restaurant complaint management

Anyone who has ever cut their teeth in the service industry has heard the expression “The customer is always right”. I am not a big fan of this as I believe it places the waitstaff in a very difficult position.

Take a simple example, a customer calls over a manager and says, “The waiter got my order wrong!” Now the waiter, having been well trained, took the trouble to write down the order and even read it back to the customer.

How do you engage with the customer when you have been told “the customer is always right”? Does this mean “the staff member is always wrong”?

What if we adjusted that slightly to read “The customer is not always right but he is always the customer and it is the customer’s right to be wrong”? Now without having to blame your staff member and without having any kind of confrontation with the customer the manager is simply able to “correct” the order to what the customer thought he ordered.

It’s a minefield out there, and of course the prospect of it ending up on social media looms large. There is no definitive way to handle every complaint but there is a process that can help both management and staff steer their way clear to avoiding a disaster. 

Steps to Successfully Handling Complaining Customers

Let me set the scene for you… It’s a busy Friday night somewhere in the northern suburbs when the waiter hears a commotion coming from a table with a woman pushing her plate away and shouting “There is a worm in my salad!”

Before the guests have taken their phones out to capture the moment in immortality and of course post it on the “Jozi Good Bad and Ugly” restaurant page, our nimble waiter lifts the plate off the table and holds it behind his back. There is no post mortem. There is no fingers prodding lettuce leaves trying to discover signs of life and there is no justification that “Well it happens!”

The waiter, plate in hand behind his back, looks directly into the eyes of the customer and says “I am terribly sorry ma’am (or sir)”. What he says next is even more important.  “What can I possibly do to make this right for you?” He does not TELL her what he is going to do; he does NOT tell her he will check, he does NOT tell her he will exchange it. You see unless he asks her what will make her happy, any action he takes will be seen to be in the interest of the restaurant and not of the customer.

Now there is a little more to the waiter removing the plate from in front of the customer than just removing the offending object. Your alert management team, spotting a waiter standing with a plate behind his back, swoops past, takes the plate to the kitchen and warns the kitchen that there is a problem that needs to be sorted. He then returns to the table to ensure that the problem is in hand and that it is being dealt with in a professional manner. There is no guarantee that the customer will be completely satisfied or that it will not end up on social media but at least you have taken the correct steps to resolve it.

Next step is to ensure the cutlery has been replaced. The last thing we need is a disappointed guest starting to eat a little after the rest of the guests, now looking around for cutlery. The manager needs to keep in communication with both the kitchen and the customer and manage the situation. Isn’t that why we call them managers?

Once the meal has been replaced, one more courtesy call to ensure everything is as ordered. Then you need to treat it like any other table in the house, it is business as usual. Use your discretion if you choose to comp the meal or send a round of drinks to the table. This can only be decided at the moment. Do not start calculating the costs and always keep in mind… NOTHING COSTS MORE THAN AN EMPTY SEAT!

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