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Six steps to handling customer complaints

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Six steps to handling customer complaints

Unhappy customers are bad news for any restaurant, and it only takes one of them to shatter the ambience of a restaurant and to steer many more prospective customers away from you.

Customer feedback is a vital tool for any hospitality business – even the unpleasant feedback. View it as an opportunity to improve service. Whether or not a gripe is legitimate we have to accept we may have been the catalyst to a customer feeling anything from annoyed to downright cranky. They are our guests and we are duty-bound to make them happy again.


Most diners are polite, and one way of understanding customer complaints is to look at how a polite person would complain, and then anticipate the process. At Ocean Basket we have developed a six-pronged approach which reflects international best practice:

  1. Most genuinely disgruntled diners will complain immediately – on first bite of the fish that is off rather than the last scrap. Therefore, the key to successfully handling complaining is to understand the problem right away, thereby giving the diner the opportunity to still enjoy a good meal with minimum fuss. Try to put yourself into the customer’s shoes: listen, do not interrupt and try to get as much information as possible. They need to tell their story and feel that they have been heard.
  2. Thank the customer for bringing the problem to your attention, and do not in any way get defensive or try justify what occurred. Don’t take it personally, and repeat back to the customer what the crux of their complaint is, so they know they’ve been understood. You can’t resolve something you haven’t fully comprehended. In fact, you may make matters considerably worse by acting precipitously on faulty assumptions.
  3. Remain empathetic, as well as calm and objective. You must apologise sincerely. Express the fact you share the diner’s disappointment, and find out how he would preferably like the situation to be resolved. No matter whether you are the waiter, chef or manager, the diner needs to feel you are on his side.
  4. Reach Agreement: determine what the customer is seeking as a solution. If the apology they have just received is sincere enough it will usually be something minor. Often, the apology itself is enough. Sometimes the diner would like the dish or component replaced. Sometimes he may want a discount. Guide the ultimate solution to one which is viable in terms of restaurant policy. This is an instance where actions certainly speak louder than words, and there are countless ways you can show your customers how much you appreciate their business without it costing a lot of money (or any money). For instance, personal attention by the owner or manager can go a long way in making customers feel special.
  5. If there is no readily acceptable resolution, escalate it to the next level and politely suggest the manager may resolve it. Explain the impasse to him or her, and let the diner have his say.
  6. Take quick action: remember above all that customers want their problem resolved immediately – preferably by the person in front of them. Whatever solution is decided on: act on it with a sense of urgency. The manner in which a problem is resolved if often more important that the solution itself. Follow-up to ensure the customer is completely satisfied, especially if you have had to escalate the issue. Everything up to this point will be for naught if the customer feels that ‘out of sight is out of mind’.

Talk is cheap, but there is one way to realise how successful you have been in resolving the complaint: and that is reflected in the waiter’s tip. An unresolved problem will most likely see a reduction in tip – a well resolved issue may even see a bonanza tip, as the tip is the ultimate way of expressing satisfaction or otherwise.

Last modified on Monday, 08 July 2013 11:57
Manny Nichas

Manny Nichas

Manny is the CEO of Ocean Basket, he started his career in franchising in 1996 as an owner of a Black Steer. In 1999 he joined Fats Lazarides as a primary driver in establishing the Fishaways brand in partnership with the then-Steers Group and Ocean Basket.


Ocean Basket is now South Africa’s largest chain of seafood restaurants, with its 160 franchised outlets (of which 14 are international) commanding a 60% market share within its niche. Coming of age at 18 next year (2013) the business is currently taking its wildly successful concept to the rest of Africa, Europe and the Middle East.


The restaurant model is premised on bringing seafood (previously the preserve of the chic) to the man in the street. It achieves this by having a simple, focused menu with a no-frills approach towards its seafood, wines, desserts and extras. By removing the frills associated with ‘silver service’ it found a gap to reduce margins for the consumer. In addition, through clever product sourcing and its uncomplicated business model, affordable meals such as sushi and prawns have acquired mass appeal in South Africa – and now elsewhere – helped along by Ocean Basket’s tongue in cheek marketing campaigns.

Ocean Basket is a SASSI participant.


Manny’s success stems from his passion for food and exotic cuisine, while he has intimate knowledge of international restaurant management and the hospitality industry.

Website: www.oceanbasket.com

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