Practical Ways to Handle Customer Complaints in a Restaurant

The customer is always right—even when they aren't

Waiter at a table taking a couple's order
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Excellent food and a great location are must-haves for any successful restaurant, but great customer service is just as important.

One of the most important parts of giving great customer service is knowing how to deal effectively with ​customer complaints. Things are bound to go wrong once in a while, no matter how hard you try. Food gets burned, orders get forgotten in the middle of a dinner rush, or new servers simply forget their training.

No matter the reason for the complaint, your goal should be to send your customer home knowing that you value their comments and their business, and that the problem wasn't typical of your establishment. How you handle customer complaints will determine if the customer comes back to your restaurant.

Listen to Your Diners

Listen to what your customer has to say. You have to listen with your full attention, even—and especially—if you can’t fix the problem.

Maybe a customer is displeased because there was a waiting line. There isn’t much you can do about that except let them vent. You can, however, make eye contact and nod while they do it, showing that you don't take their opinion lightly.

The Customer Is Always Right

This basic rule of customer service is particularly important to keep in mind when the complaint is petty or on the verge of being outright ridiculous.

The important thing is that your customer is unhappy. Commiserate with them that the guy four tables over is too loud. Offer to move them to another table a little farther away. 

You might even consider thanking them for their constructive advice if you can manage to sound sincere. Anything less than commiseration or—if you can manage it—a solution will only rile them up more, and that's not in your restaurant's best interests. You want your customers to go away talking about how great your food was, not that crazy guy seated a couple of tables over that no one could shut up. 

Be Aware of Body Language

The way you stand and look at a customer can speak more than words. Don’t cross your arms over your chest if you're feeling defensive. Avoid the urge to roll your eyes if you're feeling exasperated. Nod and smile no matter how irritated you might feel. This shows that you value their opinion and their business.

Be Empathetic—They Might Just Be Hangry

Remember that customer who was so upset over the long waiting line? Offer an apology: “I understand that you're not happy about the wait, sir, but we're working as fast as we can to get you a table. We really appreciate your patience and willingness to wait. Perhaps you'd like to have a drink at the bar until we're ready to seat you? We'll call you as soon as your table is ready.”

You've demonstrated that you completely understand his frustration, that you're working on the situation, and you've offered something of a solution. And it might help your mood to remember that a long waiting line is really a good problem for your restaurant to have.

Offer Some Freebie Appetizers or Drinks

The best route is usually to apologize and offer some sort of compensation when a customer has a problem that could have been prevented, such as an overcooked steak or a snippy server. Freebies don't have to cost you a lot of money, and they'll go a long way toward assuring future business.

Consider offering the long-waiting-line customer a free round of drinks while he sits at the bar. How much will it really cost you, especially compared to losing his business entirely? You might also offer a free dessert, a gift certificate for a future visit, merchandise such as a beer glass or a T-shirt, or to take a certain percentage off his meal. The extent of your gift should correspond with the magnitude of the problem the customer experienced.

When All Else Fails 

Every once in a while, you'll encounter a truly angry customer who declares, “I’m never coming back!” Maybe they're justified, but maybe not. Freebies probably aren't going to change their mind. Calmly assure the customer that you understand their frustration. Offer an apology— again—and let them know that you'd love to see them again if they change their mind.

The idea is to keep the situation from escalating. You don't want to let them get so worked up and loud that every other diner in your establishment begins to wonder what you did wrong. And, if you send them off on a calm, courteous note, there's a good chance that angry customer will try your restaurant again.

Keep in Touch 

No, you probably don't want anything more to do with that customer, but it's in your best interest to reach out to them again. Their anger has almost certainly evaporated after a few days or a week—at least it's not at a fever pitch.

If possible, get contact information for your unhappy customer before they depart. Reach out later, even if it's just by email. Apologize again and keep it short and simple: "I wanted to thank you again for stopping by. If there's anything we can do to improve your experience next time, please reach out to me at this number in advance so that I can personally make sure that your experience is as pleasant as possible."

It might sound like a lot of effort for one disgruntled customer, but word of mouth is king. Your response to customer service complaints could go a long way toward ensuring that your business stays profitable.