the minute he walks in. In fact, she noted, “He’ll only have a good night if one of us really screws up.”

It’s odd, isn’t it? With my joy in hospitality, my expectations are met most of the time and my experiences are happy. The Tutter expects failure and can never really enjoy himself unless it occurs.

Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; tim.hayward@ft.com; Twitter @TimHayward

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