Ask a Bartender: How Do You Deal With Difficult Customers?

Ask a Bartender

You ask, they answer.

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Cricket Nelson of The Broken Shaker in Miami

Customers who want "a gin drink... No, maybe whiskey... No, you decide." The drinker who won't leave his neighbor alone. The drinker who's just had one (or five) too many.

There's all sorts of bad behavior in bars, and it's the ladies and gentleman behind said bar who are the first line of defense, keeping patrons in line. We asked bartenders across the country: How do you deal with the most difficult customers? Here's what they had to say.

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Bill Anderson of Vie in Western Springs, IL

"I've found that difficult guests tend to have an area of expertise—be they talented in interruption, condescension, foul language, etc.—so avoiding their strong suit can save you your soul. If a interrupter asks a question, just keep it short, yes-no if possible. Condescension calls for more eye contact than normal and fearless service." — Bill Anderson (Vie)

"I have quite a few interesting spirits, ingredients, tools, toys, techniques and even a couple gags behind my bar. If I get the feeling that a guest does not want to engage with me I will quickly turn the tables. I'll start to work on something I think they might find curious; around 90% of the time, they begin to engage with me. I find if people see you are passionate about what you do, they really open up even if they wouldn't usually." — Dave Porcaro (Bigalora Wood Fired Grill)

"Kill them with kindness." — Nate Howell (Jsix)

"I try to be gracious and polite at all times, but I am also not afraid to say no when the situation requires it... and a firm no can still be said politely!" — Cricket Nelson (The Broken Shaker)

"Most of the time difficult customers are impatient customers. For example: I explain to them, that if they want just a Jack & Coke and want it fast, then they might be at the wrong place. Some people still just don't get it, or think they are the only person that is important. So then I simply make the feel a bit disparaged, by asking them where they got their manners and how were they raised; sometime I'll go as far as asking them, 'How would you like it if I waved my hand in your face?.' All of this is always polite, fair, strict, and with a big ole' smile." — Christian Sanders (Evelyn Drinkery)

John Cummins of The Dawson Lounge in Dublin

"I'm not polite with people who are rude. They don't deserve my time. Luckily I don't tend to deal with difficult customers too much. It's only the rude ones that annoy me." —John Cummins (The Dawson Lounge)

"When people need a little bit of love, I just give them some. Seriously. Just take a deep breath, and remember to be polite and professional." — Jason Eisner (Gracias Madre)

"I start out very polite, but if someone insists on being a jerk, I can get strict with them. If I get to that point, their friends usually realize what's happening and try to help me out." — Josh Berner (Poste Moderne Brasserie)

"I always choose to focus on the good in the room. Sometimes, no matter how polite or fun you try to be there's a small percentage of people bent on being miserable. It's important not to let them kill the energy of the space or staff. However it's important to make sure difficult people don't have an issue they aren't communicating well—like they don't love their drink, or want a different table. Those things are easy to recover from and save the relationship. People appreciate it when you take steps to fix a situation on their behalf. Basically, we have to check our egos and keep smiling." — Meaghan Dorman (Raines Law Room)

"Patience is certainly a virtue and, with few exceptions, all patrons merit that kind of treatment. That said, I can be short and to the point but I generally get away with it because I'm from Brooklyn originally and folks, hearing my accent, often perceive my 'stings' as entertaining. Smiling goes a long way here too!" — Michael Lazar (Hog and Rocks)

"It's important to use language that sounds natural and conversational, not robotic and rehearsed. That being said, these days some guests are well trained in the art of complaining and that is when you really have to rely on instinct and improvisation." — Beau du Bois (The Corner Door)

"If you catch someone on a bad day sometimes it's best to keep your interactions short and sweet. Above all else, always be polite and don't give the guest any more fuel to the fire." — Jeff Faile (Iron Gate, Red Apron, Birch & Barley)


Chris Burkett of Cusp Dining & Drinks in San Diego

"I tend not to take anything personally and try to see their perspective, no matter how ridiculous it may seem." — Chris Burkett (Cusp Dining & Drinks)

"You catch more bees with honey. There a so many types of 'difficult' customers. Most of them are mistaken for being difficult, when they simply like things a specific way.  I always try to break through their defenses, and let them know we are on their side and part of the solution." — Jason Lakow (Amali)

"Overly-intoxicated people are rarely easy to deal with, so that's when I become an elementary school teacher. Never worth it to argue with a drunk person, so if they can't seem to reason with me, I make sure they're either on their way out, or enjoying a tall glass of water. Sometimes a customer just wants to vent and project their anger from the week on their bartender, and in that case I'll usually kill them with kindness and comfort." — Kevin Dowell (Foreign Cinema)

"Direct eye contact, a genuine smile and an honest effort to make them happy can turn a bad situation into a loyal customer." — Holly Hart (A.G. Kitchen)

"I always try to be polite.  That customer could be having a crap day and I might not even know it.  If it's a hotel guest, most times I don't know them on a personal level so I try to see where they are coming from and get them to come down.  If it's a regular I treat them like a friend.  As bartenders we are like boozy psychologists.  We are there to entertain, listen and understand." — Brian Means

"When I get a customer that is trying to test my patience, I usually give just enough information that's required, make a small joke, and move on to the next customer.  If someone is being simply indecisive, I take control and make him or her a cocktail based on his or her spirit of choice. It hasn't failed me yet. " — Tommy Shani (Upstairs at the Kimberly Hotel)


Elizabeth Powell of Liberty Bar in Seattle

"How I deal with difficult guests varies depending on the degree of difficult: spectacularly difficult people get the stern, but fair, Sgt. Powell. Lesser degrees of difficult are handled with the polite Epow." — Elizabeth Powell (Liberty Bar)

"There are the people that are just hard to please, maybe want more attention than you can realistically give, and you do the best that you can. The other end of the spectrum is the drunk crazies, and fortunately I've gotten to a place in my career where I encounter them extremely rarely. One time, years ago, I was working alone at a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the only patron was a guy that was significantly larger than me, walking in circles and talking to himself. He asked me for another beer and, somehow, I convinced him that I had already done last call (though it was 9:30 pm). He said that he was sorry for keeping me and left. The lesson is, think on your feet, every situation is different." — Rene Hidalgo (Lantern's Keep)

"I try to always put myself in their shoes. If someone just doesn't understand and doesn't dig what we do it's all good, I do what I can to make them happy and move on. When someone is getting out of line--particularly when they start trespassing on other guests' freedoms--that's when I will come down a little harder. " —Mike Ryan (Sable)

"I work in a very unique bar where the customers are literally behind the bar with you. At this point I have become used to it, as you always have to be unfailingly polite, but there are times you have to be a little stern. For instance, if you speak to them in a nice manner and give them a 'C'mon, dude' look, they usually get the hint. If someone doesn't want to behave, so be it—that's what my doorman is for." — Sean Still (Mercadito Chicago)

"Sometimes people are just negative and they are going to stay that way. I've been tending bar too long to just let somebody run over me, but being in a professional environment I have one hand tied behind my back dealing with them. Mostly, I just keep it short and don't give them any attention. I wouldn't go as far as to suggest actively ignoring them, I just may forget they're there and drop the check unsuspectingly! " — Christopher Longoria (1760)

"If someone is being especially specific or if they require extra attention, I think there is a fine balance that must be met. They should be attended to, but not at the expense of ignoring your other patrons. I do not tolerate guests who harass other people at my bar." — Steve Yamada (Bar R'evolution)