KEY POINTS:
* Look at every complaint as a learning opportunity with the potential to improve your business
* When you receive a grievance, try to empathise with the customer and understand their reasoning
* Involving staff in complaint resolution helps them to learn from the situation
* A complimentary meal gives you the chance to get customers back into your premises and demonstrate that their bad experience was a one-off

CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS are an unfortunate fact of life for all of us in the foodservice business. Whether you’re running a neighbourhood pizzeria, pub or club bistro, café or restaurant, word of mouth is still the most powerful way in which potential customers hear either good or bad things about your food. So when customers do come to you with a grievance — which will happen inevitably, sooner or later — it’s important you know how to respond in a positive way.
“The first thing to remember is not to take complaints personally — it’s business,” advises Fonterra Executive Chef Liam McLaughlin, a foodservice veteran who has successfully run his own restaurant. “Remind yourself that even the greatest restaurants in the world receive complaints, it’s nothing unique to your business or food.”
Liam suggests looking at every customer complaint as a learning opportunity with the potential to improve your business. “When you receive a grievance, you need to try to empathise with the customer,” he explains. “Try to understand what their reasoning is, what the core of the issue is, and what kind of redress they’re seeking. You need to identify whether the customer is frustrated, angry, disappointed — each are different perspectives requiring different types of response.”
Some grievances will require you to undertake investigations to determine whether the complaint is justified. “If there’s a complaint about quality of service, for example, you will need to talk to the relevant staff and get their side of the story. It’s important to get a balanced view as some customer complaints will be frivolous or disproportionate to the seriousness of the issue. This is an important step to get right before taking any action - the last thing you want to do is give a staff member a blast, if it turns out they did nothing wrong!”
Involving staff in the resolution of the complaint also helps them to learn from the situation. “If it was a particular staff member’s fault, they need to ‘own’ the mistake — that will help them to employ tactics to prevent a similar situation happening in the future. Wherever possible, work together with staff and suggest solutions. There’s nothing worse than being told ‘this went wrong’ without knowing how to fix it.”
Once you’ve identified the issue behind the customer’s grievance, you need to choose your response wisely. Often a simple apology is enough, but if they’ve been let down by a service or food issue, it’s wise to offer them a complimentary meal. Think of it as an opportunity to get them back into your premises and demonstrate that their bad experience was a one-off. It also shows that you’re willing to fix the situation where possible. When apologising, be honest and empathetic and ‘own’ the problem — and again, never make it personal. “By taking the emotion out of the response, it gives your mind more clarity,” Liam says. “It should be purely about what’s best for business — making things right and learning from the experience. No matter how negative the customer’s complaint is, your honest response will put a more positive spin on things immediately. For many customers, acknowledgement of their grievance is the most important thing. And if you’re not willing to take their complaints seriously, then you’re missing out on the potential to improve your business.”
redressing customer issues
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