The Importance of Complaints


As a young operator, I always hated complaints. Complaints often seemed like a personal affront. I tried very hard to make it right for my guests and when they complained, it felt like a knife in the heart. I always wanted to sit them down and set them straight about what it really takes to run a restaurant!

Complaints disrupted the daily routine. When a complaint came in, it meant that I was going to lose productive time to investigate, ask questions and write letters. If it was a complaint that someone made in person, I would have to drop everything else to deal with this person and since I was already pushed to my limit, complaints were intrusions.

Complaints also always seemed to throw me off track, sometimes for days. I would be depressed when we dropped the ball in an area where we should have known better. Often I would start questioning whether or not I knew what I was doing. I looked at my staff with suspicion. I know I was far more critical for awhile, both of my staff and myself. The service lapses hurt . . . and those were only the ones I found out about!

Why are complaints important?

Based on a survey by the National Retail Merchants Association, 14% of the people who stop patronizing a business do so because they had a complaint that was not handled well. That is a lot of business to give away due to lack of skill and understanding when it comes to dealing with guest complaints.

If people would tell you when things are not right, that would make it a lot easier but every complaining guest could represent 24 other diners who had the same problem and chose not to tell you about it. Worse than that, a complaining guest will tell 8-10 people about their problem. One in five will tell twenty. (One in a hundred will probably tell a thousand, but that is another story.) If you run the numbers, you can calculate that the cost of losing a single $50-a-year guest could exceed $50,000 over five years!

If you grasp the significance of these statistics, you can see the potential income you have at risk if complaints are not properly handled. If you grasp the significance of these statistics, you can see the need to get aggressive about identifying and solving any potential difficulties before your guests even become aware of them.

The Positive Side of Complaints

We tend to think of complaints as bad news. While nobody likes to get a complaint, there is a lot to be gained from them. Here are a few of the positive aspects:

Demanding guests force you to be your best. It is easy to get complacent and let down on your standards. The demanding guest keeps you honest by telling you every time your attention wanders or your standards slip. They are always right (at least from their perspective) and they do not let anything slip past them.

Admittedly, demanding guests can drive you crazy sometimes. But pleasing them is the only reason your restaurant exists and they are in the best position to tell you how you are doing at it! Your guests will always see things that you will never notice. Rather than driving off demanding guests, I suggest you seek them out and use them like an in-house shopping service (but more on that at another time.)

Every complaint is an insight into how to make your business better. Every problem has a gift for you in its hands. People go out to eat expecting to have a good time. They want it to be great. Since you are in business to make sure that your guests are happy, the comments and suggestions they give are invaluable research into how to do your primary job better. This is where the gold is. Even if a complaint is entirely off the wall, there is still a nugget of truth in there somewhere. If you can dig it out, you can profit from it.

Guests are more likely to complain if they think you care and listen. If you don’t want to hear it, nobody will bother to tell you. The more interested you are in the truth of your guests’ experience and the more receptive you are to suggestions on how you can do better, the greater the chances you will get the feedback. Some will be good news, some will be bad news, but it is all news that will help you prosper. I acknowledge that being this open requires a degree of vulnerability that many operators find uncomfortable, but if you have a problem and do not identify it quickly, it will cost you a lot of money. It could even cost you your restaurant! Now that is uncomfortable!

Resolving complaints satisfactorily increases guest loyalty. Statistics suggest that if someone has a complaint that is handled well, they are more loyal than if they never had a complaint at all. I do not mean to suggest that you make mistakes just so you can fix them – there are plenty of errors that will happen without any special effort! Perhaps it is because handling a complaint well is a personal statement of caring that establishes more of a personal connection between the guest and the restaurant, but complaining guests can often become your most loyal patrons.

Most complaining guests care about you. If people did not care, they would not take the time to let you know when you have a problem – they would just never return. Most complaints, particularly written ones, are cries for help that are really saying things like these: “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” or “My feelings have been hurt by an old friend” or “You probably didn’t know about this, but . . .”

General Rules for Handling Complaints

I think every manager should have the following message posted prominently in both the office and staff areas:

Stamp out inconveniences before they become irritations.
Stamp out irritations before they become complaints.
Stamp out complaints before they become problems.
Stamp out problems before they become crises.

Complaints, unlike fine wine, do not improve with age. A minor inconvenience can become a full-blown crisis (at least to the guest) if left unattended.

The most common mistake in handling complaints is getting defensive and wanting to explain. It never helps and almost always makes things worse. Handling a complaint well is not about determining who is right and who is wrong. It is about saving a disappointed guest and retaining the business you would lose by alienating them.

Statistically, seven out of ten complaining guests will do business with you again if you resolve the complaint in their favor. My suggestion is that there is no way to resolve a complaint other than in favor of the guest.

Another interesting statistic is that if you resolve a complaint on the spot, 95% of complaining guests will do business with you again. The only people on the spot are typically your service staff. If you need a case to give your crew the authority to do what they have to do at the table at the time, this is the case – 95% retention vs. 70% retention.

Goals when handling complaints

It helps to remember that you only have two goals when handling a complaint: Your first goal is to calm the complainer so they will not bad-mouth you to others. Virtually all of your loss comes from the people that a disgruntled guest influences. For example, of the $50,000+ we calculated that it cost when you lose a guest, all but $250 of that came from people other than the person involved.

Your second goal is to get the complaining guest back as a patron if you can. If you can’t get them back, you at least want to make sure they don’t go out and do you any damage. These are your only two goals – do not get confused by thinking there is a winner and a loser.

When handling complaints there is only win-win or lose-lose. If you can resolve the problem successfully, the guest will come back and you both will win. If the problem is not handled well, the guest will never come back and you both lose.

Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor™