How to Respond to Customers Who Are Complaining in Your Restaurant

You can't please every customer every time. You learn, this, of course, each time someone leaves an unflattering review for you online. At least some of those are patently fake. But when the situation is more confrontational — when someone is complaining, right now, during a busy shift, about some slight, whether real or perceived — you've got to do your best to repair the situation in real time.

The comforting news, at least, is that how you respond to a customer grievance is the only part of dispute that you have full control over. We should get it out of the way up front: Not everyone is going to leave happy.

A friend recounted a story to me recently about a 71-person event of seven courses, with seven pairings. Everyone seemed so happy. That is, except for one cheerless couple who complained non-stop. They wanted to know why the event was so long — “seven courses is so many” — which is definitely not a solvable problem. A squash dish everyone else enjoyed, they responded to with an “eww, no.” They left before the dessert courses, a bit of a relief and a final demonstration of how determined they were to be unhappy.

You can have the best chef, with the best team, supported by the most experienced service staff, in the perfect room and someone, somewhere, will drag a storm cloud in with them. It’s the reality of hospitality. Traditionally the odds of having all your staff show up on time, not hungover, eager to please, was roughly that of an ace-high flush. Post-pandemic, you really just hope you have the staff to run the night. In a perfect world, customers would check their pessimism at home, but that is also unlikely. A real service is usually a comedy of errors, and if you’re lucky, the guests don’t notice.

When you are running a room and a grievance is brought to your attention, handling even the absurd encounters with grace is the only way to go. Take a deep breath, find your happy place, and:

First things first, figure out what happened

You have to determine whether the injury to the customer is real or imagined. Real grievances come in several shades. “I ordered my steak med-rare, and it’s well done” is a real error, and easy to fix. A spill or a forgotten course — or worse, a forgotten table — can be harder to navigate. For this reason, get the info from your team so that you can begin to solve the issue right away when you approach the table, rather than having to excuse yourself to investigate. It's a different ballgame if the situation involves a drunk person or a resolutely unhappy couple. Either way, know what you’re walking into!

Give the customer your full attention as you listen

In all cases, you have to let them tell you whatever it is they want to tell you. It’s too cold, too loud, too dark. Their martini isn’t strong enough. Their martini — why is it so strong? They can’t stand the carpet design. Whatever they want to tell you, let them. You cannot turn things around until they feel heard. This is human.

Next, restate the problem so they know you understand. Many, many normal people simply hate complaining — it feels cheap, and they don’t want to feel cheap on their night out. Really, they want something solved. Like most industry folk, if I complain about something, it’s something I really can’t live with (like an over cooked steak) and I want you to fix it so I can go back to having a good time! That’s it. I don’t want free stuff and I really don’t want to ruin someone’s night. Do your best to listen actively, and try your hardest not to glance around the room, as you’ve been trained to do. Especially for a table that’s been neglected, your full attention will mean a great deal.

Offer a graceful apology even before you try to problem-solve

Do they deserve it? I dunno. Maybe not, but life gets so much easier if you start there. In the event the problem stems from an error on your end, acknowledge it and don’t make excuses. Because, really, you are some kind of sorry they’re unhappy, right? Even if they are miserable people, you would prefer they were happy people, right? They might not be justified in their crankiness, but generally speaking, you’d want them back on one of their better days.

Keep the apology short and specific to their particular experience. “I am so sorry no one has helped you yet. I’m happy to get you some drinks on the house and take your order?” Not every problem will be solved this way. Some people are going to try to get their check comped or some other nonsense. That’s when you have to move on to the next step.

Troubleshoot — or make the tough call not to

It’s easy to pivot from an apology into a solution, assuming there is one. Apology: “I am so sorry your steak is overcooked!” Solution: “I’ll get a fresh one on the grill and out to you right away.” For most hungry people, this will fix the moment.

If you can get a thing in front of them right away so the table isn’t politely letting their food get cold, even better. I’m a sucker for glasses of Prosecco as a solution. It feels fancy and costs you little. Present a slice of terrine or some deviled eggs or whatever you can get out in the shortest amount of time, pour a round of half-filled flutes, suddenly people once again feel like they’re at a party. A neglected table needs (and deserves) some special treatment, as well as courteous attention for the rest of the evening.

For the cases when it’s not so easy, you need to be creative. If the problem is more emotional or ego-driven, you may need to offer the ego something. Once, at the Breslin, a server spilled a glass of champagne on a black jacket. I went into the situation thinking it was as easy as an apology and a dry cleaning bill. The customer in question was there with five women, all of whom he clearly wanted to impress, and he’d decided that a splash of clear liquid on the black jacket was an affront too far. Our soggy man did not want dry cleaning; he wanted his $600 bill comped. It wasn’t until he and I stepped away from the table, out of earshot of the women, that I was able to find a solution. I did pay for his dry cleaning. I did not pay for his $600 bill. In that case, a round of drinks and a few additional desserts worked like a charm.

At least our soggy man could be reasoned with. Other times, customers leave you little choice but to let them leave mad, to return to their sad, angry hill. This goes for wet-eyed sport drinkers, the high people openly inhaling powders, and the fighting couples who have decided they need a common enemy. Make a note, take the high road, do not be pushed around, and live to fight another day. In these particular comedies of errors, the fault lies not with you.

[Photo by Hamish Duncan on Unsplash]