During my college and high school years in the 1990’s, I earned an income by working in restaurants. I developed a deep respect for those who work in hospitality and even considered opening my own restaurant. I know how hard kitchen and wait staff work and how easy it is for mistakes to happen. For this reason, when I eat a restaurant and something goes wrong, I usually ignore it. However, if the mistake is large enough I first alert the waiter or waitress and only bring the issue to the attention of the manager when the waiter or waitress is either unable or unwilling to address the issue. This is the experience I grew up with and witnessed almost daily during my time working in hospitality. Yet, this is quickly no longer becoming the norm.

The 3 Modes of Customer Complaints

Today, people tend to respond in one of three different ways when they believe they have had a poor experience. Most people simply do not bring the issue to anyone’s attention. However, these customers may or may not ever return to your restaurant. Those who do raise the issue either may do so in two very different ways. One group may complain through private one-to-one conversations, emails, or phone calls. Others will complain publicly through social media channels. These three different responses are important to understand because they need to be handled differently, and handling them incorrectly could be as harmful as not handling them at all.

Those Who Don’t Complain, but are Dissatisfied

The first group, those who don’t raise an issue at all, can be the costliest. These customers may not raise an issue to you, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care. They may never return to your restaurant. Most restaurants have a lot of competition, so it is quite reasonable to expect that some of this group will simply take their business elsewhere. Many restaurants do not appreciate the real cost of losing customers and may not even be aware that they are losing them. Studies have shown that a 5 percent increase in customer retention can boost profits by 25 to 85 percent.

We recommend making it easy for these customers to raise concerns by providing multiple channels of communication and publicizing them at various touch points such as in-store advertising, on menus, and on receipts.

The Traditional Complainers

The second group, which I call traditionalists, consist of those who raise the issue in personal one-to-one communications. This group tends to complain less frequently and usually are looking for their complaint to be resolved on-the-spot or have their check refunded. Think of the patron who sends his steak back to the kitchen because he believes it was either over or undercooked.

Restaurants have long dealt with the traditional complainers, and most have processes in place to deal with them. We recommend the following recommendations.

  • Always ensure that someone onsite is empowered and trained to deal with customer complaints.
  • Ensure that your restaurant has a defined policy around refunds or other forms of compensation to dissatisfied customers.
  • Keep track of all incidents so you can recognize any root causes that you may need to address.

The “On-stage” Haters

The third group is what Jay Baer calls On-stage haters in his book “Hug Your Haters.” This group tends to complain first in public using social media and mobile technology to leave complaints, often before even raising the issue to staff or management. This group is growing as the adoption of smartphones and use of social media changes consumer behavior forever. I emphasize the word forever because whether or not you are ready, this trend will continue to grow.

It is vitally important that you have the knowledge and resources to respond to this group. Since everything is done in a social setting, everything is seen by others who are as interested in your response as the original complainer. Failing to respond at all sends a message that you don’t care. Responding poorly can have an even bigger impact as your response can be shared and discussed across social media.

New technology continues to change consumer behavior, and the hospitality industry is not immune to these changes. These changes cannot be ignored, and restaurant owners and managers most quickly come to grips with these changes and learn how to best respond to customer complaints regardless of where they originate. The first step will be in recognizing the different types of “complainers” and introducing systems and processes to handle the complaints appropriately.

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