Any restaurant owner will tell you that their success depends on reputation and the appreciation of their customers. Without a steady stream of loyal visitors shuffling into a restaurant, it can’t survive.
But the nature of the hospitality industry means that even the most well-received establishments hear negative customer feedback. These complaints give business owners and managers insight into what’s working — and what’s not working — about their restaurants.
Here are four steps for transforming bad feedback into an asset for a restaurant:
1. Listen intently
The first step in receiving feedback is to actively listen to the customer’s experience with the intention of remaining empathetic to their concerns. Managers need to recognize that when most diners eat out, they’re making the choice to treat themselves. They want to avoid the hassle of their own kitchen for a delicious meal and top-notch service.
Regardless of the severity of the issue and the customer’s reaction, staff can diffuse tension by holding direct eye contact and using affirming phrases like “I see,” “Uh huh.” If the feedback is confusing — you’re not sure what the problem is — mirror the complaint back to the customer to make sure you understood it correctly. “So, the soup is cold even though you already sent it back once?”
Even though it’s easy to feel swept up in panic (especially if the staff has made a big error), maintaining a calm presence sets a professional tone for the interaction and can save the day.
2. Offer a sincere apology
A sincere, heartfelt apology is the best way to shift the momentum of a negative experience toward a positive turnaround. Here are some simple ways to apologize:
• “I’m so sorry that you didn’t have a better experience with us tonight.”
• “I really appreciate this feedback, and I’m truly sorry we didn’t do a better job.”
• “I’m grateful that you let me know you had a problem tonight. On behalf of the restaurant, please let me apologize. I’m so sorry.”
Most importantly, avoid making excuses or placing blame. Instead, recognize that this perceived mistake inconvenienced a customer in a real way.
Acknowledge not only the exact issue they describe but the feelings behind it. For example, if a diner seems really frustrated, you could say, “I imagine you must be really frustrated because you come here expecting a certain level of service.” Replace the word “frustrated” with whichever emotion the customer is exhibiting in the conversation.
Although anyone from a busser to a server can and should apologize, it’s also important to send complaints up through the chain of command. The more unacceptable the mistake, the more important it is that a g.m. or business owner apologize. When a g.m. says, “I’m sorry,” it shows diners that the restaurant takes their feedback seriously.
Research from the University of Nottingham affirmed that this kind of apology is twice as effective as financial compensation at prompting feelings of forgiveness. The trick is to make sure the apology is authentic and comes from the right person.
3. Remedy the situation
The adage “actions speak louder than words” holds true in the restaurant world.
To substantiate an apology, make a significant gesture. With the example of cold soup, take the dish off the bill immediately. The more severe a mistake, the more substantial a gesture it takes to remedy the situation.
In the case of a botched dinner or multiple egregious errors, managers should consider covering the bill and sending out extra dessert or another round of drinks. Although this approach can impact short-term revenue, these acts of generosity can solidify customer relationships on the brink of collapse.
It’s also essential to fix any glaring issues with your staff. Speak directly to the person who slipped up, and if necessary, model best practices on the spot. Although it helps to treat all negative feedback with the same diligence, some comments may be unfounded. In this case, reinforce the positive behavior of staff despite a dissatisfied customer.
4. Address feedback on a broader scale
To take a proactive approach to negative feedback, create a clear process for handling complaints beyond the quick fix. Use a Google Doc or an excel sheet to record customer feedback. These notes should include the time, date, manager on duty and the reported issue.
Recording feedback gives business owners the awareness they need to track these problems: Do these complaints only occur during a certain shift? After more training, are they going away?
Mike Lester, president of The Melting Pot Restaurants, sees each complaint as “a gift.” Regular notes mean you can nip a problem in the bud before it becomes a part of your reputation. Once something ends up on Yelp, it’s permanent. But with a clear accountability program, you can detect consistent problems before they end up online.
Instead of placing blame on lower-level employees, use this feedback to assess the strength of management strategy, as well as the effectiveness of onboarding and training programs. With the right managerial support and additional hands-on training, motivated employees can transform a restaurant’s challenges into its strengths.
The way that business owners process and respond to negative customer feedback reflects their restaurant’s brand. By approaching criticism with understanding, a clear apology and a promise of change, these leaders strengthen their restaurants and support a positive customer experience.
Nick Lucs is a content marketing and social media specialist at When I Work.