No matter how careful and diligent you may be some day you will disappoint a guest and get a complaint. The complaint may be completely baseless or even completely made up. Those are the exceptions, yet they do happen. Most complaints on the other hand are the guest’s way of asking you to correct a mistake or problem. The calm unspoken part of the complaint is: “Hey, I really like you and your food but today something is wrong. I just want you to fix it so when I come back I can be confident the problem will not happen again.”
When you think of a complaint in those terms it is not so personal and hurtful. A vocal (as opposed to the unspoken complaint that never comes back and you don’t know why) guest complaint is the best thing you can get. Here is a consumer of your food that is pointing out an opportunity for improvement and helping you gain superiority over your competition. Even if the complaint is subjective like something not hot or cold enough or the service wasn’t friendly or fast enough, it is still an opportunity to fine tune operations and get better for the future.
How do you handle the irate, noisy, complaining guest? First thing is to remove them from your other guests. A complainer will influence others to be more critical and even complain as well. This is no different than a line of guests influenced by the person in front of them and creating a “run” on a product. If possible move them to an area away from the serving area to continue the conversation. If you are working alone and you have other guests, get control of the situation as quickly as you can. Calmly say “I don’t ever want to operate in the way you are describing. Would you please give me details about the problem so I can fix it right now?” A calm response from you talking in a lower tone voice than normal, generally, will influence the complainer to talk lower as well, helping diffuse what could be a tense situation.
Your goal in dealing with every guest is create a lasting and profitable relationship. When you have either moved the complainer away from your other guests or gotten the complainer to be detail focused it is time to:
Vendors have vastly differing opinions on offering refunds. A refund simply means the food is counted as waste, the sale is voided and money returned. Every vendor will make mistakes and that food is counted as waste. Every vendor should have a waste budget. Budgeting for mistakes and complaints take the sting out of both. You expect to make mistakes and you should also expect complaint refunds.
This is totally different from a merit-less complaint. The one where the person hasn’t even bought food and is complaining about pricing, food quality, location or whatever else enters their mind. These folks are not guests as they haven’t purchased anything and they are being disruptive to your business. Tell them you would be happy to discuss any comments when you are not open for business and then ask point blank if they are going to order any food, and say it with a smile. Any answer other than “yes, I want a …” interrupt them and ask them to leave so that you may serve the other people in line that are actually there to purchase food. Again, politely with a smile. Any other response other than them walking away or placing a food order, you dial 911 and show them the phone screen. Ask for police assistance with someone disrupting your business by creating a nuisance to you and your paying guests. No further engagement with the complainer is required. As long as you remain calm and in control the complainer usually leaves long before you finish the call.
Engaging a complainer about pricing or if your hot dogs are really ‘all beef’ is pointless while you are in operation. These types of inquiries are designed to get under your skin by implying your products are inferior. A simple “I’ll be happy to discuss business strategies with you after I’m closed” or “Of course they are all beef I am proud to serve this brand” and get back to taking orders from real guests. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone except your health department.
Remember Listen, Apologize, Satisfy and Thank. Budget for refunds and mistakes. Your ultimate goal should be to turn a complainer in to a raving fan not only of your food but your business operation. Ultimately returning often and spending more cash you can actually keep!
I have had a passion for helping people since an early age back in rural Kentucky. That passion grew into teaching and training managers and owners how to grow sales, increase profits, and retain guests. You’ll find a ton of information here about improving restaurant and food cart/trailer operations and profits. Got questions? Email me at Bill_Moore@live.com