Dealing with difficult customers - Ashdale Business Consulting

Dealing with difficult customers


No matter who you are, at some point in your life you will have had situation when you or those with you have felt the need to complain about something while out in a restaurant or other hospitality venue.  I would like to think that you handled the situation well and didn’t make too much of a fuss even if you felt that things weren’t as they should be.

Thinking back to when it happened, how did the staff at the venue re-act?  Was your issue dealt with swiftly and effectively?  Were you completely happy with the outcome?

Whether we like it or not, anyone who works in this industry knows that from time to time you will have to deal with customers who have problems.  All being well in these situations it is hoped that the customer behaves in a calm, logical and fair manner.  However the reality is that on some of these occasions this simply just isn’t the case.

This leads me to ask the question, how effective are operators at dealing with difficult customers?


The root cause…

Whilst there are a myriad of different reasons why a customer may become difficult when in your venue, in most cases these can be grouped together under two broad headings.  Either it is relates to something you have control over or it doesn’t.  Let me explain.  Things which you have control over will include the quality, cooking and temperature of the food you serve.  It will also embrace the quality and speed of service as well as anything to do with the physical surroundings of your outlet, such as the lighting or sound system.  Things which you don’t have control over center around how a customer thinks or behaves.  For example they maybe in a hurry, or conversely running late, they maybe too loud or worse drunk.  Or in some cases very critical of the smallest detail, usually a sign of other frustrations in their life rather than anything specific to your outlet.

Although I appreciate you need to deal with each situation on a case by case basis, there are some fundamental principles which are worth adhering to, regardless of which of the above areas the problem falls into.


Communication, communication, communication…

The simple fact is that a lot of customer complaints get resolved very quickly once the customer feels they have been heard and as importantly, understood.  Even if someone begins by being quite unreasonable, try and remain attentive, don’t get distracted and keep your body language positive.  By staying calm and hearing them out you will increase your chances of getting an annoyed customer to see reason.

As part of this approach I also suggest using the customer’s name, assuming you know it.  This will help personalize the conversation as well as establishing a uniqueness of the circumstances which lead to the situation.  Asking open ended questions can also help deescalate tensions.

Studies have shown that when talking, people will tend to raise or lower their own voice in order to match whoever they are speaking to.  So if you can talk in composed soft tone, an angry customer may subconsciously match you, or soften their tone accordingly.

Another technique is to look to repeat or at least para phrase what the customers has said to you. When you do this make sure you remove any original emotion.  It will also give the customer an opportunity to correct themselves if there have been inconsistencies in what they have said.  There is also an argument to say that by hearing someone else tell their story may help a customer reflect on what they have said.  This approach also has the benefit of giving you or your team more time to consider the situation and come up with a suitable resolution.


Attitude makes a difference…

Following on from communication, you and your team’s attitude during any potential difficult conversation is equally important.  The louder or more aggressive a customer is the easier it may feel to respond in a similar manner.  Don’t.  Wherever possible try and maintain as neutral a tone as you can.  Never argue back or become defensive, even if you know the customer is wrong.  In extreme cases in many ways you are trying to let the customer burn themselves out.  Answering back will only add fuel to their argument and therefore more than likely prolong this part of the interaction.

Convincing a difficult customer that you are taking their issues seriously is essential.  Sympathising or showing empathy with their problem is also important as long as it doesn’t feel fake or patronising.

Another important piece of advice for you and your staff is to not take any criticism, no matter how bad, personally.  At the end of the day, it’s easy to think about what you could have done or said differently.  The reality of working in the hospitality sector is that complaints and mistakes happen.  And while it’s important to learn from these situations, it is also critical you don’t let them get to you.


Resolution not revolution…

When all is said and done the most important thing for you and your staff is to find a resolution to the customer’s problem.  Your priority should always be to come up with something which addresses their needs at that particular time.  Don’t get distracted by other things, they can and should be dealt with behind closed doors at another time.  And for any given solutions you suggest make sure your customer is happy that it will solve the problem.

Something else worth mentioning is don’t under estimate the impact, either positive or negative, that the way you deal with a difficult customer can have on other guests.  Defusing a situation quickly and quietly should mean that other customers are not impacted by another table’s problem.  If a situation becomes more noticeable its worth having your servers check-in with nearby tables and perhaps provide them with a little extra attention and kindness to off-set any background outbursts.  In extreme cases you can also consider offering complimentary drinks or desserts as way of a soft apology for any discomfort experienced.


Acceptable limits…

“The customer is always right” is often quoted as one of the golden rules to follow when it comes to dealing with difficult individuals especially in the hospitality sector.  And while I would support that view on most occasions it is important to note that this doesn’t mean bad behaviour should be tolerated.  You should never allow your teams to take abuse, be that physical or verbal, regardless of the circumstances.

If a customer is overly aggressive or obviously drunk then waste no time in removing them from your outlet as quickly and as safely as possible.  This helps protect both your team and other guests in the short-term as well as reinforces the fact that this type of behaviour will not be accepted under any circumstances.