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How should restaurants solicit guest complaints?

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Question:

I read the Pete Wells article [in the New York Times, encouraging restaurant guests to complain in person rather than venting online]. Do you think I should formalize something to encourage guests to let us know if something is not to their liking?

– Foodservice manager, Philadelphia

Answer:

In Part I last week, we discussed the importance of actively soliciting guest feedback—both positive and negative—rather than leaving it to guests to find their way to review sites. While they may trash you online anyway, my advice was that by being a receptive ear, operators may lessen the blow later.

In this part, we consider the mechanics of soliciting that feedback.

One key point in Part I was the importance of table touches by the manager to get guest feedback. One reader reminded me to include an important point: Table touches only work if they are authentic. When managers breeze through a dining room asking if everything is OK but move on before the guest has a real opportunity to answer, the effort is lost. Further, the responsibility of table touches doesn’t lie with the manager alone—just as sanitation requires the commitment of the entire staff, so too does monitoring guest experience. Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, says, “One thing I have learned over the quarter-century of operating restaurants is that guests love to be asked for their honest feedback. Given the opportunity, your guests can be very useful in the growth and development of your operation. Of course, your best bet is to take care of any issues while your guest is still in the building. So training your servers, bussers, hosts and bartenders to be hyperaware of [guest satisfaction] ‘tells’ is the most important skill of all.”

Apart from monitoring guests to gauge their satisfaction, consider deflecting some of the rush to online comments by providing your own feedback mechanisms. Traditional comment cards work, but also think through opportunities to provide web-based forms, email addresses or text options for guests. Picture yourself as a frustrated customer: How do you want to communicate? Fileccia says, “Another thing I learned … is that guests will give their feedback whether or not you solicit it. So why not give them a means to share directly with you rather than share with their entire social media network? Encouraging your guests to fill out a comment card can be one of the greatest tools a restaurant owner can utilize. But it is how you use the information garnered that can truly help you succeed. By responding to any concern (or praise) in a timely manner (within 12 hours, or even less for a serious perceived offense), not only will the guest be appreciative, it will also very likely eliminate the chance of them posting anything negative on the many review platforms available online.”

By moving a complaint from a flame war to dialogue, you also have a chance to build rapport and show your commitment to providing exceptional service, despite the misstep or perceived misstep. Fileccia agrees, “Some of my most loyal guests became that way because of a dining disaster I was able to correct.”

More on managing guest complaints here.

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