Handling Complaints Is Important

customer pet peeve complaints

A survey by a major consumer group reports that the handling of complaints by various industries, retail and food service in particular, has not improved. In fact, the number of complaints has grown. I thought it would be appropriate to revisit a column I wrote about five years ago.

To “complain” has been described as: disapprove, criticize, report adversely, grumble, protest, object to, deprecate, bellyache, and kick up a fuss. No matter what you call it, a customer complaint must be handled without delay. Fifteen percent of unresolved complaints will result in a loss of business. Most complaints deal with poor service and/or a poor attitude, according to Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor. “A typical business hears from only 4 percent of its dissatisfied guests; the other 96 percent quietly go away, and 91 percent will never come back.” Think about this—angry customers tell up to 20 other people when they are dissatisfied. Unattended complaints can be injurious to your business health. The most deadly complaint is the silent one, the one that you never get a chance to correct and, unfortunately, the customer never returns.

I think it’s fair to say that today’s consumer has become more critical, especially of service. I’m not just talking about our industry. I’m talking about service in general: voicemail systems where you never come in contact with a non-recorded human voice; toll-free calls where you hold for five, ten, or more minutes and a recording keeps telling you how important your call is; automated phone systems that have so many options you forget why you called; check-out counters where they can’t find the bar code on a product you want to purchase, and they practically have to call the manufacturer to get the price—and you chose this line because it was the super speedy one.

As a result of this kind of environment, consumers are more sensitive and conditioned to what they perceive to be impersonal service that is not meeting their expectations. They are more demanding and 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 five to 75 minutes. Multiply that by the number of customers you serve in the course of a day and you soon realize how exposed to complaints you can be.

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

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 for circumstances 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 loudly when using a cellphone or allowing unruly children to run through a dining room. All of these are common occurrences, and handling them properly and promptly sends a positive message to your guests.

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Many establishments consider the handling of customer complaints so crucial that they not only have a written policy which is reviewed with every new hire, but they have the team/staff member sign off on it to make sure they understand how important it is to deal with a complaint.

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

I will add that when an observant waitstaff or manager notices and asks about uneaten food set to the side by the customer, this may prevent a silent complaint and even inspire recommendations from the customer. It costs five times as much 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—and that was, not responding to their complaint.

Fred G. Sampson
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 fredgsampson@juno.com