January 2004 Edition
Embracing Complaints

by Patricia Nicholson

If you’d rather not hear complaints, you may be overlooking one of the keys to better service and more satisfied customers.

"If you manage customer complaints properly, you can take a very negative situation and turn it into a positive," says Doug Fisher, president of the foodservice consulting firm FHG International Inc.

Fisher says many customer complaints are not necessarily about errors, but expectations.

"People come into your restaurant with a certain expectation, and they complain because the expectation’s not met," he says. This can be something as simple as using bistro glasses when the guest was expecting traditional wine glasses, but it can result in genuine problems. Fisher uses the example of a customer having a different definition of medium-rare than the cook. "It’s not that the cook did something wrong or that you did something wrong, you just missed the expectations."

It’s Not Personal

Once a complaint is raised, it’s the restaurant’s job to understand it and deal with it. The first thing to remember, Fisher says, is not to take it personally.

"The moment you start taking it personally, everyone gets defensive and then you can’t remedy any problem," he says.

Next, give the guest your full attention and all the respect you can muster.

"Their problem is your problem, and you want to understand it so that you can deal with it," Fisher says. "And then — no matter what — you must deal with it. You’ve got to come up with an approach that somehow remedies the situation to the guest’s satisfaction."

Sometimes the problem has a simple fix, such as apologizing and re-cooking or re-heating a meal. Sometimes it requires changing the server if, for whatever reason, the customer is unhappy with a staff member.

"Although you mess up your service staff tremendously by putting another server on the table, or a manager taking over the service of a table, you can deal with that issue," Fisher says. "It’s just showing and acknowledging that the guest’s concern is a real concern and you’re going to make efforts to take care of it."

But Fisher cautions against merely "buying off the guest" by not charging for the meal, a reaction which does not address the complaint. If a manager wishes to offer a glass of wine as a goodwill gesture after the problem has been addressed, Fisher says that can be a nice touch, just as bringing a glass of wine to a customer whose order has been delayed can help avoid a disgruntled guest.

Management Role

Fisher recommends that management and service staff sit down together to determine how certain complaints should be handled and how to deal with different situations. That way, servers are able to confidently field most frontline complaints. But management must still be kept aware of negative feedback.

"Management should be brought in as quickly as possible into any and all complaints for two reasons: one, to show the customer that, in fact, you’re taking the issue seriously," Fisher says. "Two, managers don’t really have the same ongoing interaction with the guest, so they can really come in and smooth things over."

It’s also imperative that management be aware of complaints in order to spot bigger-picture service issues. If managers don’t know about minor complaints, they can’t solve the underlying problem.

"For example, if overcooked steaks keep coming back to the kitchen, you can either scream at the cook or you can recognize as a manager that the cook needs a little more training on how to detect a medium-rare steak," Fisher says. "That’s a simple matter of retraining."

Seizing Opportunities

For Terri Knox, founder of Service Enhanced Training, one of the most important aspects of complaints is the opportunity they offer to improve your service.

"You can’t buy that experience," Knox says. "The most fabulous thing that happens with complaints is it allows us to fix them. Without us hearing the complaints, sometimes they lie dormant forever and then we just wonder why the doors aren’t opening."

Knox, whose speaking engagements help organizations ranging from banks to pizza chains improve customer service, views complaints as healthy feedback. "If they can’t complain to you, then they’re going to complain about you," she says. "I think we have to turn our attitudes around about thinking complaints are bad."

Knox stresses the importance of giving employees the right tools to handle complaints, and one of the most important tools is communication.

"One of the first things you need to do is listen. Listen to the complaint," Knox says. "Make sure we never argue with the customer. We don’t have to like or respect them, but being in control of our response to them is critical. And being able to empathize — being able to look at it through their eyes." This doesn’t mean adopting the notion that the customer is always right, she says, "but recognizing that this is how the individual is seeing it from their side."

Asking the Right Questions

"Never ask a question that gives a yes or a no. A question a waiter or waitress should ask is, How could I do something different next time you come in to improve your experience here?" Knox says. "Ask the question that gives you information, rather than coming up to the table and saying, Was everything fine?"

And when a customer gives feedback, it’s important to act on it. "Don’t ask me if you’re not going to do anything about it," Knox says. Often, she adds, customers aren’t looking for the moon in response to a complaint. Offering the guest a complimentary appetizer on his or her next visit doesn’t cost much, and may result in a return visit and another chance to please that customer.

Communication is not always about one-on-one conversations, says Mike Amos, president of Empathica. It’s about learning what the customer wants you to be, and making meaningful, substantive, but often simple changes that have the right kind of impact with customers. Customer feedback can help guide those changes.

Empathica specializes in corporate measurement systems for large, multi-location operators, but its Sysco iCARE Customer Connect program offers the power of that type of survey to small independent restaurant operators.

"It enables them to get feedback from their customers on the quality of their recent visit," Amos says. That can help drive consumer loyalty, and can provide insight about how you stack up against other local restaurants and how you can be more competitive in that local market.

Seeking Feedback


Invitation cards are handed out to customers at random in the restaurant. The card invites the customer to give feedback through Empathica’s Web site, or through the company’s 1-800 phone number. Participants receive a $5 coupon for their next visit to the restaurant.

Customers have five possible responses — ranging from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree — to statements such as The food tasted great; I was able to get in and out of the restaurant in an appropriate amount of time; and The interior of the restaurant was warm and comfortable.

The result is a report that tells the restaurant the percentage of customers that agreed with the various statements.

Amos says Independent operators have specific challenges in terms of market competition, guest expectations and execution against guests’ most important attributes. Tips, he says, can be a misleading gauge of customer satisfaction, since many people leave a standard percentage. So service industries need a more reliable method of communicating with consumers.


"We try to help retailers get ahead of the curve," Amos says. "People will change their minds about you before they change their purchasing behaviour. If you wait until sales fall, you've waited too long." And once you’ve lost customers, it’s hard to get them back. ¨

For more information on Sysco's iCARE Customer Connect program with Empathica call 1-888-633-1633.