How to Lose Gracefully

One mistake that too many owners in this and other industries make is alienating disgruntled clientele. The customer service industries rely on exceeding expectations, and this doesn’t always happen. However, too many managers in this business write off the failed attempts at converting customers into loyal guests without trying to win them over. In fact, there are too many managers who get mad at guests instead of trying to convert them back.

Guests typically want to experience great service. And while many times they can be over-the-top in their expectations and demands of employees, the manager who openly objects to guests is asking for trouble. At some point, the pickiest guests can cross a line, and it doesn’t take long in this business to have this experience. However, it’s always more important for managers to win in the long run than it is to be right.

The damage that a single guest can do to a business nowadays is amazing. A single guest with a negative dining experience can:

• Post negative reviews online
• Dine at competitors and talk about your restaurant
• Spread negative rumors
• Write an editorial in a local newspaper
• Tell well-connected friends and family members to avoid your business

I’ve seen each one of these things happen, and they can each create major headaches for restaurant owners.

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer

This is one of the single most important pieces of advice in the restaurant business. Most owners are competitive people who’ve worked hard to reach their position. They typically do not like being made to look foolish. Unfortunately, owners in almost every restaurant are likely to encounter the guest intent on accomplishing just that.

It is important for everyone in a position of authority to recognize the value of losing gracefully. In some cases, this means:

• Comping meals when nothing has gone wrong
• Apologizing for no good reason
• Offering coupons or other incentives to return
• Killing the guest with kindness, even one who has been exceedingly unkind

These things are no fun, and there is no training for this in the restaurant ownership brochure. It takes time, patience, and skill to lose gracefully. It really takes keeping your eyes on the prize, which isn’t won or lost in a table encounter. It’s earned over time on the profit/loss sheet.

Handling Online Reviews

Obviously, the nature of online reviews has changed completely over the last ten years, with entire industries now committed to managing a business’s online reputation. The real skills of responding to online reviews are consistency and gratitude. Unfortunately, this sometimes seems impossible, especially when the temptation to blast an impartial or untrue review is overwhelming.

The way to handle online reviews is to know what to avoid. Never be angry or vengeful, and never single out specific reviewers. Online reviews must be handled very carefully, with the best-case scenario being a diplomatic response and an invitation to return. This is one reason I would almost always advise that managers respond to online reviews individually over the phone or in person, rather than online for all the world to see.

Handling In-store Complaints

As with many aspects of restaurant management, there is no training manual for handling in-store complaints. The best ways for doing so involve empathy and apologies – and lots of both. The tendency for some managers – especially less experienced ones – is to approach the complaint as though it is a debate, especially if the manager knows in advance that the customer is wrong.

One example I’ve seen many times is with guests who fall ill during or shortly after their visit and blame it on food poisoning. The fact is that the symptoms of food poisoning do not manifest themselves for 12-24 hours after ingestion. However, I have seen instances in which the guest is sure that he is right, and that the restaurant is at fault.

In an instance such as this one, when the guest is clearly wrong, the manager must still apologize for the guest’s illness. It is not wrong to point out the fact that the guest could not have food poisoning – that it is essentially impossible. But the manager must have empathy and apologize, while pivoting the dialogue away from the role of the restaurant and toward the guest’s well-being.

The bottom line is that – while the guest isn’t always right – he cannot be made to feel wrong. The only victories at the table happen when the guest is satisfied with his experience. This is what adds up to the big-picture of restaurant management – winning the bottom line.