Combating Complaints


I have been sharing my thoughts with you, the reader, for over 30 years, and from time to time I revisit subjects such as service, quality of food, protecting your brand, and other key aspects of the industry. One that I discuss with greater frequency is the importance of handling complaints, and that’s because not to do so can be costly and damaging. So again I’m asking you to take another look at how your operation handles them.

There are 36 definitions of the word complaint in Webster’s New World Dictionary. No matter which one you use, a customer’s complaint should be handled without delay, and here is why.

Fifteen percent of unresolved complaints will result in a loss of business. Most complaints deal with poor service and/or poor attitude, according to Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor. “A typical business hears from only 4 percent of its dissatisfied customers. The other 96 percent just quietly go away and 91 percent of them never come back.” Think about this: Angry customers tell up to 20 other people when they are dissatisfied. The most deadly complaint is the silent one, the one that you never got the chance to correct and, unfortunately, the customer never returns. And finally, a customer whose complaint went unnoticed, who is also an active social media user, can do great damage to your reputation and your business.

I think it’s fair to say that today’s consumer is restless, as evidenced by their reaction to the election process presently taking place. There is a sense of frustration, the feeling that they are not receiving the service and attention they should, be it from retail stores, government services, manufacturers’ recalls of various products, and dealing with services that keep you waiting on your phone for inordinate amounts of time.

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As a result of this kind of environment, consumers are more sensitive and conditioned to what they perceive as impersonal service that is not meeting expectations. They are more demanding, defensive, and thus more critical. This puts an additional burden on an industry such as ours, where human contact is so important. It begins from the time guests enter the front door until they leave, which can be anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes. Multiply that by the number of customers you serve in the course of a day and you soon realize how exposed you can be.

Are you prepared to deal with complaints effectively? Do you have a written or at least a verbal policy or procedure for dealing with complaints? Is every member of your staff/team aware of it? If not, they should be; unless you have a plan, dealing with complaints can be a risky business.

There are many areas to consider, such as: What is the problem? When does a staff member send for management? What is the customer’s level of emotion? Is there potential liability, such as the spilling of a hot beverage or the soiling of a customer’s garment? Then there are the actions of other guests, such as talking very loud on their cell phone and allowing unruly children to run through a dining room. All of these are common occurrences, and handling them properly sends a positive message to your guests.

Many establishments consider the handling of customer complaints so important that they not only have a written policy, but it is received along with the paycheck. For example, the following is a reminder to the staff of The Good Steer restaurant located in Lake Grove, NY. Their slogan reads as follows: “A McCarroll Family Affair Since 1957.” They must be doing something right; 60 years is a long time in this business.

In a survey I conducted with a group of consumers, I asked the following question: “When you find a need to register a complaint about an aspect of eating out, such as food, food temperature, or service, how do you feel it was handled?” Fifty percent said the complaint was handled satisfactorily, 20 percent said they were receiving lip service, and 30 percent said they didn’t complain and they would just not return to the establishment. If the group I surveyed is representative of consumers in general—and I believe they are—then 50 percent is not acceptable. Perhaps it’s time to review your policy as it relates to complaints.

It costs five times more to get a customer as it does to keep one. Don’t let the customer walk out the door, never to return because of something you didn’t do. Respond to their complaint.

Fred G. Sampson is the retired President Emeritus of the New York State Restaurant Association. He began working with NYSRA in 1961. Within the next four years the NYSRA more than tripled its membership and expanded from one regional chapter to eight. Sampson played roles in representing restaurants on issues including paid sick leave, minimum wage, liquor laws, a state-wide alcohol training program and insurance plans. Comments may be sent to