When managing any public space — from a full service restaurant to a corner taco stand — it is inevitable that you will come up against complaints. Consumers are justifiably particular when dining out, and not every experience you provide will be uniform or perfectly match a customer’s expectations. Mistakes happen and problems will come up. How you deal with a problem, whether it involves food, staff, or environment, is just as important an element in your customer service plan as working on getting it right the first time.
But what do you do if a customer is particularly irate about their experience, and their complaint comes in the form of a raised voice, red-faced anger, and public display? How do you calm your patron down and deliver a solution that will make them and you — and any other customers witnessing the event — happy?
These 10 rules for managing an angry restaurant customer can take you from the beginning of a conflict toward a peaceful — and amicable — resolution.
1. Listen. Really listen.
A lot of customer complaints resolve simply when people feel like they’ve been heard and understood. Even when they’re demanding something unreasonable, proactively listen and do not succumb to distraction, closed body language like folded arms, or other visible annoyance. This will go a long way toward getting an irate customer to see reason and return to their seat. In short, calmly approach and just hear them out.
2. Don’t get defensive.
Stay neutral in tone and response when a customer is actively complaining. This is critical to convincing them you are taking their concern seriously. Never argue back, even if the customer is wrong, doesn’t quite have all the information, or is seemingly lying.
Matching emotion with emotion in situations involving angry patrons is a prescription for a flame war. The goal is to deescalate and resolve the problem, not exacerbate an atmosphere of antagonism.
3. Sympathize, but avoid being phony-empathic.
Letting an angry customer know you take them seriously is important, as is expressing sympathy for their dilemma. However, it’s also important to limit your empathy to a reasonable amount so it doesn’t come off as fake or patronizing. It’s easy to be misinterpreted, particularly when one party is already seeing red. Keeping a calm, even tone and neutral facial expression can help avoid having condescension projected onto you by an irate customer.
4. Use names as much as possible.
If known and/or appropriate in your setting, call the customer by their name in response to their complaint. The act implies sincerity and an appreciation of their unique circumstances that led up to the incident.
Using a first or last name of both the customer and any other party involved can also personalize the conversation, diminishing the likelihood of them wanting to objectify your staff. This tactic, along with asking open-ended questions, can deescalate tension rather quickly in a more reasonable person.
5. Lower your voice.
Behavioral studies show that parties in a discussion will tend to elevate or lower their own voice in order to match the others speaking. So if you speak calmly and at a lower tone, an irate customer may subconsciously attempt to meet you, even if half-way.
6. Repeat what you’ve heard.
After listening to a full description of the problem directly from the customer in question, repeat the concern back to them in plain language. Carefully remove the emotion attached in the telling. If there are inconsistencies, this will be the customer’s chance to correct you. The ultimate goal is that both parties have the same understanding of the events that led to the complaint.
And if you’re lucky, hearing the retelling in another voice may help normalize the critique for the customer and deflate a bit of the emotion attached. Repeating what they said also gives you more time to fully process the situation in your own head and come up with the most prudent response.
7. Present a solution.
It’s an important distinction, but present your customer with a solution to their problem, not necessarily a solution for the problem. It does not, and should not, matter to the customer that your server has a broken arm or that your vendor shorted you on flank steak this week.
Coming up with a solution that satisfies their immediate need is all that’s called for in the moment. Everything else can be worked out behind closed doors. And be sure to confirm that the solution you present to the (hopefully now calm) customer is satisfactory to them, as well.
8. Be aware of other customers’ discomfort.
On the rare occasion where a customer is so unruly in their anger that it infringes on their neighbors’ ability to have a positive dining experience, your solution for the dilemma can’t just end with one person.
Have your servers check in on nearby tables and give a little extra attention and kindness to help offset the memory of the outburst. If the incident was particularly traumatic, consider comping some desserts or beverage to the surrounding patrons with a short and soft apology for the discomfort.
9. Maintain acceptable limits.
While we want to believe that the customer is always right, that doesn’t mean any type of behavior should be tolerated. Don’t let your employees take abuse, verbal or physical, just to satisfy a customer.
If a customer is slurring words (or seems otherwise inebriated) and maintains an irate composure, waste no time in securing their removal from the establishment. The safety of your employees and other customers are your number one priority. This helps protect your employees in the immediate moment and reinforces to them that you’re looking out for their overall well-being on the job.
10. Don’t take it personally.
At the end of the shift, it’s easy to go home and brood about what we could have done or said better. But the reality is, complaints happen. Mistakes are made. And while it’s important to learn from them, it’s just as critical not to let them weigh you down emotionally like a boat anchor.
Negativity is contagious, but you can control whether you let it get inside your head or not. Let it go, and take on the next shift as a brand new day.
Want some more tips on how to handle negativity in your work environment?