Responding When Your Restaurant Suffers a Customer Service Blunder

by Nancy Friedman3 Min Read

How does your restaurant respond when you’re criticized by a customer? How do you react to a customer service blunder?

Whether it’s the table, or worse, on a website or on social media where the complaint goes viral and reaches an immeasurable number of people, as an owner or manager, what do you do? Do you ignore? Do you disagree? Do you instantly try to resolve a bad situation?

A complimentary fix almost always solves the immediate problem. 

Negative word-of-mouth and social media postings have ruined many a restaurant. So, to disagree or ignore a customer complaint either in the restaurant or online, is a non-starter.

So, how do you resolve a customer complaint? Here are some tips on how to solve a bad dining experience and, hopefully, retain the customer.

First and foremost, consider bringing a customer service expert to your restaurant and train your staff. From the greeter, to the waiters, to the buss staff to those in the kitchen, all your employees should be taught, in advance, how to handle an unhappy diner or a complaint. Being unprepared (winging it) for a customer complaint or service failure rarely works and almost never ends in a positive outcome.

If the complaint is over a reservation that was not honored and being seated at a table will be delayed, be honest and apologize. Reservations should be respected and if they can’t be met, make amends immediately.

If a meal takes special preparation or there is a disaster in the kitchen, be sure to tell the diners a realistic wait for their food. “It shouldn’t be long” is not realistic. Tell the truth.  A complimentary cocktail or small appetizer can make the wait go smoother.

While the customer is not always right, the customer always ‘thinks’ they are right. 

On a personal note, years ago, I complained to a manager at a Red Lobster about the poor service. Instead of apologizing and fixing the situation, he sided with the waiter and ignored my complaint. It took us nearly 20 years to go back to any Red Lobster and give them another chance.

Of course, the easiest way to resolve a complaint is offering a free drink or dinner when things go terrible wrong. Is losing a $75 dinner worth the customer never coming back?  Probably not. A complimentary fix almost always solves the immediate problem. Customers vote with their wallet.  

Listen to the complaint, make no excuses and issue an immediate apology. While the customer is not always right, the customer always "thinks" they are right. When the customer perceives you are wrong; you’re wrong.  Sometimes it’s a good idea to write down the complaint after it’s been resolved so you not only have a record of the incident and you can prevent it from happening again. Ask for another chance. Be sincere. Most customers will feel better about the dining fail if you sound and appear to be sincere. And be sure to review the mistake with your staff immediately.

If the customer takes his complaint online, Yelp for example, and writes negatively about your restaurant there are two ways to properly respond. If it’s anonymous complaint on a website or on social media, you can re-post an apology, offer your contacts, and ask the person to contact you directly. If you know who is complaining, and you can find the diner’s address, respond with a letter, an e-mail or a phone call as soon as possible.

The worst thing you can do is to disagree with the customer or ignore their complaint. Have a game plan and response ready in advance, be prepared, and you will not only solve the immediate crisis, but you may gain a steady customer for life.

Nancy Friedman

@telephonedoctor | LinkedIn | Website

Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training in St. Louis and a featured customer service trainer and speaker to dozens of industries including the restaurant business.

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