Running a restaurant is a bit like running a race team. Orders are flying into the pits at speed and meals are flying out the other end even faster. Cool heads are called for to match pace with precision and no matter how slick your team, spanners will inevitably get stuck in the works.

When a meal is overcooked or a customer is kept waiting, faces will redden and hands will go to hips. Here comes the complaint. Are you prepared? This article gives you some pointers on how to turn complaints into compliments.

Hear them out

Remember, unhappy customers who don't complain usually have no intention to return. Unhappy customers who do complain are often trying to resolve a problem for smoother future visits. Listening intently to complaints is therefore a critical part of your customer service strategy. Even if you can't solve the problem immediately – a queue for tables, an out of stock item on the menu – make sure the customer knows you fully understand the issue. If you're the manager and you have been summoned to resolve a problem, start by giving your full name and title, and then let them vent. Repeat the complaint back to them if it helps.

Offer sincere apologies

And that does mean sincere. Hands on hips or arms crossed is no way to say sorry. So make sure your body is doing what your mouth is saying and say sorry with feeling. Don't roll your eyes no matter how annoying the customer or how petty the complaint. Make sure the customer knows that they are important to you and that you are there to fix the problem as quickly as you can.

Roll out the sweetener

Most complaints are about waiting times for tables and food, wrong orders and bad food. Your restaurant should have clear guidelines on how to deal with these situations so there is no dithering about. This also avoids any chance of a flustered manager offering to wipe an entire bill. Yes, if it's dissatisfaction over a meal, offer to remove that item from the bill. But often customers just want to rant without reward so gauge the situation carefully before wheeling out the freebies. If left with no other option, free desserts or a complimentary round of drinks can thaw the ice without costing you much.

Be reserved with reservations

If a customer has booked a table for 7:00 and they're still waiting at 7:30, they're entitled to be annoyed. Likewise your kitchen staff won't be too thrilled if every table fills at once and they are swamped with orders. Space your bookings to ensure no one waits long for tables or food. A packed restaurant won't stay packed for long if your service implodes under the pressure.

Eavesdrop online

Often customers will save their complaint for a scathing online review so give them plenty of options to do so. Start a Facebook page and sign up on all your local online restaurant guides. Anonymous reviews will tend to be the harshest, but they will also be the most honest. While it may not make great reading, it's a great way to find out what you're doing wrong and fix it. Resolve the problem internally, then announce this directly to the complainant online.

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