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Dealing with Difficult, Unruly, and Demanding Customers at Your Restaurant

When late-night host/comedian James Corden was 86ed from the popular NYC restaurant Balthazar for his alleged rude behavior toward the establishment’s wait staff, the situation went viral when famed restaurateur Keith McNally shared an angry post in response to the incident on Instagram. Though Corden reportedly apologized profusely, the drama left both parties with eggs on their faces.

Restaurant customer management is an art. From handling demanding customers to ensuring service is moving, dealing with difficult situations with care can make all the difference, transforming unhappy guests into repeat customers.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “the customer is always right,” but in the restaurant business, there’s always a chance of encountering a demanding or even difficult guest. And whether a vocally disgruntled customer is actually in the right or not, battling it out in public is definitely wrong.

Because proper restaurant customer management leads to satisfied customers, customer satisfaction is one of the most essential strategies in the restaurant industry. And because unhappy customers often share their complaints with friends and write negative reviews online, it’s critical to be quick and careful in addressing and resolving their issues, no matter who’s in the right.

So, it begs the question, ‘what’s the best way to handle a difficult customer?’

As simple as it sounds, the easiest way to deal with a difficult customer is to smile, nod, and do your best to diffuse the situation. If things get out of control, however, there are things you can do to prevent the incident from negatively impacting your business or its reputation and not letting it get under your skin.

How to deal with demanding and rude customers

Studies have shown that rudeness is contagious. When someone treats you rudely, the negativity rubs off on you and might even jade you, causing you to also perceive other customers’ behaviors as rude. Basically, if you encounter one rude customer, your guard goes up, and your ability to trust and see the best in other customers dwindles.

Sadly, a single rude customer can ruin your day, so it’s important not to let the situation impact your customer service and, ultimately, your business. Instead of approaching a rude person with equally inappropriate responses or behaviors, use the experience as an opportunity to practice mindfulness, empathy, and patience and test your customer service skills.

What TO DO

Use the power of the pause

It’s a natural human reaction to jump to our own defenses when dealing with an inconsiderate customer. But defending yourself isn’t going to help turn your customer’s frown upside down. Take a breath, don’t react, and whatever you do, don’t respond with equally angry words or behaviors.

Be professional and actively listen

Handle the situation as professionally as possible by actively listening to what the customer is saying. Nod, repeat key statements they’ve expressed, and show them that you genuinely care and that you’re making an effort to address their concerns.

Be kind, show empathy, and apologize

Recognize that this person might be having a bad day, so lower your guard and quell the impulse to fight back. Instead, apologize for whatever they’re complaining about and diffuse the situation.

Be sincere and show the customer that you’re listening. There’s no need for an over-the-top, dramatic apology. Just an “I am so sorry” in a sincere tone could be all that’s necessary to turn the guest’s testy attitude down a notch.

Just like rudeness mirrors rudeness, kindness tends to work the same way.

Protect your reputation

People often rely on word-of-mouth suggestions as a reliable source of information. But in the age of digital media, it has become a norm to check restaurant reviews online before trying a new place or booking tables.

With the rise in the usage of review sites like Yelp, a single unpleasant experience can be broadcast to millions of people online, and customers can frame uncomfortable situations any way they choose.

That’s why it’s critical to do your best to resolve difficult situations before a poor review is written. And it’s equally important to invest a reasonable amount of time in responding to reviews, both negative and positive, in a timely manner. Acknowledging and responding to feedback can help build stronger customer relationships, fix existing issues, amplify your restaurant’s reputation, and help mitigate any damage.

Make them feel special

When apologies aren’t enough, try making an unsatisfied customer feel special by offering to pay their check, give them a gift card for a free meal on their next visit, or offer a free dessert.

Be prepared

Be prepared for the possibility of disgruntled guests causing a stir in your restaurant by keeping a solution or two in your back pocket that will curb any bad attitudes or behaviors. This means having a predetermined strategy for dealing with difficult customers and sharing the plan with your wait and host staff.

Train your crew

It takes every staff member to be on the same page when it comes to dealing with difficult customers. It is not just the responsibility of the wait staff to cater to the customer– everyone, from the host to the manager, must play their part in restaurant management.

Customer service training is a must during the onboarding process. Even the most experienced food service workers need to be versed in your restaurant’s code of conduct and the art of customer management.

Ask for Feedback

Not every unsatisfied customer will voice their complaints in your restaurant. Perhaps even worse is when disgruntled guests walk out the door with unresolved complaints brewing up inside them. When unsatisfied clients leave your restaurant unhappy, they will likely voice their opinions later on social media or review sites, which could cause irreparable harm to your business’s reputation.

The best method to minimize complaints is to encourage customers to give you feedback before they leave. After your guests have finished dining, ask them to share their experiences and feedback. Assign the host, wait staff, or whoever might be the last point of contact to directly ask every guest about their experience. A simple, “how was everything?” can be an opening for valuable feedback and just could even be enough to quell the urge to bash your reputation online.

For those non-confrontational guests who might be reluctant to complain, offer each guest a simple note card and a pen and ask them to provide their feedback while still at the table. Then make sure the server actually reads the card before the guest leaves the premises. Any negative comments can be addressed right then and there. Be sure your staff knows what to do and who to inform if they receive negative feedback. This is why a “who does what” plan is critical.

A feedback survey that customers call fill out at their convenience, though not effective for fixing the problem immediately, will give you another opportunity to contact an unhappy guest and make things right.

What NOT to Do

Don’t sink to their level

Throwing rudeness back in the customer’s face is the worst thing you can do. In reality, it will only lead to more disputes and negative online reviews. Empathy is the strongest tool you have when turning difficult customers into loyal and repeat customers. And don’t forget to save some of that empathy for yourself when the whole ordeal is done.

Don’t post on social media

Don’t post on social media. Unlike the famed NY restauranteur, it’s best to avoid posting on social media about the incident. Angrily posting something on social media could backfire and tarnish your image and harm your business. If you are faced with a difficult situation, keep comments out of the heavily scrutinizing public eye and try to resolve the issue one-on-one.

Don’t let it bring you down

While it might be incredibly difficult to let an experience with a rude customer just roll off your shoulders, it’s really all about getting into the right frame of mind. Remember, the customer will soon be gone, and the whole thing will be over.

Don’t take it personally

No matter how embarrassed or angry you might be, countless other people have been in the same position, including your staff and your customers. It’s nothing personal, so do your best to remain professional.

How to Handle Intoxication-Induced Behavior

Alcohol is a significant revenue stream, an integral part of the dining experience, and most of the time, a positive part of the restaurant business. There will be times—especially when alcohol is involved–when a guest can become overly intoxicated, causing a situation to escalate or get out of control. If an intoxicated customer acts ruthlessly or the situation turns volatile, their harsh behavior or yelling at the staff can disturb the peace at your restaurant.

Here is what you can do:

  • Stop serving visibly intoxicated persons immediately. Knowing when to stop serving customers is a delicate situation, and proper training is required to do it right and prevent unpleasant or dangerous outcomes.

  • If a customer is too loud, acting erratically, or getting out of control, the best thing to do is to ask them to leave.

  • If things are getting out of hand, train your crew to inform the manager on duty or security immediately. If the situation remains heightened or escalates, disrupting your ability to run your business and keep your customers safe, call 9-1-1 — better safe than sorry.

Take Away

The food service business, as rewarding as it is, also calls for some awkward moments. Managing demanding clients in a restaurant requires practical customer management skills.

Sticking to some basic strategies can help diffuse a difficult situation.

  • Live by the adage, ‘the customer is always right.’

  • Train your staff to deal with difficult situations

  • Always ask for feedback

  • Monitor your online reputation

  • Respond promptly to complaints

Handling difficult customers is not a piece of cake. But if you can stay calm, be empathetic, and not take the situation personally, you’ll recover quickly and have a better handle on how to act when faced with a tough situation.

By Eileen Strauss


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