How Great Restaurants Handle Tough Customer Complaints

12June 2021

Ever wondered how great restaurants handle challenging customer complaints? They do it with mastery, skill and aplomb that marks them as maestros.

Great restaurants handle tough customers with a tremendous skill they have honed over long periods plus a healthy dose of pragmatism.

Here are six tactics restaurants employ to resolve customer-related issues.

    1. Not Over-talking
    2. Understanding The Customer’s Perspective
    3. Not Apportioning Blame
    4. Remaining Polite and Professional
    5. Taking Responsibility
    6. Showing Empathy

Read on to find out exactly how these tactics get used.

Introduction – How Great Restaurants Handle Tough Customer Complaints

“The customer is always right” is an expression that can be challenging for restaurant staff to accept, despite hearing it often. 

Imagine a customer calling a manager over to complain that the waiter has made a mistake with their order, only to have the waiter read the order back to the customer, showing them that he had made no mistake?

I believe the customer is not always right, but it’s in the interest of everyone to act as if they are.

But how do restaurant staff engage with customers that “are always right” even though they often clearly aren’t?


Restaurant Mistakes

Is it the restaurant’s job to satisfy a customer’s order according to what they thought they ordered when you’ve shown they made a mistake? 

On the face of it, no, but practically, yes. Customers don’t set out to make mistakes, and neither do restaurants. Yet happen they do. 

Restaurants have a greater incentive to avoid mistakes because, unfortunately, errors often mean a loss of revenue. It means a loss of money and a potential loss of customers, which is of far greater value than a one-off loss of income.

Naturally, then businesses seek to reduce them.

Mistakes Don’t Just Happen – They Get Caused.

Difficult situations can quickly arise within a noisy, bustling, lively restaurant. It’s sometimes easy, for example, to mishear what someone says. 

Tempers can sometimes flare when things go wrong. Still, capable restaurants will have seen it all, from simple mistakes (ones they make or their customers) to deliberately belligerent individuals. 

Either way, mistakes get made for a variety of reasons.

And when running a restaurant, when dealing with customers, the goal is always to resolve issues quickly.

There is no definitive way to handle every complaint, and it can be challenging for everyone always to get things right.

Q. So, how does a business handle these kinds of situations?

A. Swiftly, while allowing the customer to save face

A typical Tough Customer Scenario

“Suppose, one busy evening, the manager hears a very vocal customer complaining loudly and hysterically that she has just seen something move perhaps within her salad.

Or maybe she publicly displays a strand of hair she had just taken from her salad, signalling that the restaurant might have a hygiene problem.”

An experienced manager would swiftly take the plate and hand it to a nearby waiter to limit the commotion. Similarly, they’d take the hair in a napkin and remove it quickly from sight.

Such swift action prevents nearby trigger-happy social-media-savvy guests from making the situation far worse for the restaurant by spreading the incident far and wide in an instant.

Even more importantly, both courses of action bring forward when the restaurant can handle the issue.

1- The Next Actions Become Significant While Resolving Issues

Any manager, worth their salt, so to speak, realises that the next most helpful act they should take after a customer has complained would be to stop the customer from complaining further.

The experienced manager would make eye contact with the customer and apologise for the mishap, perhaps after apologising. 

Then he would ask the customer to explain what he could do to put the situation right. But, of course, one advantage of this is to avoid spoiling the remainder of the customer’s occasion!

2- All Perceptions Matter, While Resolving Issues

With the plate safely removed to the kitchen, and the customer thinking about how they can make things better, the restaurant management seems to the customer, and other guests, to value their custom while accepting that things sometimes go wrong. 

At this critical time, an astute waiter will be resetting the table to its perfect state. Customers and other visitors then see how much effort businesses spend putting things right for customers. 

Apart from replacing the cutlery, a waiter may be ready to top-up wine glasses and remove unnecessary or finished-with table items. Resetting the table is about getting prepared for whatever comes next.

After the customer has been made happier, with perhaps a replacement meal or something else at the management’s discretion, the restaurant has shown they are accustomed to handling awkward situations.

They know nearby customers will pick up on the minor disagreements in a heartbeat.

3- Actively Listening to Customers, While Resolving Issues

Restaurant owners, well used to handling people, know that listening to what people complain about is crucial. Let’s face it. 

Complaints provide possibilities for improvement, but being closed most of the time to criticism, we miss the opportunities buried deep in complaints.

Another thing. Speaking with and hearing what your customers say makes the best sense if you can do so in private, especially if the place is crowded and noisy.

However, privacy may not always be possible but know that, without the requisite privacy, you may open yourself to a dressing down in public from customers. And which self-respecting business owner wants that? 

You’d be astounded at how many conversations occur with neither person listening to the other. Listening is crucial because you cannot lock in on your customer’s words and extract the semantics and context from them without it. 

Only by hearing and listening can you make real headway towards fixing issues.

6 Tactics Restaurant Owners Use to Achieve Early Resolutions

1- Avoiding Over-talking

If you’ve seen people arguing, you’ll notice that people often speak over each other. If you’re seeking a quick resolution to an issue avoiding over-speaking your customer is a must. 

Everyone concerned hates it, and the conversation’s direction is often unclear. Over-talking each other typically makes the situation worse.

2- Understanding The Customer’s Perspective

Customers could do well to realise that a good restaurant will, in any crisis, focus primarily on resolving the issue from their viewpoint. Also, they may not spend as much time as customers prefer detailing the problem.

After all, they have a restaurant to run.

3- Not Apportioning Blame

Resolving issues quickly and efficiently requires that you avoid apportioning blame. And that’s irrespective of who is to blame; passing blame prolongs negative situations. 

Restauranteurs know that they’ve got much better things to do than argue.

4- Remaining Polite and Professional

It should be unnecessary to say that you should always remain polite and calm. Apart from sending the right message, it shows your professionalism overall and that of your trained staff.

I say trained because some customers have the knack of severely testing everyone’s resolve and training is essential to keep everyone in character.

5-Taking Responsibility

When seeking an early resolution, take responsibility for it. Own the situation rather than letting it get out of hand. 

It takes skill, diplomacy and tact to find a way that satisfies both the customer and the restaurant, and whenever you do it, you should be proud as it is often tough to please people.

6- Showing Empathy

A little empathy goes a long way – Anyone used to working through customer issues will know the importance of making it clear to customers that you, too, would be upset if something similar happened to you.

It allows angry people to move forward when you explain that you’d feel the same pain in a similar situation.

However much you demonstrate empathy or show you understand customers’ frustration, experienced waiters or managers will always steer the conversation towards getting an early resolution.

From a customer’s perspective, let us look at restaurant users’ most common problems. 

16 Most Common Problems People Encounter In Restaurants 

    1. A long wait to be seated
    2. A long wait to make your order
    3. Being over-charged for food not ordered
    4. Incorrect quantities of food wrong arriving at the table
    5. All meals ordered do not come simultaneously, so the group cannot eat together.
    6. Getting charged for items not received or ordered
    7. Extra unordered food (dish perhaps mixed with another order)
    8. Unable to catch the eye of the waiter 
    9. Receiving food that’s not as expected
    10. Having received food that seems bland
    11. The meal got concluded, but customers did not receive all the food they ordered
    12. Inattentive staff
    13. Brusque staff
    14. A long wait to receive the bill
    15. A long wait to pay the bill
    16. Size of food portions not apparent, leading to over-ordering or under-ordering

Bend over backwards?

But you may still be wondering, “why bend over backwards for customers that are sometimes so clearly in the wrong”?

So one obvious question is, “what does it mean to be wrong?” Beyond ego, what benefit is there to gain from having it out publicly with any customer? 

Genuine Mistakes Get Made

The customer may have made a mistake while ordering without realising until the meal arrived. Owners also know that they, too, sometimes make mistakes.

Also, while arguing with anyone, customers or otherwise, you’re unavailable to run your business. You are not in a position to delight any customers that may need you.

Consequently, your business may miss out on future relationships that don’t get forged with you. 

Few things are as simple as they first appear. Sometimes, people only hear or understand part of what they hear or sometimes see.

Unfortunately, by prolonging any altercation in a restaurant, you’re increasing the risk of those partial perceptions by other customers going against you as the owner. 

The Smartphone Is Now An Effective Tool

And, with the proliferation of smartphones and social media, those inaccurate perceptions can spread around the globe in a heartbeat. And, as emotional creatures, we often skip the negatives when presented with negatives (subject or otherwise, correct or false).

Using the smartphone for writing negative reviews is why reputation management has become so important.

Remember that sometimes partial videos may miss the build-up to an incident; thus, the context gets lost, leaving people to judge you unfairly. 

No Long-term Impact

A little thought will show that if a business is concerned about its long-term future, dwelling on or dragging out common misunderstandings will not aid it in the long term. 

When individuals who typically work close to the customers fail to act in the long term, it sends the wrong message to nearby guests. 

Being fickle, we unfairly judge and no professional business will be satisfied with this, especially when working hard to give customers the best times of their life.

Business As Usual, Despite Mistakes

Top-class restaurants make no explicit apologies for situations described earlier, and handling customer issues is essential. But unfortunately, for many restaurants, this is business as usual.

They know that similar problems will always crop up. So they adopt a “resolve early” method as the best way to handle issues overall, knowing that their most important task is to prevent the situation from escalating out of hand.  

5 Ways Restaurants Resolve Customer Issues

Restaurant owners will use these techniques to help resolve your issue if you’re a disgruntled customer.

    1. Compensate you with a complimentary drink or food
    2. Invite you back on another occasion for another chance to put things right
    3. Give you something to use in the future – voucher, coupon
    4. Treat you especially nice
    5. Offer you their business card for the next time you are in the area

Setting the Scene:  Imagine this, though and consider how it might affect how customers engage with you. 

Summary – How Great Restaurants Handle Tough Customer Complaints

There are no set ways to resolve issues, and established restaurants will naturally do some of the following to put you at ease and welcome you to their establishment:

    1. Showing that you appreciate their custom.
    2. Smiling genuinely with customers as they arrive.
    3. Engaging in conversations early on with customers.
    4. Injecting a little humour as customers come.
    5. Be playful with children as they enter your restaurant.
    6. Ensuring that customers get the attention they need when they need it.
    7. Meeting people’s expectations. 
    8. Actively listening to customers.
    9. Showing empathy when it’s necessary.

These all go a long way towards how people will treat you when things go wrong, as they sometimes do. While not guaranteed, such pre-meal behaviour by the owners can shape how people treat you.

So on the face of it, “customers may, in reality, not always be right”, but for your business, they are!

Luckily, you now better understand how great restaurants handle challenging customer complaints.

If you agree or disagree, let me know in the comments below.

Don McDonald

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