4 Steps to Handling Online Customer Complaints With Poise

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By Andrew Carlson, Foodable Industry Expert

In the world of digital media, there’s a right way to handle customer complaints, and then there are multiple wrong ways. And the wrong ways just feel so much better in the heat of the moment, too.

One of my least favorite sayings in the restaurant industry, one I have heard often going through the ranks, is that “the customer is always right.” I don’t agree with it because I definitely think the customer can be wrong ,and it’s okay to tell the customer that they’re wrong — as long as you do it the right way.

But that’s not what we’re talking about today.

We’re talking about the digital world, where something can be shared with the click of a button. Brands have gotten themselves into some muddy water with the way that they have communicated with their customers online.

Listen, I get it. There’s nothing more satisfying than telling off the disgruntled customer who gave you a 1 star for being too expensive or that your restaurant is too modern or hipster. Or the customer who is never satisfied with anything in life and has to make everyone around them miserable, including your staff.

It feels so good — for a moment — but then you have potentially lost more customers by telling that person off because it’s public. Even if it’s sent in a private message, it can easily be screencapped and shared with all of the world to see.

So, what do we have to remember when reading customer reviews or looking at social media and coming across a customer complaint?

Their experience and perception of your business and staff is REAL to them.

Their feelings are extremely valid. Whether you agree with them or not, they are currently experiencing what they perceive is happening to them.

Remember, people are coming to restaurants for the experience. They’re looking for an escape and when their own experience doesn’t live up to their expectations, people jump into survival mode, however that looks for them.

Some people grab management right away and the team can remedy the situation while others just let it build up until they get home. Then they’ll release all of that bottled up hatred for the experience that they had and get even more angry while they’re reliving it to write that review.

I’m not saying every 1-star review or complaint is justified, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t communicate with your customer. I believe every review or complaint should be responded to because it can become your greatest source of learning.

This is the four-step process I take to handle all customer complaints with poise.

1. Take a Deep Breath and Reflect.

The worst thing that you can do as a restaurant owner, operator, or manager is to respond immediately after reading the review, especially if it angers you. You want to be able to think logically instead of emotionally.

Once you take 24 hours to think about it, craft a response that comes from the heart. If their experience was that your staff wasn’t as friendly as they had hoped, then maybe it was an off day for the server. Maybe you don’t watch your teams as effectively and they let their attitude rub off from time to time. Maybe they thought they were being incredibly friendly and the customer just couldn’t see it because of something they went through that day.

Regardless of the situation, always take a deep breath and some time for reflection before responding. You should never respond in the heat of the moment but don’t take more than 72 hours to respond to a complaint or poor review.

2. Get Them to Communicate Through Private Messages.

You don’t need to let the whole world know what you are doing to correct the situation. You don’t want to let people know that you are giving someone a refund or sending out a gift card because you are just welcoming people to complain about your business simply for a free meal.

Certain situations need to be remedied in the public eye though. If it’s ever about service being slow or unfriendly, that is something that can damage a brand to someone searching for a place to eat and solely going based off of reviews.

It’s important to let them know that you go to great lengths to train your teams on service and you are “upset” to hear that service was not up to your expectations. Then lead into “send me a message so we can discuss the situation in greater detail.”

3. Be Genuine.

No one wants to hear a story or an excuse as to why they had a poor experience. The customer wants to be heard and wants to know that you took the feedback as a learning tool to improve your operations or company.

The customer will know if you are just slapping them with a “copy/paste” response. You don’t want to do that.

Your responses should be direct. Apologize that their perception of your business is poor and what you are going to do to remedy the situation. Sometimes just knowing that you’ve taken their feedback into consideration is all the customer needs.

Customers will continue to frequent your business even if they had a poor experience  — if they know that it’s not the norm. Or know that it’s not going to be the norm if they decide to come back and give you another chance.

4. Invite Them Back to Make It Right.

No matter if the customer is right in their perception of the experience, it’s important to invite them back so you have the opportunity to make it right.

This gives your business another opportunity to turn that customer into a raving fan for life.

At the end of the day, your customers are the ones that keep the lights on. Taking the high road may not always be easy, but it’s a surefire way to ensure you’ll stand out from your competition.

Remember, if you help someone have a better experience, you’ll make a customer for life.