How to deal with angry customers in your cafe or restaurant

Small Business Advice 19 August 2019
angry customers cafe restaurant

It’s quite a shock for any restaurant manager – suddenly you’re confronted with a furious red-faced, shouting, gesticulating customer. It can all feel a bit unreal and you may even struggle to understand what’s actually happened as your own blood pumps faster and the adrenalin kicks in. So, what do you do now?

Complaints are part of any business. Properly managed, they can even improve a restaurant’s service. But a seriously irate customer is something else entirely. It’s an emergency and you owe it to yourself, your employees and other diners to handle it quickly, smoothly and effectively.

These six rules for managing restaurant rage will help you defuse the immediate incident and create the space to resolve the situation.

  1. Take control

At first, everything will feel a bit crazy and out of control, but it’s important to keep your sensitivities in check. See it for what it is – an extreme customer service challenge. By adopting a professional attitude, you can avoid being defensive or losing your own temper.

Above all, don’t rise to it. A shouting war won’t help anyone and there’s really no reason to take offence because it’s nothing personal. The customer is blindly projecting their anger on to everyone around them, and that includes you.

Start with the practicalities. You really don’t need a fuming, unpredictable malcontent in your dining area, so politely say “Step into my office” and usher them to a quiet space. This will take away their audience, remove distractions and inhibit their shouting.

Having tidied up the scene, you now need to deal with the person.

  1. Listen calmly (and closely)

In effect, you have two problems: the anger resulting from the original incident – and the incident itself. Deal with them in that order. Start by assuming that the complaint is valid and allow the customer time to vent.

While listening, try to sympathise: this is someone who has invested in an experience that, for whatever reason, hasn’t proved satisfactory. Also, you don’t know what else they’re dealing with in their life – family illness, job loss, debt worries. So, even if they’re clearly being unreasonable, stay polite and watch your body language – folded arms or eye-rolling could send them off the deep end.

When asked a question, keep calm, use polite forms of address – Sir or Madam – and concentrate on being supportive and sympathetic rather than exploring the actual issue. You need to deal with the person’s emotions before moving on to the substance of their problem.

Respectful listening demonstrates that you take the customer seriously and this should soothe any loss of dignity they may be feeling. It may even be enough to encourage them quietly back to their table. If not, then it’s time for the next step.

  1. Show understanding and apologise

Even the worst tirade eventually ebbs. The usual sign is when they start repeating themselves. That’s the time to take the next step. You’ve cleaned up the location and calmed them down. Now it’s time to tackle the actual incident.

The root cause of the problem could be any of a number of things. Perhaps the waitress forgot the table. Maybe the waiter’s dry humour appeared disrespectful. On the other hand, this diner might be one of those people who habitually treats waiting staff like they own personal lackeys.

In most cases, what’s required is the same. Once you’ve grasped what’s happened, take the trouble to repeat the customer’s complaint back to them from their point of view. Check that you got it right. Correct and repeat it all again if you didn’t.

Then apologise.

But don’t overdo it. Customers who are physically or verbally abusive must be removed from the building immediately. You may also need to check with any adjacent customers to ensure their experience wasn’t spoiled.

  1. Make a gesture

For some people, understanding is enough. Others only need an apology.  But, if bad feeling persists, most people appreciate a gesture. A free dessert or drink should do the trick, though if the complaint was more serious then you may need to go further. You should also check that this gesture is considered sufficient.

This is not the time to pull out a special offer leaflet – even if it’s a really good deal. Your gesture should appear proportionate, generous and, above all, spontaneous.

  1. Follow-up

Okay, so you’ve skilfully encouraged the irate diner back to their table, the rest of the meal passed without incident and they even left a tip. But don’t leave it at that. Before they depart, head over to the table, apologise once more and ensure everything is satisfactory.

Diners are not fools. They’ll know when they’ve been ‘processed’ – even when it’s been done sensitively and well. By checking in once more, you’ll have gone that little bit further and demonstrated that you care about them and their experiences. You could even collect their contact details so you can inform them about future promotions.

It’s strange, but people who experience strong emotions together – even negative ones – often forge a bond. With careful handling, this could turn a disgruntled customer into one of your regulars.

  1. Manage your own feelings

Whatever happened, you mustn’t take it to heart. The root cause probably had little to do with you or your restaurant, and most likely resulted from a misunderstanding.

But don’t underestimate what you’ve been through, either. Acute rage is rare in most professions and, even if you kept your head and resolved the situation appropriately, you will need to deal with your own feelings.

So, once the customer has left, find a quiet space and allow the emotions to run their course before heading back into the fray.

Summary

Handling complaints is part of the service you provide to customers. And if you do it well, it won’t go unnoticed. Survive the friction, make amends and you could have a customer for life! Here’s a quick summary of how to deal with angry diners:

  •  Take Control: see the incident for what it is: an acute customer service issue, so get the individual away from your dining floor.
  •  Listen: your first job is to deal sympathetically with the rage that the incident caused.
  •  Resolve: understand and agree about what happened and then apologise.
  •  Make a gesture: proportionate to the event but also generous – check that it’s sufficient
  •  Follow up: don’t allow the customer to leave without one last apology – and perhaps get their details for a follow-up offer.
  •  Deal with your own feelings: incidents like this can throw up unpleasant emotions – take whatever time you need to deal with them.

 

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