How to handle customer complaints

If you own a restaurant or café, it’s likely that you’ll have to handle customer complaints at some point – but it’s how you handle them which can set your business apart.

Complaints tend to go with the territory in hospitality, as customers can have high expectations of their dining experience and it’s impossible to please everybody.

While they’re an unfortunate part of the customer service game, their correct handling is just as important as they way you take bookings or wait tables.

And, you can even turn it into a competitive advantage.


Dealing with complaints in person


One of the trickiest situations to manage correctly are in-person complaints. While some customers are tactful or even embarrassed, others may be rude or angry.

Handling these situations well requires immediate action, and your whole team should be prepared with a complaint protocol.

It’s essential that the customer feels they are being heard.  When done right, this can often diffuse a situation quickly.

Firstly: listen!

Let them explain their complaint without interruption, even if you suspect they’re not being fair. It’s tempting to get defensive and try to correct a mistaken customer, but this only adds fuel to the fire.

Once the customer has explained the issue, it’s up to you to move things forward constructively.

READ: 3 ways to listen to customers better

Lowering your voice encourages the customer to do the same, and addressing them by name shows that you are taking the matter seriously.

Clarify that you understand the issue calmly and sympathetically, avoiding phrases that might seem patronising or defensive.

Finally, look for a resolution.

Things can get tricky, but remember usually when complaints arise people usually just want acknowledgement and reassurance that it won’t happen again.

It’s crucial to provide your staff with a range of simple solutions to offer a disgruntled customer in lieu of financial reimbursement.

Anything from a simple apology, a discount on their next visit or a personal call from the manager can sometimes be all it takes for a customer to feel they have been heard.


Dealing with complaints online


When a complaint is made on social media or review sites, hundreds or thousands of people may be watching things unfold.

These should be opportunities for your customer service to shine and handling them well can even bring positive attention.

READ: What to do when online reviews are fake news

It’s essential to engage with and respond to all comments on your social pages – the good and the bad.

Exceptions to this rule are comments involving profanities, hate speech, or those involving the disclosure of private information, but if the comment is simply negative, ignoring it is like hanging up on a customer – while the world is watching!

No matter how tempting, never delete negative comments.

This may drive people to repost their complaint on your page or to shout even louder on the many other forums available.

After reading an online complaint, take a deep breath!

It’s easy to get offended or frustrated if you feel the complaint is unjustified, but this approach will feed the negativity and reflect badly on your business, no matter who is ‘right’.

Addressing the complaint

By addressing the complainant by name, a customer knows the message is not an automated response, which helps them feel heard and respected.

It also helps to thank them for taking the time to send feedback, and to acknowledge it is has been received and understood.

Although responding publicly is preferable, if sensitive information needs to be discussed, private messaging is the only way.

Letting a customer know that you are responding to them privately ensures that those ‘watching from home’ still see you addressing the issue.

An example of a good public response could be, “Thank you for taking the time to offer your feedback [Name].  We have sent you a private message about this and we look forward to hearing from you so we can find a solution.”

When responding privately, remember people can (and often do) share private conversations, so anything you write should still be written with respect and consideration.

Did it work?

Once a complaint is resolved, it’s essential to review things with your team.

Customers complaints – whether you feel they are justified or not – can provide insight into a part of your business that you may not have considered.

When studied objectively, complaints can be a way of sharpening up your offering and refining your customer service.

Responding to and acting upon bad reviews or comments can often turn a negative experience into a positive one.

How you handle tricky customer situations reflects on you as a business and if you consistently deal well with complaints it is inevitable your business will improve.