Many happy returns

Lately, I've been asked how to handle guests who take advantage of the old (and quite frankly, outdated) saying that "The Customer is Always Right." Here are a few scenarios.

  • A restaurant that does 30% of its business in take-out has recently faced several customers who return half-eaten orders... two days later. They make a scene in front of other guests, berate the food, demand a cash refund, and refuse to give their name to the owner of the restaurant.
  • A gentleman in a fine dining establishment ordered an expensive bottle of wine to accompany his meal. The wine was presented, opened, and served for approval... only to be sent back because the guest did not like the taste. Two more bottles of wine met the same fate before the manager was called over by the server.
  • A party of four orders drinks, appetizers, salads, wine and expensive entrees. By the time the entrees arrive the guests are full. The ladies nibble at the entrees and find excuses to return them to the kitchen and asked that the charges for the entrees be removed from the check.

The saying should be: "The customer is not always right, but they're always the customer." Most customers have a legitimate reason for making a return, and they're not trying to abuse your hospitality. As for the guests like those described above, you have a choice — you can make them right and keep them as your customer, or decide that the hassle and abuse they cause aren't worth it.

There's no clear cut, right or wrong answer. But here are some things to consider:

  • Have a return policy in place to back up your decisions and protect your business. Employ these policies consistently. Don't leave yourself open to a discrimination law suit.
  • Train, train, train. Employees must know how they should respond to incidents like these, and how far they can go to make a situation right. They should also know when to step aside and ask for assistance from a manager. Enlist your employees' help in scripting the responses. We've developed a training exercise that encourages their input and trains them to properly deal with situations like these.
  • Consider Gift Certificates instead of refunds for take-out. Require a name, address and phone number, and a photo ID when they're edeemed. Gift Certificates should not be transferable. These details can deter scams and repeat offenders.
  • It's less expensive to keep the customers you have than to attract new customers, but problem customers are rarely profitable. It's a judgment call to refuse a customer's demand for a refund or comp, yet it may be more profitable in the long run when you consider the bad vibes, hassles and stress they cause you, your employees and your good customers.
  • Don't expose your employees to abusive customers, and encourage employees to watch out for each other. If you see a customer who is crossing the line — no matter who is "at fault" — step in immediately and handle the situation.
  • Keep your voice low and if necessary ask the guest to step out of the dining room. Remember, cooler heads prevail.
  • Have scripts and protocols in your training manuals. In extreme cases it may be necessary to document an incident. Warnings to customers should be polite, but firm. If inappropriate behavior persists after two or three warnings, walk away and phone the police.

Disclaimer: We recommend that you periodically have legal counsel review policies and handbooks to ensure fair and consistent treatment of guests and employees, and avoid the appearance of discriminatory practices.


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