In times of crisis

ManageAs in any business, a restaurant can have a bad night and ruin the experience for the diner in the process. How you deal with the damage control can protect your brand, writes John Burfitt.

It can take just one incident at a restaurant to change everything that years of loyal service has built up. Take the case of the customer who was in the men’s room and witnessed the chef go straight from the toilet cubicle back into the kitchen without washing his hands. The customer followed and watched through the glass kitchen windows as the chef walked back in, and still without washing his hands, pulled a bag of chicken fillets out of the fridge and began slicing. Making matters worse, the restaurant’s signature chicken dish had always been that customer’s favourite. After informing the restaurant owner what he had just observed, the customer walked out and never returned. Previously, he —along with friends—had dined at the popular eatery at least once a week.

Is it really possible for a business to recover from such an incident, where one small slip-up does major damage?

What about the time when a usually excellent waiter is off his game for the night and serves up a bit too much attitude, or the highly-acclaimed manager accidentally overcharges the bill by $100? What about those nights when a mass call-in of ill staff results in service time being almost doubled? All these are real scenarios that a number of restaurant owners were happy to share off the record for this story, but quite tellingly, only one of the many we asked—Melbourne’s Gail Donovan—was prepared to offer any real insight into what needs to be done to make right a very bad situation.

It seems fessing up and knowing how to deal with our mistakes is still a scenario that makes many in our industry uncomfortable. “You need to own the mistake, you need to be across what your staff is doing and have set a culture of the standards you expect all the time and ensure that is what everyone on your team is delivering to your customers,” says Gail Donovan of St Kilda restaurant Donovans.
“If something goes wrong, and even in the best of places it does, then have processes in place that know how to deal with it and follow it up. Like, if someone on the staff is having a bad night, identify that early and move them back-of-house for the night rather than ruining the evening for your diners. 

“Be grateful for any feedback, and let the person making it know you value what they are saying as it means something has not been right in that experience. All feedback is valuable—it should never be something you run away from.”

For many business owners, often it is the fear of making the issues even worse that can result in even more mistakes in the process. Knowing how to approach the complaint, what to do about it and when seems to be where the confusion lies, says Sam Elam, managing director of Media Manoeuvres, a national media training and stakeholder reputation management company. “Too many business owners like to stick their heads in the sand and just hope the issue will go away, but it won’t unless you address it,” says Elam. “If you do address it well, you can completely turn the issue around and end up with ‘champions’ for your brand and new word-of-mouth ambassadors.

“In brand reputation terms, the way your restaurant manages and communicates in an issue or a crisis can be far more important than the issue or the crisis itself. The management of it can result in one of our best branding PR opportunities.”

The first step to a smart approach is to identify what kind of complaint it is and the appropriate action to take. In terms of in-person, a phone call or personal email complaint, addressing it within 24 hours is the key, says James Eling of Marketing 4 Restaurants. “If you have received the feedback privately, then deal with it privately and do so promptly,” he says. “If they tell you at the time of their meal they were unhappy about something, then take their contact details and reassure them you will look into it and be back in contact.

“Then be sure you do follow up and address the situation, apologising where necessary if there has been a failure on your team and apologising they did not have a good time. Then try to make good, and be fair in how you approach it. A free meal or a free dessert on your behalf might save many thousands of dollars of damage on social media.”

“A free meal or a free dessert on your behalf might save many thousands of dollars of damage on social media.” —James Eling, Marketing 4 Restaurants

The same procedures apply regarding social media. In the case of a scathing online review by a disgruntled customer, the basic rules of responding fast and making it private even faster apply, says Catherine Slogrove of Papaya PR. “On social media, respond as soon as you can by commenting on their post and then moving the conversation off the public forum and into a private space by inviting them to either email you or direct message you,” Slogrove advises. “Show them you are taking their complaint seriously by wanting to deal with them to resolve the issue. Above all, handling the issue with compassion and empathy is the biggest and most important factor when in damage control.”

Adds Eling: “Potential customers want to see that you care about the experience they will have at your business. If they see a restaurant owner reaching out and trying to make things right, they respond to that, regardless of the response you get back from the person who made the complaint.”

In the case of a bad review from a critic on trade or consumer media, Slogrove says the philosophy of taking the good with the bad must apply.“This is from a professional, so maybe take a long, hard look in the mirror and take it as constructive feedback and look at it as an opportunity to lift your game,” she says.

“Once you have resolved the issue, invite the reviewer back, explaining you valued their feedback and addressed it, and as a result, believe it is now a better business for it. It is highly likely that any follow-up reviews will be more favourable.”

The important factor to remember when dealing with criticism, says Elam, is to allow the person who is making it feel they are being heard and their point of view is valid. “Acknowledge that you are paying attention to the complaint, show concern and empathy, let them know you understand what you are being told and what you will do to to address it. Everyone loves a gesture of goodwill and so if you need to invite them back as your guest, do so and be there to welcome them. Make sure the issue doesn’t happen again so by the time they walk out, they are advertising your business for all the right reasons. It could end up some of the best PR you do all year.”

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