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Restaurant customers aren’t always going to be happy with their dining experience. In fact, it’s inevitable that someone will be unhappy with a restaurant’s service, food, or ambiance at some point. Unfortunately, the news of a bad dining experience reaches twice as many people as praise for a good experience.

For that reason, it’s vital that managers, servers, and hosts are able to mediate these issues in a way that leaves the customer satisfied.

So how can you satisfy an unhappy customer?

Let’s look at 3 steps restaurant staff can use to navigate customer complaints with tact:

Listen & Empathize

The first step to addressing a customer complaint is to actually stop and listen to the issue at hand. Be patient, and let the customer express their concerns, regardless of if the situation is something the manager or server has no control over, like a long wait time.

A critical aspect of the listening stage is placing yourself in the customer’s shoes. Even before offering a solution, customers want to be listened to and understood.

Managers should also be listening for negative customer comments online, on both review sites and social media accounts. Complaints on these online forums should be responded to promptly, especially when potential customers are researching a restaurant online and may be influenced by negative feedback.

Offer a Solution

Sometimes the solution will be as simple as a heart-felt apology. If the problem is a long waiting line, offering an apology like, “I understand that you are not happy about the wait, sir, but we are working as fast as we can to get you a table. We really appreciate your patience and willingness to wait. Perhaps you would like to have a drink at the bar until your table is ready,” can help resolve the issue.

For complaints that could have been prevented, like bad service or an overcooked meal, managers can offer a solution in the form of a compensated meal, in addition to apologizing.

Active listening, empathizing, and finding a reasonable solution to the issue will typically leave customers feeling satisfied. Happy customers who get their issue resolved may tell about 4-6 people about their experience.

Build Relationships & Learn from Mistakes

The final step in handling customer complaints is to follow-up and make sure customers are happy with the resolution. If a customer is still unsatisfied, see if there is a different resolution that would remedy the issue.

An important tip to keep in mind when a customer is unhappy is to inform restaurant staff about the complaint to help prevent the problem from occurring in the future. For example, tell the chef and kitchen staff if a customer found their steak overcooked, or servers if a customer felt neglected.

Utilize the experience as a learning opportunity and enhance the service your staff provides.

Final Thoughts

Remember that customers can express dissatisfaction both in person, and online. With the growing popularity of online review sites, restaurants need to manage online complaints in addition to managing issues that arise in the restaurant.

“Even the quietest guest can reach hundreds or thousands of others within seconds [online],” says Gabe Hosler, director of training and operations for Rubio’s restaurant. “It’s so important that you satisfy your guest.”

Ultimately, effective mediation of negative customer feedback is a chance to build a relationship and turn a complaining customer into a loyal customer. Since maintaining loyal customers is 6-7 times less expensive than acquiring new ones, crisis management strategies can even help lower restaurant costs.

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