Are you being served?

While most customers don’t bother complaining, when they do complain it’s essential to take it seriously, according to Julie Manfredi Hughes.

While most customers don’t bother complaining, when they do complain it’s essential to take it seriously, according to Julie Manfredi Hughes.

Problems put right in the eyes of a customer can be a powerful marketing opportunity if they result in welded-on loyalty, writes Miles Clarke.

Thirty years ago a local general practitioner had cause to complain about the food and service he received at Barnaby’s Restaurant in Parramatta, NSW.

Michael Fischer, today a veteran restaurateur and still proprietor of Barnaby’s, followed up with a phone call and letter and today continues to welcome the same customer, his children and grandchildren.

A negative situation had been turned into a win-win for restaurant and client. Fisher says the best way to manage a
complaint is while the customer is still in the restaurant, but concedes it is much easier for an owner than a manager to resolve any problems.

“We’re in the people business and it is inevitable the wheels come off from time to time. We’re dealing with so many processes and there is much pressure—ordering from suppliers, delivery issues, food preparation and service, the managing of the bill, etc. At every stage something can go wrong, bottlenecks develop and we have an unhappy customer on our hands.”

Manfredi Enterprises has long been one of Sydney’s leading restaurant companies, with Restaurant Manfredi in Ultimo and bel mondo in The Rocks being two of their success stories. They currently operate Manta at Woolloomooloo Bay and most recently relaunched Coast at Cockle Bay.

Julie Manfredi Hughes says she came across the term ‘service recovery’ while undertaking a total quality management course at the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales.

“It was a complete novelty for my fellow students to have a restaurateur in their midst, but I discovered that many of the principles of service being discussed for large corporations were equally applicable in the restaurant trade.”

Manfredi Hughes says most customers do not bother to complain and simply vote with their feet. So when a complaint is made, it’s essential to take it seriously and resolve it in the most appropriate way possible.

“It really doesn’t matter what has actually happened, the mere fact the customer has taken the effort to complain usually results in our going through the entire service delivery process and procedures. We need to discover the cause of the problem and ensure that our systems are modified to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Most importantly, we need to know what the consumer is thinking and a complaint is really an opportunity to gain valuable insight into the customer’s perception of our business and how we run it.”

She says it is extremely rare for customers to demand a full refund or free meals and vexatious diners are rare, though problems can occur where liquor is involved.

“The ‘service recovery’ concept means we have an invaluable opportunity to turn a negative situation into a positive and it often results in our gaining the loyalty of a customer in a highly competitive market. Customers today have high expectations; many have travelled extensively and know a lot about food and wine. Things have changed significantly from the 1980s when we started pushing the boundaries with food and service.

“There’s a maturity in the market which didn’t exist 15 years ago and a strong, positive customer focus is essential if you want to stay in business. At the same time we have to deal with structural issues in our industry with regard to staff recruitment, training and retention. We’ve been in a climate of staff shortage—especially wait staff—for a long time and when you consider the declining margins in a price-driven market it’s extremely difficult to hang onto quality staff,” says Manfredi Hughes.

Customer is king?

In Hobart, Craig Godfrey is the original owner and chef of the Drunken Admiral, a seafood restaurant that specialises in Tasmanian produce from a menu that draws on inspiration from all around the world. There is a strong maritime theme and the customer base is drawn equally from the family, corporate and tourist markets.

“We get few complaints, but when it happens, we always ask the customer if they would like a replacement meal. We never argue with the customer. If they are intoxicated, the maitre d’ takes over as he is more experienced in handling these situations. If there is not a valid complaint and the customer has consumed most of the meal and doesn’t want a replacement then they are charged. If not, the item is deleted from the bill.

“Sometimes the flavour of a sauce  is not to a customer’s taste, yet we have sold heaps of the same dish to other complimenting diners. If they refuse a replacement, which means they are no longer hungry, we offer a complimentary dessert and coffee and a glass of wine, nine times out of 10 the patrons will be happy with this,” he says.

Godfrey says it is always a bad omen if it is clear that couples have had a disagreement prior to arrival. Usually one or the other will be difficult to please.

“In most cases giving something for nothing along with a suitable apology produces a positive outcome. One thing we never do is get into an argument. If they are really disagreeable, we give them the bill and herd them off the premises as soon as possible, as their attitude will be like a cancer around them for the rest of the guests.

In Fischer’s experience at Barnaby’s customers will seldom complain unless the chemistry is wrong in the restaurant.

“New staff might be under pressure and a perception of negative attitude might arise. This needs to be nipped in the bud early and, if necessary, experienced wait staff be re-assigned to look after a table where unhappiness has been reported.

“If apologies are being given they must be genuine and body language must substantiate the spoken word. One thing we will not tolerate is overt rudeness from a customer and any suggestion of a sexual nature is a complete ‘no go’. The staff member dealing with the situation needs to be confident and firm,” he says.

Fischer recommends that a diary note be made of any significant exchange, especially if a non-proprietor is handling a complaint, so that the owners are apprised of the situation in the event of the non-settlement of the complaint on the day of the incident.

Primo Caon is a veteran of the restaurant game and has been the proprietor of the 41-year-old Chesser Cellars in the Adelaide CBD for the past 15 years. His business is close to some government offices and his clientele is mostly from government and the business community. He serves traditional English dishes such as steak and kidney pie, battered and grilled whiting and corned silverside with parsley sauce along with more contemporary dishes such as risotto and rib of beef.

The premises comprise a 40-seater café, a main restaurant for 60, a cellar for 60 and a private dining area for 14.

“We recently had a complaint from a customer who works in the Crown Solicitor’s office that one of our serving staff had been terse and unhelpful over her purchase of a cup of coffee in the café. When I investigated further, the problem related back to the staff member failing to acknowledge the customer while she was serving some other customers. We find that in almost every instance people will respond positively if their existence in the restaurant is acknowledged,” he explains.

Caon’s customer was won over and further training was undertaken to ensure there was no repeat of the incident.

“We’re in the service industry and that’s what it’s all about. The competition in the café and coffee shop market in Adelaide is ferocious and we need to ensure our repeat business is maintained. We are maintaining our espresso machines with a lot more care than was the case some years ago. Customers will tell us the instant our coffee isn’t up to scratch.”

He blames the explosion of food and beverage outlets in South Australia for the lack of experience in wait staff and says that ongoing training is absolutely essential.

“The tourism market is building up strongly in this country and we need the right attitude towards our customers and dealing with their complaints efficiently is essential if we are to retain a competitive advantage,” says Caon.

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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