Handling Customer Complaints
Just about everyone working in the food service industry – restaurant owners, caterers, chefs – will at some point have to deal with unhappy customers. Customer complaints are an inevitable part of running a food-related business and the quicker you learn how to handle them, the better off you will be. Complaints are a double-edged sword: They are hard to hear (often downright painful, depending on the tone and attitude), but they can be instructive and helpful if addressed the right way. The way you relate to both the complainer and the complaint can make a big difference moving forward – for you and your business.
Customer complaints are a common thorn in the side of many business people (not just restaurateurs), as Forbes discusses in its article, “7 Steps For Dealing With Angry Customers.” But, although this type of guide can be helpful, we want to deal specifically with the food industry because the issues are unique. The National Restaurant Association addresses the sensitive subject at length, and all restaurant owners and professional caterers will benefit from checking out their advice.
Be Personally Involved
Unless you have a big enough budget to hire a public relations person to serve as an intermediary between you and your customers, the brunt of customer relations will be on your shoulders. The business is yours and you have to handle the good and the bad. These days, with online reviews all over the Internet, not all the complaints that you hear will be direct and on-site. This puts the customer in the driver’s seat as he or she doesn’t have to look you in the face and tell you that your split-pea soup is inedible or that your omelet was tasteless. On the other hand, negative online reviews have to be dealt with as assertively and swiftly as face-to-face complaints because a few bad reviews can sabotage all your hard word and efforts. (More on this later.) No matter how the criticism is reaching your ears, however, there are ways to deal with it that will allow a positive spin. Here’s how.
If a customer is complaining in your restaurant, or at an affair that you are catering, give him or her your full attention. (In the case of a caterer, the complainant could be a guest at the event, but the same principles apply.) Focus on what they are saying and allow them to finish without interruption. Don’t brush them off or hand them off to an underling; ideally, you should even be taking notes (for real!) to show that you are listening and taking them seriously. Don’t let your pride or ego get in the way of customer satisfaction. Instead, give your customers credit and believe that what they are saying is true and accurate. Don’t feign interest – that is as transparent as the wine glasses dotting your well-appointed tables.
Apologies Go a Long Way…
Apologizing to a disgruntled customer (even a rude one who tests the limits of your patience) is part of fielding a complaint. The words, “I’m sorry that you were disappointed,” will go a long way in putting out the fire and smoothing over the unpleasant situation. Nod in agreement (to show that you’re involved in the conversation) and express remorse – even livid customers will have a hard time staying angry when they are told that they are right and that they are being heard. Stay calm, even if the customer starts getting loud, and try to stay in control. When people go nose to nose in a situation like this, and tempers flare, nothing is gained and much can be lost.
… And Finger-Pointing Goes Nowhere
To keep your apology sincere, don’t start playing the blame game or pointing fingers. The only thing that matters is that the customer is happy and believes that you believe that he or she is justified. Don’t blame underlings or suppliers or the Electric Company or the weather; the buck stops with you and you have to take responsibility. Don’t get defensive (and certainly don’t be offensive!); rather, be sincere and assure the customer that you will deal with the complaint. Go so far as to thank your customer for taking the time to point out the problem (and keep any hint of facetiousness out of your voice).
Act Quickly and Ask Questions
More often than not, the complaint is first lodged with a lower-level employee: a waiter or a hostess is usually the first line of defense. After that, however, most unhappy customers will ask to see the owner or the manager. If that happens, don’t give the impression that you are inconvenienced by the complaint or that someone in your “lofty” position need not be called upon in such a situation. On the contrary: You are the owner of the restaurant or business; at some point you have to get into the pit and handle your problems personally.
To help diffuse the situation, ask the irate (or even the reasonably unsatisfied) customer what he or she suggests should change and how you can improve your service. Ask if there is anything you can do to help the customer feel better about the situation and quickly resolve the issue. By involving the client in the resolution and offering some kind of compensation at the same time, there’s a good chance cooler heads will prevail and the customer will leave with a more positive impression.
It’s not enough to put out the blaze – it’s important to understand how and why it was set, and what you can do to prevent another one. Don’t automatically assume that the complaining customer is just an annoyance that you can pacify and then forget about. Take the complaint seriously because it could identify a real problem that you can work on, which is to your benefit in the long term. Call a staff meeting to discuss the issue among yourselves. Show your staff that it matters to you what your customers think and say – and that it should matter to them, as well.
But what about those bad reviews and online complaints that don’t give you the opportunity to act, apologize, and ask questions (at least not immediately)? First, be practical – if the last review in a long list of positive reviews is the one that bashes your restaurant or business, usurp its place at the top with a more positive review written quickly by a happy patron (or loyal relative, if absolutely necessary). Second, almost every review site allows the owner of the establishment to respond to a negative review (or to thank a happy customer). Your response to a bad online review should be similar to a face-to-face review (but perhaps with less bowing and scraping). When you write online, you can think out your response and tell your side of the story at greater length without sounding defensive. If possible, try to reach out directly to the writer to establish a personal connection. In this way, there is a better chance of seeing this type of customer return to your restaurant, which is your ultimate goal.
Getting the Most Out of a Bad Situation
Sometimes our emotions get the better of us in confrontational situations, but when it comes to customer complaints that should be the exception and never the rule. More importantly, be prepared. Somehow we always expect people to like us and to appreciate what we offer; unfortunately that’s not the case. Follow the simple steps above and your restaurant and business will weather the storm of an unhappy customer and sunny days will be the norm.