Companies – including restaurants – invest considerable resources in tools and training to help them understand and deliver exactly what their customers want. But despite all efforts, they sometimes fail – even if it is only in the eyes of the customer. This presents both challenges and opportunities. Customers who voice complaints can help diagnose weaknesses in an operation; they also offer chances to build and strengthen relationships.
“Guests who complain are usually willing to forgive and be happy again, which gives us something to work with.” – Mark Canlis, owner, Canlis Restaurant, Seattle, WA
A small percentage of unhappy customers actually voice complaints, but they often point out problems experienced by others. While complaints may be tough to hear, those who speak up want you to know what went wrong, trust you to make it right, and are willing to give you the chance. “If you operate on the premise that when a customer complains he’s really doing you a favor, it’s a lot easier for staff to deal with. Besides, many of our best customers started out in this category,” says Alex Brennan-Martin, author, The Simple Truth, and co-owner, Brennan’s of Houston, Houston, TX. Indeed, according to TARP Worldwide, a customer experience research/consulting firm, as many as 95% of customers will revisit a restaurant if their problems are solved quickly and satisfactorily – and these customers are as, or more, loyal than those who never experienced a problem. But how can service recoveries bond and solidify relationships?
One of the findings of Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America, prepared by Public Agenda, is that when people judge the quality of customer service, they zero in on the attentiveness, concern, and engagement they get. “We’ve found that when you acknowledge a mistake and genuinely express regret, guests will almost always give you a chance to earn back their favor,” says Danny Meyer, author, Setting the Table, and ceo, Union Square Hospitality Group, New York, NY. The apology is key – minus the alibi. “It’s not appropriate to make excuses – just say that you’re sorry this happened and act,” he says. Mark Canlis, owner, Canlis restaurant, Seattle, WA, agrees. “Guests want to hear that a mistake was made, how you feel about it, and that you’re dealing with it.” At Brennan’s of Houston, this might involve looking a guest in the eye and acknowledging, “We goofed.” A Canlis mea culpa might include, “We want to turn this around.”
Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants operate on the principle that true hospitality exists when the person on the receiving end feels you are on his side – a very powerful message. Recent data from Yankelovich, Inc. underscores ways this can be communicated. Around half of consumers surveyed said that when a company is quick to own up to mistakes and/or frankly admits shortcomings, it has an extremely or very positive influence on their feelings about the company having customers’ best interests in mind. But the Aggravating Circumstances report also cautions that good will is negated – and companies might even pay a price – if their customers suspect they are going through the motions of being courteous or are feigning concern. Consumers today long for civility and respect, but to truly win their loyalty, the concern has to be sincere.