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Pleasing impossible guests

Question:

What do you do when a customer sends a long complaint email for a situation you saw unfold, and they were impossible to please? She refused a free meal on return, and a refund, and continued to send complaints.

– Abby Singh, Owner-Manager, Canteen 900, Forty Fort, PA

Answer:

While I do not subscribe to the idea that the customer is always right, I do believe that in an email battle between restaurateur and guest, the restaurateur can’t win. There are numerous examples of restaurateurs losing their patience with a guest by email or social media. Because this electronic documentation can be posted and shared, it becomes especially important to keep your cool, even with the most exasperating guest.

A good service recovery plan is key. If that plan is in place, most problems, if you notice them or a guest or employee brings them to your attention, should be possible to solve on the spot. Your follow up with the guest will indicate whether she or he is satisfied with your solution.

Email complaints, while unpleasant, can be useful. They make you aware of problems, give you the opportunity to win back the business of an unsatisfied guest, can redirect frustrations to you instead of to review sites, and can help you improve. Amelia Ekus, manager at Barbuto in New York City says, “The first thing I do when I receive an email regarding a negative experience is try to get the guest on the phone. We all know that e-mail is an easier way to complain than on the phone, so step one is to make contact outside of e-mail.

Step two is listen and apologize. Most people have not worked in restaurants and don't want to hear any excuses about kitchen equipment breaking, someone not showing up to work, or whatever the circumstance was that created a negative experience. Just listen to what they have to say and apologize for the error. Most importantly, guests who have a negative experience just want to be heard. They typically feel neglected, or less important than other guests in the restaurants.

Step three—this is where I have seen the best managers really shine—the turn-around. If an unhappy guest can be turned around, they will be return guests for life. Some of my most loyal regulars began as unhappy guests. It goes like this, "I am so sorry that happened. That sort of behavior/food mishap/timing issue (fill in the blank here) is not up to our standards of service and I plan on approaching my staff to make sure it never happens again. I appreciate you sharing your experience with me as it is the only way that we can improve. I would really like to show you how we do things properly, and would like to offer you and a guest dinner with my compliments."

If they don't bite right away, give them your e-mail address (not an info@ as it will feel impersonal!) and tell them to follow up when they are ready. If they bite, make sure you are all over them next time they come. In a world of internet reviews and tightening budgets for restaurants, it's worth it.”

If a plan like Ekus’s doesn’t work, you may have a chronic complainer. In that case, my advice is to cut your losses. A heated email exchange will only make you look unreasonable. While every guest is an important guest, you do not necessarily want to cultivate the business of one who is so time-consuming. Finally, some guests just need to vent; but you are a restaurateur, not a therapist.

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