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Learn 4 ways to handle customer complaints

As a restaurant owner, you’ve made a huge commitment to start your own business and fulfill a lifelong dream or passion. Despite all your efforts, complaints are inevitable - even at the best-rated restaurants.

While it can be upsetting to hear customers say hurtful, maybe even inaccurate, things about your business, how you handle a customer complaint is a critical component in the long-term success of your restaurant.

“The response is as much for the rest of the public reading the complaint as it is for the original customer,” says Leslie Pave, BusinessBlocks coach and consumer marketing expert with over 20 years of experience helping restaurant, food/beverage and lifestyle brands. “When you respond to any type of feedback, consider how you can convert a protestor into a customer, a customer into an advocate and an advocate into a brand ambassador through every message.”

Whether it happens on a site such as Yelp, Facebook or in-person, common complaints from restaurant eaters range from impolite servers, slow service, noisiness, dirty utensils or table, feeling rushed to finish or leave and overall quality and value.

Part of great customer service is knowing how to deal effectively and quickly with customer complaints. Here are 4 tips to help you resolve guest complaints.

1) Collaborate with your team members to craft the best response.

Whether it’s the owner, general manager or hostess who is responding, every person should use the same strategy and empathetic voice, so it’s consistent every time. It can be tempting to take only the minimal action necessary to address the complaint, but it’s crucial to let your customer know that you understand, care and genuinely want to make things right.

Here are a few examples to help put it in context:

Review A:

"Food was underwhelming, poorly executed with lower end, cheaper ingredients...Wouldn't return, wouldn't recommend.”

Response A
"I am sorry to hear that it was not an amazing meal for you. Please let me know which ingredients you found to be low quality, as I source only the highest quality ingredients I can find. I will certainly look into any issues a particular vendor might be having. Low quality ingredients are unacceptable here. I can be reached directly at (insert email address or phone number). Thank you for your feedback.”

Review B:
"Ordered our food. 20 minutes later another group sits down next to us. 20 MORE minutes later they get THEIR food. I was getting hungry and asked if my food was on the way. The waiter completely forgot to bring it out to me and apologized because it shouldn't have taken that long. I just ended up leaving because of the rude service and they totally forgot about me.”

Response B
“Dear (guest name), We are so sorry that happened to you. This was poor service on our part. Please contact me directly, so I can immediately address this with my staff and see if there might be something we can do to make it up to you - if you are willing to give us another try. Either way, we greatly appreciate hearing about this issue. Even once is too much.”

2) Remain neutral.

Many businesses still live by one philosophy: the customer is always right, but others aren’t always keen to playing it nice every time. When a guest presents you with a complaint, don’t fire back and allow the situation to get out of control. Stay neutral and let the customer know that it’s your number one priority to provide the best dining experience and apologize to them for any inconveniences.

3) Lay out a solution. From here, you can offer a free meal and let them know you’ll address their concerns right away. Ideally, you’re not making so many mistakes that you’re giving away free meals constantly - then you have a bigger problem than not. If the customer is not satisfied with your initial response, always request to take the conversation offline - email or phone, so the situation can be diffused.

4) Don’t engage more than necessary. Sometimes if you respond in any way, it could inflame the situation even more because some critics just want to say what they want to say. In some cases, you’re creating the opportunity for them to get the conversation going by responding. It’s beyond unprofessional to engage in any type of back-and-forth with a customer over their experience.

But there are two instances when you should and can delete posts of this nature: 1) any profane, slanderous or offensive posts and 2) posts by displeased customers who stage a protest and/or hijack posts with their grievances.

“One of my clients’ customers was unhappy about something and posted a Facebook review one morning,” Pave says. “He posted another worse review with personal insults and swearing a few hours later, and got all of his friends, most of whom had not dined at the restaurant, to also leave 1-star reviews. We made our first attempt to publicly defuse the situation, but only inflamed the customer more.

“We responded one more time with, ‘Again, this is not the experience we want any of our customers to have. We are sorry this happened to you and some of our other valued guests. We will be discussing it at our manager's meeting and making changes. We understand you are upset, and customers are welcome to air their grievances in a constructive manner on our Facebook page, but may not use our page to escalate those grievances or be offensive. We appreciate you bringing this to our attention. You are most welcome to contact us offline so we can discuss it further and try to remedy the situation.’”

Had he continued with his rant publicly, the restaurant should have blocked him from its page and reported him to Facebook directly. The owner never heard from him again, and the customer’s review is no longer on the restaurant’s Facebook page - either he or Facebook took it down.

In a case like this, Pave recommends to disengage because chances are, they’re not your target customer, and you don’t want to warrant any more time and attention to the matter. 

5) Learn from the situation.

As mentioned earlier, customer complaints happen more often than not. Once you politely respond, do your research to get to the bottom of the issue and focus on fixing the process, so it doesn’t happen again. This is one of many reasons why it’s essential to train restaurant staff on how to respond appropriately to complaints and empower them to offer resolutions.

“Waitstaff, especially those who work part-time for extra cash, don’t necessarily have hospitality skills,” Pave suggests. “It’s the owner’s job to teach that. It’s important to have procedures and training that clearly outline how to handle customers in various situations. ‘If you’re slammed with tables or encounter an upset customer, here are the things we do.’”  

Ultimately when a customer makes a complaint, it’s an opportunity to leverage the situation to build a deeper relationship with your customer.