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Bartending 101: 10 signs you're dealing with a drunk customer

As a bartender, it's important you're able to recognise when a customer is drunk, not only for their safety but also for the safety of other people. Failure to identify drunk customers, can lead to liability issues as you are legally responsible for customers in your bar.



You must be able to differentiate a drunk customer from a sober one. Alcohol-abuse costs the NHS £6bn each year alone, every month hundreds of people are taken to hospital because they've drank too much.



The legal drink-drive limit in the UK still remains the same at: 


  • 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood,
  • Or 35 microgrammes per 100 milliliters of breath
  • Or 107 milligrammes per 100 milliliters of urine.


Altogether, we have ten signs you're dealing with a drunk customer but we've split it into four areas: Appearance, Co-ordination, Reflexes and Behaviour. If you pay attention to your customers, you'll be able to spot someone who has had too much to drink before things get out of hand.


Signs in Appearance


1. Lingering smell or odour

When a customer smells of alcohol, it is a clear indication that they're drunk. Usually, you will be able to tell by the smell on their breath or their clothes. It can be difficult to tell by smell if the bar is very busy with customers and some drinks have been spilt but if you notice one particular customer smells strongly of alcohol then you should keep an eye on them. Tell your colleagues to keep an eye out for them as well.



2. Flushed cheeks

Many people who drink have a habit of getting flushed cheeks. Alcohol causes blood vessels to expand so it causes you to look flushed or look like you're blushing. 


Since getting flushed cheeks is so common, you really need to look out for other signs before you can confidently determine who is and isn't drunk. You can't stop serving every customer because they look a little flushed. 



3. Visual fatigue

A common side effect of drinking alcohol is excessive fatigue and the need to sit down. You will be able to tell someone is feeling especially tired from drinking because they will be rubbing their face and their eyes will be inflammed. Sleepy customers are ones to look out for (especially if they are on their own) as they will be particularly vulnerable to others around them, which again, you're responsible for. 


If you see a sleepy customer, you should offer a cup of coffee or even suggest they have a drink of water.



Signs in Co-ordination


4. Slurred speech

Slurred speech is one of the most common signs a person is intoxicated. Drunk customers often struggle forming words verbally and cause consonants to mix in with vowels. If you're hearing, "sometimes" become "shumtimes", "just" become "jusht", then I think you've got good reason to assume that person is somewhat drunk. If you think someone is slurring because they've drank past their limit, it might be time to stop serving them.  



5. Repetition

Whilst we're on the topic of conversation, you'll find that intoxicated customers often repeat themselves. This is usually down to a lack of co-ordination and this can hamper a speaker's sentence and wording structure - often leaving you to have the same conversation for the next 20 minutes. 


In most cases, the customer won't realise they're talking again and again about the same topic. To avoid upsetting the customer, you should let them talk. If you're busy with customers, be polite and say you will talk to them again later. As a bartender you will face many problems but it's your responsibility to look after customers. If they're repeating the same story to you, you may be able to ask if they want a glass of water to help them sober up.



6. Staggering

One of the key things to look out for with your customers is their balance. If you find a customer struggling to stand still or appears to be stumbling/staggering, then this is a sign of reduced motor co-ordination. Depending on how much alcohol has been consumed will determine how delayed or poorly coordinated their actions are.    


There are two stages to this, which varies depending on the extremity of their staggering/stumbling. If you find the customer can still stand but is struggling to, suggest to them that they sit down and have a glass of water or a coffee.


However, if the customer is unable to physically stand (or lean), you will need to make suitable arrangements for their safe journey home. Try and engage in conversation to understand if they came with anyone, before asking if they are fit enough to get home safely. If they are unwilling to co-operate or become violent, you may have to call the police to escort them home. 



Signs in Reflexes


7. Weakened sense of hearing

When dealing with a drunk customer, you'll often find that conversation quality suffers immensely due to a customer's inability to focus, causing the customer to struggle to hear you and you repeating yourself several times. Funnily enough, they always seem to hear the line, "I think you've had enough" with no trouble though. 


Remember to speak clearly and slowly, whilst maintaining eye contact to reassure the customer that you're talking to them. This will avoid them getting easily distracted and hopefully help them focus on what you're saying.  



8. Inability to count the right change

This should be an easy one to spot, as they're directly in front of you when doing it. Intoxicated customers often struggle or take considerably longer when counting out the correct change for their drinks, some may not even reach the point of having the correct change either.


If you see this, it clearly indicates the cut-off point for that customer and the easiest way to address this is politely suggesting that this drink should be their last for the evening.



image credit

Signs in Behaviour


9. Drastic mood swings

One of the most extreme symptoms of intoxication is when the customer's behaviour changes radically through the night. This can be going from overly friendly/talkative, to becoming easily irritable and aggressive, all within the space of a couple of minutes. 


If you notice sudden changes in behaviour then be cautious about how you handle the situation as you are unable to determine how they will react. Try to avoid serving them or at least reduce the amount they're drinking. Speak to your colleagues and let them know you think the customer has had too much to drink and you think they could be a hazard to themselves or others.



10. Being Overly generous 

Another sign you may notice is a particular customer being too overly generous and buying drinks for their friends and complete strangers. They may even ask to open a tab which can be annoying for a bartender because they may fail to pay for it later.


If you're facing a customer who is being overly generous then you should ask them if they're happy to pay for so many drinks, sometimes a simple question from a bartender can help them realise they're being too generous with their money. Make sure nobody is taking advantage of their situation, to be a good bartender you need to look out for your customers. As a side note, Rehab 4 Addiction is a free helpline run by people who’ve beaten drug and alcohol rehab themselves.



Make sure you're well prepared

Whilst you'll come across many staggering customers throughout your time behind the bar, ensure you're not one of them, not through alcohol intake, but because you're feet are aching. The best shoes for bartenders are slip-resistant work shoes because they provide excellent grip on wet and slippery floors.


See the styles we have on offer:




Preparing for an interview?

Being able to recognise a drunk customer is important. When you go for an interview, your interviewer will ask you to talk about your experience dealing with drunk customers. If you're preparing for a bartender interview, here are the most common questions you will be asked. Download your free guide. 


Tags: Life @ Work
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