3 Tips for Handling Guest Complaints

Posted on September 20, 2017 by Michelle Locke

It’s going to happen eventually: a guest is going to complain. It might be in your restaurant, to a server or bartender; they might ask to speak to you; or they might wait to get home so they can get onto Facebook or Yelp and leave a review there.

No matter what, the feeling is the same: getting complaints from guests isn’t pleasant. In fact, depending on the actual focus of the complaint, it feels pretty bad. And it’s easy to react just as badly: to respond harshly to the complaint or to take it out on the individual who was serving them. It’s easy to shift blame, to find someone to take the fall for more serious complaints.

( Click here to read all about keeping guests safe in your restaurant.)

When it comes to handling guest complaints and responding, we have 3 important tips that will help you be a better manager, having a better outcome for your guest, and keep your restaurant’s culture positive.

1. Keep the Interaction Positive

Here’s an example situation: a guest has an issue with their server. Perhaps the server had too many tables seated in their section at once and therefore, ended up struggling to keep up. The guest felt ignored. They ask to speak to you and by the time you get there, they’ve clearly gotten angry about the situation. They start talking to you in a way that can only be described as aggressive.

It’s easy to have the split-second reaction of also speaking aggressively to the guest, but we highly encourage you to take a few seconds, take a few deep breaths, and keep the interaction positive.

( Don’t miss our 5 tips to say thanks to your guests.)

The most important aspect of apologizing to a guest is to never make excuses. (Actually, this is true for all apologies; even if there is a good excuse for what happened, to state it feels like you’re trying to diminish your responsibility.) Apologize to the guest and explain how you’ll be working with your staff to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Don’t get aggressive; try not to get exasperated. Offer them a free drink or dessert.

Once you’ve ended the interaction, immediately adjust your staffing to help that server more effectively handle all the tables in their section.

2. Don’t Immediately Blame Your Staff

In the above situation, it would be easy to go to that server and blame them—maybe even blow up for them not asking for help. It’s natural, however, for people to want to try to handle what they’re given and maybe they didn’t realize they had too many tables until it was too late. Giving your employees the benefit of the doubt is important, and that includes not immediately reprimanding them for something that is a breakdown across multiple employees.

( Click here to learn about common allergens and how your servers should handle them.)

Instead, take the road of being kind. Saying, “Hey, I know you had too many tables seated in your section. I’m going to have another employee take care of these two, so please focus your attention on the others,” will go much farther than demanding to know why they didn’t ask for help to start with. This is not only a kinder approach, but it also shows that you’re on their side and that you understand what happened.

3. Don’t Let the Situation Spiral

Let’s pretend that you didn’t take the recommended path for dealing with that server. Let’s say you marched over to them, after calmly dealing with the guest, and asked why they didn’t ask for help. They respond that they didn’t have time and they didn’t know who to ask. You respond that it’s part of their job to report issues like that to you or another supervisor. The situation spirals: the employee ends up feeling like you don’t understand what happened and you end up feeling like you can’t trust that server anymore.

( Want servers to go the extra mile? Click here.)

As time goes on, the server, if they don’t receive positive feedback and help, regardless of whether they ask for it or not, ends up feeling burnt out on their job: they aren’t as motivated to work as hard, they aren’t getting along with their coworkers, and in fact, every employee seems to be a little suspicious of dealing with guests, lest they also get a complaint about them that leads to a confrontation.

Uh oh, you’ve locked your staff into a downward spiral of distrust. When you don’t trust your employees, they don’t trust you and they don’t trust guests to be truthful. They are standoffish with guests and they don’t go the extra mile.

Worse, if you didn’t handle the situation with the guest carefully, they may be looking at reviews on Facebook, Yelp, and elsewhere they outline the situation from only one perspective. Because you didn’t handle it correctly, it’s not everywhere—and you know this isn’t indicative of your restaurant.

It’s a downward spiral and it can feel impossible to get out of a free fall. If you’ve ever been in this situation where one guest complaint wasn’t handled correctly and it blew up both in your restaurant and on the internet, you know how it feels. Here’s a few pieces of advice:

  • Address the situation immediately and calmly. Post on Facebook about what happened and outline what you’re doing to make it better.

  • Address your employees immediately too. Talk about what happened and apologize for how it was handled it. (Remember, no excuses!)

  • Make management changes in your restaurant that make sure the situation doesn’t happen again—whether it’s a too-busy server or a missed allergen.