Responding to Guest Complaints

No one wants to hear complaints about their business. Things should just be going right, but it’s important to learn from your guest complaints to fix them. Learn from the brown tuna incident important lessons for responding to guest complaints.

Brown Tuna: A Lesson in How to Respond to Guest Complaints

Today a Tampa restaurant I frequent tried to serve me brown sushi-grade tuna. When I asked the waitress why the tuna was brown she said “it’s brown because it is cut from a different part of the fish” and gave me a stern gaze of disapproval for asking.  The look was held apparently to brow-beat me into saying fine and eating it anyway. Not exactly the best start to dealing with a guest complaint.

The tuna should no more be brown because it is cut from a different part of the fish than beef should be brown because it’s cut from a different part of the cow.  

I had asked a friend of mine to join me at this restaurant.  Being in the business she expected me to have a good recommendation on where to lunch.  This wasn’t the first time I have introduced new customers to this restaurant.  (I wonder if they see the value in that?)

It’s frustrating to me when servers try to belittle guests or fool them by confidently throwing out crap they make up on the fly.  It’s the kind of thing that just shouldn’t happen.  I can easily imagine a customer trying to return a spoiled wine to this waitress and being told “that’s how it’s supposed to taste” and giving one of those “duh!” looks to get a guest to buy it.

I returned the food and decided not to eat or to make a scene.  Once I was away from my guests though I called up the restaurant to discuss.  The waitress answered and no quicker than I had started to explain she interrupts me and gives the phone to the owner (without remarks or apology).

As soon as I started to explain the brown tuna incident to the owner, he jumped in quickly and talked over me explaining how it is because of the ingredients and use of soy.  “Funny though, it was never brown before”, I say.  “Oh, someone must have used the wrong recipe”, he shoots back.

When I spoke to the owner, it was hard to get a word in edgewise.  It was like a lightening round on a game show.  Remembering “two monologues don’t make a dialogue”, I stopped trying to explain what had happened hoping he’d talk himself out and remember he was supposed to be listening.  It wasn’t until I interrupted him to remind him I’m not with the tuna police or D.E.A. (I’ll explain that in a minute) and my purpose for the call was because I want them to succeed.  “I know that a restaurant owner can’t fix problems unless they are aware of them and so the purpose of my call is to try to help a restaurant I really like”, I said.

He was quiet long enough to let me get out the next part, which was a little uncomfortable to even say.  Since I was talking to the owner though I thought I would bring something else to his attention.  A few weeks earlier – when I was talking up his restaurant to some Tampa locals – one stopped me and exclaimed “Oh, that’ place – I’ll never go back there again.”  She explained a horrific scene that had played out for her party one Friday night while there.  Long and short she said, “All the locals know they have a bad problem with Ecstasy there – lots of the servers do it and I think our waitress was high that night because of how the whole experience went down”, she said.

This image of staff on drugs stuck in my mind but it didn’t deter me.  I hadn’t seen any sign of it and although it was confirmed again by someone else, I kept going back at least twice a week.  It bothered me though so I told the owner I felt he should know that was a response I got back while trying to help refer more business to his restaurant on an earlier occasion.

What kind of response do you think he gave?

He laughed out loud at my explaining there was a rumor about drug use among staff at his restaurant.  He laughed long enough and sarcastically enough that I felt embarrassed for trying to bring it to his attention (I guess he would rather the rumors than truth of the situation spread around town).  When he got done laughing he pressed me to tell him who said it.  I didn’t want to reveal my sources.  Eventually I told him simply, I heard it from someone associated with the downtown sports stadium (just a few blocks away).

He then slowed and eventually admitted that he knows some of his staff has gone out with the ballplayers “and who knows what may have happened”.  He conceded that some of his staff may have been doing drugs while out partying but was quick to defend that it didn’t happen at the restaurant and he has no control over it. 

We ended the call in a worse spot than when we started.  He gave me little sense of comfort and I felt a taint on my perception of the restaurant more after talking with the owner than prior.  I had really hoped for a response that would quell my concerns and get me excited about going back.  I don’t really feel that way more, but the experience did remind me of some important lessons in responding to customer complaints.

Reminders in Responding to Guest Complaints:

  1. Don’t Interrupt – When a guest calls or voices feedback, you must consider that their motivation isn’t to look important, to get something free, to embarrass or hurt feelings.  It takes a certain amount of guts to ‘complain’ (see Restaurant Complaints).  Most customers decide to just leave and tell their friends, not the restaurant.  But how then can the restaurant address issues if it’s not aware?  Interrupting not only keeps you from hearing important feedback, it is rude and leaves an impression that you’d rather not hear feedback.  It can make an important dialogue with a guest deteriorate.  Let the customer fully explain what went wrong and the situation.  Ask questions to get them to say more rather than interrupt with points of correction along the way.
  2. Don’t Get Defensive – Customers do not complain as a personal attack.  Sometimes customers may complain about something that they are in fact totally misinformed about.  As a restaurant manager I once had a customer complain in outrage that there was a whole crab served on his plate and how we must be idiots because everyone knows you don’t serve the whole crab but only the meat.  He had ordered fried soft-shell crab and that’s how it comes typically but he was from another part of the country and didn’t know.  Rather than correct him immediately and show him how he was wrong, I had been trained to let him fully vet and then ask him how he would like us to correct it for him (remove from the check, bring something else on the house, etc).  After we brought him a free steak and things were settled down, I later explained the preparation of soft-shell crab at many local restaurants in the area so he would be aware if he ordered it elsewhere.  His whole family returned the next two nights of their stay and he brought more guests with them on each return.
  3. Encourage Feedback – Laughing was rude.  The concerns I expressed of others telling me I am frequenting a place with drug addicts were serious and should have been met with a serious concern.  Instead of a sarcastic laugh and blind defense of his staff, he should have responded by saying the restaurant’s reputation, safety of staff and guests, and commitment to being responsive to such issues are important and that he would personally look into it as the owner.  I originally tried to submit my feedback on the restaurant’s website but the feedback button was broken and the other comment form was just to join their newsletter.  That in itself is sort of telling.
  4. Monitor Public Perceptions – It’s often too late to correct negative public perceptions when you notice sales are down.  I had been surprised to see fewer and fewer customers at this restaurant week by week.  Could it be that – despite usually terrific food and atmosphere – the rumors and customer complaints circulating the community are partially to blame?  Maybe, maybe not.  Rather than debate that point though, the owner should recognize that feedback is something he should beg to get.  More though, when rumors start circulating, it should summon curiosity not head-in-the-sand defensiveness.  Why argue whether or not some members of his staff may be frequent Ecstasy users?  Whether it’s true or not, it’s circulating.  It’s impacting his business.  It should be alarming enough to take measures to learn more so he can help correct the perceptions instead of pretending they aren’t there.
  5. Consider a Drug Free Workplace Policy – In this instance, the owner may have – at least to himself – pondered moving to a drug free workplace policy.  Even if there is no drug use on his restaurant property by staff, he admits they may be doing it elsewhere and that’s why the rumors are circulating Tampa.  What he didn’t seem to get was that whether the drugs are being consumed on his property or off, his staff is engaged in it and the word is spreading all throughout town.  It impacts his restaurant both in terms of reputation but also in terms of liability.  He thinks the liability is off property with the staff, but the reality is that now he has been made aware of possible illicit drug use by staff and the liability is dragged right back on property.  If there is at some point drug use on his property or a guest or other staff member is hurt or put in jeopardy, liability transfers in part to the owner who had knowledge but did not do anything about it.  Trial lawyers and personal injury attorneys love this sort of thing.
  6. Consider the Stakes – We have to address complaints today differently than before due in large part because of the shifts in communication, media and digital dissemination of information. I considered leaving this restaurant anonymous but decided to identify them for two reasons.  One reason is because I feel the restaurant is doing enough wrong that we should all be wary.  When a restaurant owner blindly and so strongly defends against (at first) even the possibility he has staff members on drugs then I have to wonder how seriously he takes other aspects of guest safety.  Secondly, I feel the day has come that restaurant owners stop thinking the complaints they are quietly addressing in their back office are out of the public domain. It used to be that a customer would not tell the restaurant but would tell 10 of their friends.  Today, that customer can tweet 10,000 from their table.  For more on this subject, see Word of Mouth in the Age of Social Media.  Because of the digital revolution, we have to address issues like we are doing so in front of all of our customers, not just one rogue call behind closed doors.

We all make mistakes.  Facing criticism – whether warranted or not – can be painful.  I know that from first-hand experience.  Sometimes I wish we could still respond to criticisms privately and out of the scrutiny of a blogosphere world where everyone has an opinion, right to voice it, and a whole new platform to do so on a scale never before accessible to us everyday people.  Fact is though, the rules have changed, the stakes have grown and we have to respond to customer complaints as if everyone were watching.

Restaurant Marketing Consultant Aaron Allen

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