To dispense with the obvious: Contrary to business lore, the customer is not always right. Far from it. Customers can be fickle, cranky, and raised to think the 12% tip they always leave entitles them to whatever. If anything, customers are an unreliable narrator of what you and your staff have accomplished on a given night. Take what they say with the largest grain of salt you can find at Costco.
And yet! As another old saying holds, you can’t live without ‘em. If you’re going to keep your customers happy — a state that exists quite separately from any right/wrong binary — then you’re going to have to listen to what they have to say. Furthermore, you’ll have to apply some of what they suggest. For all their flaws, customers not only pay the bills, they’re the best source of feedback about what it’s like to walk into your restaurant and try to have a good time. And usually when a customer isn’t happy, their go-to move is simply to ghost you permanently. Understanding their thought process is part science, part art, and part survival strategy. When they do talk, you want to hear them with an open mind.
So how to gather this intel? If you’re running a four-table trattoria in Tuscany, all you have to do to solicit feedback is saunter up and ask ‘em. If you’re running just about any other size operation, you have to work a bit harder. Whether busy or ambivalent — or embarrassed by a bad experience! — even loyal customers aren’t likely to give you their full opinion. But keep plugging. Below the surface, you’ll find interesting observations. It’s then up to you to decide whether to apply it to your business operations or to simply say “thanks for sharing.”
Here’s how to weed through the comments, reviews, and even old-school comment cards to get the most out of your customer feedback and maybe even grow your customer base.
How to get your customers to talk to you
If they physically come into your restaurant, this is the easy part. Start by making sure someone greets them. This simple move can have huge benefits. Studies in classrooms have found that when a teacher greets students, the kids’ behavior, academic performance, and sense of community trust all improve. If you see a repeat customer? Walk up and say, “Hey, great to see you again. How was your visit last time?” Their mood will improve, and they’re likely to have a better time that evening. Easy win, plus you’ve opened a conversation.
Other customers are likely to be on third-party apps like UberEats and DoorDash. They might be Yelp Elite and leave multi-paragraph explanations of their three-star night. Email marketing is also a simple way to get a survey out the door to your loyalty program set aka those customers who are most likely to respond. And of course there are always the trusty Google reviews as well as comments made on Facebook and Instagram posts (all of which help raise your profile online). And lest we forget the old-school dining set, go ahead and make comment cards available in the dining room, and on the bill. Ideally you get to see any complaints first, before the public or even your staff; a dedicated email address on the receipt for just such feedback isn't the worst idea.
No matter what the method, the more options you have for soliciting feedback, the more likely it is you receive it. Anymore, in fact, the greatest risk is that you’ll miss an important message. Wouldn’t you know, there’s an app for that. Softwares such as Neighbourhood Networks, Birdeye, Reputation.com and Podium can help you track your restaurant across various review sites. A dedicated social media person or public relations pro can also help monitor and respond to customer feedback.
In any case, you should make sure customer feedback has clear pathways to a manager or director of operations.
Keep your channels open, so you can find patterns
Sometimes customers just want to vent. In this case, start by simply listening. Most people, accustomed to feeling unheard in their daily lives, will soften as soon as they gather that someone is paying attention to their concerns. Even a quick “thank you for bringing this to our attention” or “we’re sorry to hear you didn't have a good experience” can go a long way.
Then, create a record. Maybe this particular customer is off-base, maybe not. But you’ll have a better sense if you keep track of the frequency of particular issues that people raise. One complaint of slow service isn’t a reason to add another server to your dinner shift; five in a week might be. Make sure your managers feel empowered and comfortable enough to engage with customers directly and substantively. Customers will feel that what they say matters, and your team will have a chance to put out fires while they’re still just warm sparks.
If a problem is trending in your restaurant — or if a particular night did go off the rails — it’s time to play sleuth. A customer’s complaint is just one data point, but it might point you toward others. Are your front of house and back of house running efficiently? Were there hiccups in the POS system or equipment? Do you have enough people working, and are they well-trained? The customer may not always be right, but they might just clue you into something that’s a little off.
Draw the line at terrible customer behavior
Here’s who you don’t have to humor: an abusive customer. No one on your staff should have to deal with shouting, profanity, physical intimidation, or condescension. If a customer is acting like a genuine blockhead, default to taking your workers’ side. If someone’s screaming “I’m never coming here again,” well, who would want them back anyway? Your staff is watching closely in these moments. They’ll remember your grace under pressure, but moreover, they’ll remember your backbone.
“I am always interested in what our customers have to say and welcome their feedback unless they berate my staff — then their merit pretty much falls to zero,” says Felix Flores, owner of Wicked Oak BBQ, a mecca for carnivores in Tampa, Florida. “We can’t tolerate behavior like this. It is something that has especially gotten out of control lately. We expect to be treated how we treat others: with courtesy and respect.”
If complaints keep rolling in, especially during certain shifts, maybe you go a bit more Nancy Drew on the situation. Make note not just about what people are complaining about, but when. If similar complaints keep happening when the same employees are working, it could point to an issue you need to address with them directly. But gather evidence before you leap to conclusions.
Pivoting around every single crumb of feedback is impossible and only leads to anxiety in the workplace. If you keep up a steady baseline of dialogue between you, your staff, your customers, and your various digital feedback channels, you’ll have an intuitive sense of what’s urgent, what can wait, and what you can diplomatically ignore.
Whatever they say, you have to respond somehow
The key word there is “diplomatically.” Whether customers are wrong, right or just plain ol’ annoying, you have to reply to it in some fashion. After all, responding to bad reviews comes with the territory of owning a restaurant. Don’t let an angry person online get the first and last word.
Whether the feedback is thoughtful or unhinged, your first move can always be a genuine thanks for bringing a situation to your attention and giving your management team a chance to address it. So often, the mere gesture will go a long way toward soothing any hurt feelings. It also moves a conversation toward a civil tone that can help you determine what, if anything, you need to address with your staff.
A healthy conversation also doubles as low-key restaurant marketing. Engaging with complaints on a public platform shows potential customers that you care, even when someone dredges up a less-than-stellar experience. Every once in a while, an irate patron may even surprise you with a smart fix. They’re not always right, but if it comes down to your customers or a broken clock, bet on the customers.