Handling The Guest From Hell

300SquareOne of your waiters just dropped a cup of coffee over a customer, he is wearing an old tatty T Shirt that has certainly seen better days and not too much Sunlight soap BUT he is performing about it like he just dropped two grand at the Ed Hardy shop. What is a poor restaurant owner supposed to do.

“I want this cleaned. No, I want this dry cleaned. Wait I don’t think dry cleaning will work, I want this replaced. No that won’t help, you see my late grandfather on my mothers side, handed me this T Shirt on his death bed… What are YOU going to do about this?” he bellows at the top of his voice, ensuring that everyone interested and quite a few that were not, are now waiting for your next syllable.

Oh yes, I can hear you exclaim, we have all been there… The friggin customer from hell. So, how do you handle a genuine Guest from Hell

Firstly you need to be absolutely convinced you’ve got a genuine “guest from hell” or “guest that’s been through hell.” If this particularly abusive patron falls firmly into the former I would say you’ve got, not only the right, but an obligation to deal with them firmly, swiftly and without apology. There’s no law (in South Africa anyway) that says you have to put up with people that are abusive, repulsive or pose a threat to your employees or other guests. BUT let’s get one thing right… “Complaining Customers” are not “Guests from Hell”

Although the two may resemble each other at first glance, there is an important difference. A “guest that’s been through hell” is a “complainer.” A complaining customer is a decent person that may have just temporary lost it, like most of us do, from time to time when we feel mistreated or taken advantage of. Although complainers may not be loads of fun to deal with, what you can learn from them might be worth their weight in gold. Consider that a complaining customer is usually telling you one of the following:

“You had 19 other customers thinking the same thing, but they didn’t bother telling you.” Customer surveys estimate that only 1 in 20 customers that have a problem in your restaurant will tell you about it. They’re “nice” customers, and they are killing your business, because if they have a problem they don’t complain, they just don’t come back.

“You still have a chance at my future business if you show me that you genuinely care and make things right.” Most complaining customers will do business with you again (some surveys reveal as high as 95%) if someone takes a personal interest and settles the problem to their satisfaction, on the spot. It’s an opportunity to show your guests just how important they are to you and turn a disgruntled guest one minute, into a raving fan the next.

“I’m telling you where your restaurant needs attention.” When 1 in 20 guests will bother to tell you there’s a problem, one complaint is truly a wake-up call. Whatever the problem, it has probably occurred several times before anyone on your staff even hears about it.

How to Deal With Upset Guests

The most valuable asset you can have when dealing with an irritated guest is a calm and open mind. Approaching the situation with a good dose of empathy and humility is the first step in accurately determining whether you’re dealing with a true dick head or a complainer, who may by the way be totally justified in being a little bent out of shape. Your first objective is to attempt to diffuse an irate guest’s upset state and the only way to do that, in all but the most extreme cases, is to be calm and empathetic. This of course is easier said than done but let me give you some motivation in helping you see the situation for what it usually is.

Whenever you encounter a difficult customer recognize what you’ve got to lose if the situation is not handled properly. If you give the guest a reason never to return, it may represent thousands of rands in future business you’ll never see. Consider the potential lifetime sales value of one of your regular, returning guests.

If that’s not enough to get you to see things a little differently, consider that when you blow it with a guest, you just don’t see them any more but they often spread their venom by telling 8 to 10 or even more other people about their horrendous experience (which, of course, they will embellish in their favour). And if the story is good (bad) enough, these folks will repeat the tale as well. Not the sort of word of mouth advertising that does much for your reputation or future business prospects.

The following ideas and thoughts may help you quickly defuse a potentially hostel situation and even have a shot of turning it into a positive one. Show you care. Do whatever it takes to show that you are empathetic and genuinely concerned. Give the guest a chance to vent and let them know you are sorry about the situation and the way they feel. It’s extremely important to not take anything they say personally. Their upset has NOTHING to do with you. While this may sound obvious to some and trite to others, customers will often tolerate even the most blatant screw-ups as long as they feel that someone actually cares about them. Just ask any attorney why individuals sue big companies. People usually sue when they’ve been jerked around or ignored by an impersonal organization that they’re convinced just flat-out doesn’t care. Once we sense that someone, ANYONE, in an organization gives a darn about us, we tend to naturally lighten up.

Use calming language. In his book “Cashing in on Complaints”, Bill Marvin says, “As the guest is blowing off, try interjecting one or more of these phrases. You will be surprised at how effective they can be at getting people’s attention and calming them down: “This is important.”, “This isn’t the kind of service we want to give you.”, “Your business is important to me.”, “I apologize.”

The point is that you have a major financial incentive for keeping your wits and trying to salvage each and every complainer or irate guest. In those rare occasions, when your best efforts don’t work and you’re convinced you’ve got a veritable “guest from hell”, I believe you have the right to take whatever action is necessary squelch the disturbance and minimize the damage.

As we mentioned above, neither you nor your employees should have to put up with people that are abusive, repulsive or pose a threat to your employees or other customers in your restaurant. Because you’ve got a lot of potential future business riding on each and every person who enters your restaurant, it’s advisable to always give people the “benefit of the doubt.” Even the best of folks occasionally find themselves in moods where it doesn’t take much for their emotions to temporarily get the best of them. Approach complaining, irate customers with a calm, attentive and respectful frame of mind and you’ll find yourself with more business and very few “guests from hell.”

But, as the Bard said “Herein Lies Rub”. You see restaurants have been overcompensating for so long that it is now expected. I go to Edgars, buy a large shirt, when I get home it turns out the shirt is medium. Now i go back to the store, firstly I had better have the till slip and the original packaging, secondly they change the shirt for me. they don’t give it to me for free and they certainly don’t offer me a free pair of socks as compensation. Restaurants make an error, the customer expects the dish for free and a round of Irish Coffees afterwards! Go figure!

This article was inspired by an email I received from my friend The Shark Fan at Mugg & Bean at the Waterfront and the response was taken from an article I read at RestaurantOwner.com

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