Handling Customer Complaints

Remorse, sympathy, compassion. Some people exude these qualities naturally. Let’s just say others do not. Like many restaurant managers, I fall in the latter category. Most restaurant managers did not enter the business to handle guest dissatisfaction. In fact, most restaurant operators fail to consider this essential aspect of running a restaurant until it happens; until there you are, addressing a guest with a hair in his or her food that looks suspiciously like that of the guest. Or, you’re in front of a guest who is swearing to you that his or her halibut cannot be fresh-caught, his or her steak is cannot be prime, or his or her menu did not say the lobster was this expensive.

However, no aspect of restaurant management has changed more in the last ten years than handling guest complaints. The proliferation of websites acting as a forum for guest response puts the power in the hands of the guest as never before. It’s that simple and it’s in every industry. A few unpleasant guest responses online can undermine a substantial portion of your hard work. A recent development in this business is the presence of sites that reward feedback in the form of points or gifts, in which guests are enticed to review their meal like a professional critic, and their opinion is taken as fact by potential new customers. More than a few savvy, regular diners use sites like Rewards Network, Trip Advisor, Yelp and Open Table as their venue for personal statements on the merits of a business—in some cases receiving incentives for doing so—with only a few episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares as their qualifications.

A few positive guest reviews are great. But what do you do about complaints when they are scathing, widely viewable, and patently wrong? This has happened to the best restaurants, and I encourage you to view the forums on any of the above sites for your favorite establishment. You might find—as I recently have—a guest whose day was ruined at a well-known upscale chophouse by a bartender who can’t make a proper pina colada. Or a guest who concludes that nobody should ever dine at a restaurant because the server failed to sufficiently smile when greeting the table during his or her recent visit.

There is no handbook for handling guest complaints in the restaurant industry. Believe me, I’ve looked. Writing this handbook is my million-dollar idea, and I would begin writing it if I knew where to start. The key for me has been relentless trial-and-error, with a strong emphasis on the error. There were days not long ago when a guest complaint in your building could be laughed at and when a fault-finding comment card could be tossed in the trash. A friend in the business with an eye for grammar recently recounted an episode in which he corrected the English of a scathing personal letter in red marker and sent the letter back to the guest with a low letter grade and a sad face. Needless to say, those blissful days have ended.

First, a note on handling guest complaints in your building: make it right, no matter what. Here is a formula that works: remorse + nod + remorse + nod + remorse…. Different people have different philosophies and the needs of your business will most likely dictate yours. But the best responses involve making it right while the guest is in the building, finding a way to share a smile, and sincere thank yous (no matter how insincere they really are). They also involve comps, gift cards, follow-ups and personal correspondences in subsequent days. There is no substitute for getting out in front of the problem, being present in the dining room, and going to great lengths to get it right. The best floor managers turn guest complaints into opportunities—chances to demonstrate to the guest just how far the restaurant will go to ensure the guest’s ultimate satisfaction.

Now, about those online complaints. Once again, the needs of your restaurant will likely dictate your guest philosophy regarding complaints. However, not too many stores can afford to be flippant about online complainers (for what it’s worth, the ones that can and address them accordingly online can be very entertaining to read). The first step is to never let a bad review be the first item a potential guest can see. Find someone to place a positive one above it (your spouse, a loved one, or just do it yourself). Sure, it’s shady. But anything to avoid that negative first impression. The second step is to respond to the bad review. If your side of the story is logical, reasonable and right, don’t be afraid to tell it. Most customer review sites allow for management rebuttal. A thoughtful, well-crafted, concise response can alienate the bad review. The third step is personal correspondence with the disaffected guest. Establish the practice of making it right with your guests and complaints will slowly diminish.

In the end, complaints are an inevitable part of the restaurant business. Towns in which word-of-mouth is the best marketing available place a huge emphasis on getting out in front of complaints. Setting aside time and money to handle complaints the right way can be a royal pain. However, it can also yield long-term benefits that are invaluable for nearly every restaurant operator.