Turning a Negative Experience into a Positive

They happen. They’re part of the business, in spite of all your efforts over the course of time. I’ve seen the most talented people in this business completely screw up, and I’ve seen a miraculous combination of events lead to a horrible guest experience. It’s the nature of the restaurant business that anything can happen. It’s an organic experience that relies on many people to go right. In fact, it should go wrong sometimes. The fact that it does should confirm that the restaurant business is a very human process. Careful management can control most of the guest experience, but mishaps are inevitable in every restaurant, all around the world.

The best-run outfits get out in front of bad experiences and turn them into positive ones. They consider mistakes an opportunity to overwhelm the guest by demonstrating how far they’ll go to make things right. In fact, the method that management uses to handle bad guest experiences is a good measure of the merit of a business’s operation. Great responses to bad situations indicate that a business is well-run, and headed in the right direction.

Addressing guest problems should be part of a restaurant’s core policies. Operators should thoroughly train managers on the fine art, and managers should rehearse until they get it right. Here are a few tips that make up great responses to bad guest experiences, and how your restaurant can turn that frown upside-down.

Get out in Front of it

The first step to addressing customer complaints is to get out in front of them as quickly as possible. The guest having a bad experience and voicing displeasure is doing management a favor. Not expressing displeasure – and walking out the door – is a recipe for never coming back. Expressing the problem gives the manager a chance to fix it, which is the opportunity he should want.

It’s important to get into the habit of dropping everything as quickly as possible to go speak with a guest who has had a bad experience. A few things in this business should immediately become priority number one – a ruptured water pipe, a broken HVAC system, and a guest with a complaint are good examples.

Many restaurants fail to do this, and they are usually chain corporate operations. The fact is that most independents need to leverage failure into opportunity as quickly as possible.

Make it an Opportunity

The very nature of the hospitality industry is to value the chance to turn a negative into a positive. Managers should quickly acknowledge the mistake and apologize for it. They should also spend the rest of the guests’ evening out working to win them over. That might mean:

  • Buying a round of drinks.
  • Comping an entrée.
  • Bringing a free dessert.
  • Spending five good minutes getting to know them.

Conversations that start with guest complaints almost always begin with stern tones and serious apologies. The ultimate goal is have guests smiling by the end of the conversation. A solid apology is quick and sincere, and it leads to a pivot, after which management works to make things right.

Be Honest

Most guests appreciate honesty and abhor falseness. Many of them have worked in this business, or a related field. Most people understand the nature of the business, though they may hate when unfortunate mistakes happen to them. A simple, shoulder shrug and a “we screwed up” may not be enough to make things right, but it’s often a step in the right direction.

Follow Up

Managers should develop a restaurant managerial style that involves always following up apologies for serious mistakes with an additional chance to make things right. Many restaurants will offer discounts or giveaways of minor items (e.g. free appetizers or desserts) as enticements to guests to return. Guests returning after bad experiences should be noted in a reservation book or to the server, so that the manager can be sure that their experience exceeds expectation.

Another tactic is to follow up with personal correspondences or emails to express remorse or explain events further. Many long-term customers have been won over by managers who aggressively work to make positive experiences out of negative ones.