How to Deal With Difficult Customers At Your Restaurant

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Recently, a Cambridge, MA, restauranteur dealt with a tricky customer relations situation. According to Alden & Harlow chef-owner Michael Scelfo, a pair of women walked into the restaurant and proceeded to seat themselves, treated the staff rudely and threatened to leave negative Yelp reviews, effectively holding the servers hostage.

Scelfo took to Instagram to point out the poor behavior, and a controversy ensued over whether it’s okay for a restaurant to publicly shame a customer—even a very rude one.

Whether or not you agree with Scelfo’s actions, the fact is that you don’t want to get your restaurant embroiled in a scandal, even if you’re in the right. What you want is to build a positive rapport with your customers. You also want to avoid burnout from frustrated employees, low staff morale or a cascade of lost customers.

To steer clear of these issues, you will need a clear and well-communicated strategy for recognizing and dealing with difficult customers. Here are a few tips for doing just that:

1. Acknowledge Customers’ Feelings

Forbes contributor Nicole Leinbach-Reyhle offers some recommendations for dealing with difficult customers in a retail setting; many of these apply equally to restaurants. It’s important to acknowledge customers’ feelings, whether you agree with their perspective or not. Showing them that you are listening can go a long way towards diffusing an awkward situation.

Leinbach-Reyhle says, “First and foremost, giving your customers time and space to ‘vent’ is often all they need to help move forward towards resolution.” She also recommends hearing out their complaints and calmly explaining the reasons behind whatever is bothering them.

For example, if the service is slow, explain calmly that it’s a busy night and that each server has many tables to attend to. Then make a conscious effort to keep things moving quickly for that particular table.

While it may seem like customers like this are ones you don’t want ever coming back to your restaurant again, try to remember that, as Leinbach-Reyhle says, “Any customer who becomes upset and loud about it in your business is likely the same type of person to talk about this experience with friends, family and other potential customers.”

Acknowledging a customer’s feelings is a great first step toward calming a tense interaction.

2. Fix the Problem as Quickly as Possible

Next, you should take steps to resolve the problem if at all possible. This means that servers should either be empowered to take action to remedy a situation, or a manager should be on duty at all times during service who is properly trained to handle these types of situations.

Often, a simple problem that could have been taken care of quickly isn’t resolved because a waiter doesn’t have the authority to comp an item, send a new one or offer a gift certificate or other token of apology. To avoid this, put a plan in place so that when problems arise there is a clear set of steps that can be taken to resolve it.

As Leinbach-Reyle points out, “The main goal is to leave your disgruntled customer feeling satisfied that they have experienced valued customer service”—regardless of whether you feel that they were “right” or “wrong.”

3. Follow Up

As John T. Self explains in an article on Restaurant Voice, you also want to follow up with customers after the fact if at all possible. If you can, get the dissatisfied customer’s email address or phone number so that you can follow up with them later on and be sure that their complaint was resolved satisfactorily.

While this may seem like a whole lot of extra work, it demonstrates to the customer that you value their opinion and weren’t just trying to get them out of your restaurant as quickly as humanly possible. 

When a customer feels valued, even if they have a bad experience here or there, they are far more likely to return to your restaurant—and to continue to recommend it to their friends and family. So take the time to follow up, make sure the complaint has been resolved and take further action when necessary.

Difficult customers can be the bane of a restaurant manager’s existence, but the key is just to have a solid action plan in place. If you can acknowledge a customer’s feelings, fix the problem swiftly and take the time to follow up with them after the dust has settled, you’re much less likely to find yourself the victim of a bad review or online complaint. Knowing how to deal with the inevitable conflict when it arises will help your entire restaurant’s operations run more smoothly.

How have you handled customer complaints in the past? Any tips for fellow restaurant managers? Tweet us @GetSquadle and let us know.