We don’t like confrontation, but dealing with negative customer feedback can benefit your business.

We don’t like confrontation, but dealing with negative customer feedback can benefit your business.

The toughest customer criticism can offer the best lessons. But can a complaint really be spun into a win for both the customer and the restaurant owner? John Burfitt reports

American hospitality training guru Ruby Newell-Legner makes the claim that when it comes to dissatisfied customers, a typical business will only hear from about four per cent of them. The other 96 per cent just go away and 91 per cent never come back. Australians, however, are notorious for avoiding confrontation and not wanting to create a fuss when it comes to customer service. Lisa Murray of Revive Business Coaching in Brisbane wonders if a local figure might therefore reveal an even lower pattern of feedback than the US example.

“All kinds of figures are bandied about regarding how many customers do complain, but one thing I do know that’s wrong is to assume those people who walk away don’t say anything, because they do,” Murray says.

“They will tell their friends about their experience. They will tell their workmates about their experience. And these days, they will very often go online to a restaurant review website and tell the whole world about their unhappy experience.

“So for the one person who walks away silently, their bad experience may have just cost your business 100 other customers—and I can’t think of any business that can afford that kind of damage.”

How to deal with dissatisfied customers is an issue that fills many hours of training seminars every year, with opinions varying from ‘the customer is always right’ through to the other end of the spectrum—defending the good reputation of your business, no matter what it takes.

Expert opinions also range from inviting in as much feedback as possible and being prepared to wear it when it is more brickbats than bouquets, to avoiding customer complaints unless they are directly voiced. Industry consultant Ken Burgin of Profitable Hospitality believes feedback needs to be encouraged—in all its forms.

“I tell my clients they should be encouraging feedback all the time, like having a feedback form you hand over with the bill,” he says. “I did that once with my own business, and 25 per cent of people did fill it out, and most of the time it was nice. And when it wasn’t, we paid even closer attention to what was stated.

“There should also be a feedback tab on your business website, as you want to keep all of that in-house, rather than on a mainstream website. It is something you want to handle between you and the customer. And the secret is to respond as soon as you can. Do not let it become one of those things you mean to get around to.”

Burgin adds that the restaurant owner must be smart in how the complaint is interpreted and responded to, with a clear staff policy in place for dealing with such matters.

“Restaurants have to understand that the purpose of business is to get the customers to come back, and if you don’t handle it well, there will be no return business,” he says.

“When it comes to dealing with complaints, there are two schools of thought I hear from owners. One is they want to know about it and they will handle it. The other is they have trained their staff well and have a clear system set up so they trust the staff to handle it in an appropriate way.

“Often, if the staff member is not well-trained, they can be tougher on the customer than the owner ever would be. They think they are protecting the business, but they may be doing major damage. It can be confronting to deal with a table of unhappy people, so it comes down to how well-equipped your staff are in how to handle that.”

“If I see a meal comes back only half eaten, then I know they have not been happy with what has been served, and I want to address that right away.” Brad Leahy, Blue Water Grill, Perth

Just as fast table service makes for a happy customers, so does fast resolution of any issues that emerge, says Brad Leahy of Perth’s Blue Water Grill.

“The first thing I teach my staff is with any disgruntled customers, I am to be made aware of it straight away,” Leahy says. “I tell staff never to take sides, but find out what the problem is and then report it to me. It has to be handled head on.

“The longer it is left, the more disgruntled the person becomes. Once the person is to the point of being angry, it is very hard to get them back.

“Move on it in the best way you can. You may offer another choice, or ask if they want the meal done again, or possibly a free glass of wine or a dessert. If they don’t want that, then nine times out of 10, I will deduct that meal from the bill. I don’t make them pay for something they are obviously unhappy enough with to complain about it.”

The best lesson Leahy says he has learnt about keeping an eye on the customer satisfaction is to pay as much attention to what is coming back into the kitchen as what goes out in the first place. “It is our job to read the customers and see if they are happy,” he says. “If I see a meal comes back only half eaten, then I know they have not been happy with what has been served, and I want to address that right away. If the customer feels you are paying attention to their experience, you are most of the way there to keeping them happy. Once upon a time, I would have tried to analyse it, see who was right and wrong, and then rationalised that with the customer—and that backfired on me. If you want to bark, don’t! It just makes no sense to get that angry over a plate of food.”

So is the customer always right? “That has been outdated for a long time,” says Nick Dempster of Brisbane’s Delizioso on Oxford. “It is up not up to us to tell them they are wrong—that only gets people’s backs up. Rather, offer them another way.

“Sometimes, they just want to be heard. If people feel they are being heard, that takes away about 90 per cent of the problem. Then if you ask them what we can do, they feel like they are being looked after—and that is the business we are in.”

Alessandro Pavoni of Sydney’s Ormeggio At The Spit makes the point, “An important part of handling complaints is to take all of them seriously; although the answer is no, the customer is not always right. However, if you can explain why not, that is often the key to a successful outcome.”

Pavoni cites the example of his trademark risotto, cooked in a particular, authentic Italian style, yet customers have complained it is not cooked properly. The chef then visits the table to explain the cooking process.

Common sense must prevail in all cases, adds Lisa Murray. “Look at whether you are taking care of your brand and your customer base, or whether you just want people in and out quickly. The answers to those questions will determine a great deal about how you deal with feedback.

“Then there are the cases when that person is just having a bad day, and it has nothing to do with what your restaurant is doing. So that means you need to do something to make them feel good about whatever has happened. And that, we need to remember in this service industry, is the job.”

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