Take the Fear out of Handling Customer Complaints

Picture your guest giving you an unexpected gift wrapped in shiny, gold paper with a big, red ribbon on top. How would you feel?

Now, hold on to that feeling. That is exactly how you should feel when a guest complains to you—as if you are getting a gift. Why? Because guests who complain are giving you a second chance to make it right for them instead of taking their business elsewhere.

Only a small percentage of disappointed guests will voice their complaint. So you should be more worried about continued patronage from the vast majority who say nothing at all. Of the guests who complain, most will continue as patrons of a restaurant when the complaint is resolved quickly and in their favor. No matter how busy you are, you must take ownership and make it a priority to address their concerns.

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To understand your guest's point of view, put yourself in their place. They are paying hard-earned dollars for a quality experience. Adopt a company attitude to always please guests and take all complaints seriously, and it will pay off in repeat business. If you ignore guest concerns, they may ignore your establishment when planning their next meal out.

Taking a complaint professionally, not personally, is important. Although angry guests may take their dissatisfaction out on you, they are seldom upset with you as an individual. In most cases, they may just need to vent their feelings and be acknowledged. Be sure to focus on the issue, not the delivery of the complaint. Training your staff in service recovery techniques is imperative. Listed below are seven steps to successfully handling in-person complaints. Some complaints, depending on the degree, can be resolved in fewer than the specified seven steps. Use your best judgment in taking the necessary steps to recover complaints.

Seven steps to successfully handling complaints

  1. Listen carefully. Listening will help you properly identify the complaint. Listen with both your ears and eyes (showing sincere eye contact when you are face-to-face creates a bond and allows you to assess your guest's body language). Always show sincerity and concern for the guest's feelings.
  2. Apologize sincerely. This shows respect for the guest's feelings. Fifty percent of service providers do not offer any apology. Always take full responsibility for the complaint, whether or not you feel it is valid or your fault. For example, you might say, "I'm very sorry for that mistake.”

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  1. Ask questions and repeat the complaint. This will ensure that you have understood the concern properly and can act on it immediately, and correctly solve it the first time. For example, say, "Let me verify: You wanted your pizza with extra cheese and light sauce – is that correct?"
  2. Empathize with the guest. This makes the guest feel confident you are on their side and partnering to work with them. For example, say, "I understand how you feel."
  3. Explain corrective action/alternatives if you are not authorized to rectify complaints. Put guests at ease by informing them immediately how their complaint will be resolved. For example, you might say, "I'll speak with my manager who can better help you with this situation."
  4. Promptly resolve the issue. Generally speaking, the quicker you correct a situation, the easier it will be to resolve. The longer you take to resolve an issue, the greater risk you take that emotions will escalate, making the situation harder to resolve. Make every effort to quickly turn negative situations into positive ones.
  5. Follow up, thank the guest, and apologize again. Follow up to ensure your guests are happy. Whether handling a phone or in-person guest, always call or visit their table to thank them and apologize again to show appreciation for their feelings. For example, say, "How is the second pizza? Thank you for bringing this to our attention, and again, please accept our apologies."

Pam Simos is president of Five Star Training in Saint Petersburg, Florida.