There was a time when dissatisfied restaurant guests voiced their concerns with staff or management. These guests expected consideration and resolution of their complaint. There was also a time when guest expectations of restaurants were not very high, so a disease called: “It is what it is” developed among consumers.
In far too many cases those who did “complain” were discounted by management, chefs, cooks, and servers as complainers who went out to restaurants for the sole purpose of making everyone’s life miserable. Sure, I know first hand that the customer isn’t always right, but after all – they are still the customers. Yes, I know how infuriating it can be when a guest asks for salt before they taste a dish or send back a perfect medium rare steak because, in their eyes, it is still way too close to being alive. But, they are still the customers.
Are there some historically miserable people in your dining room who think they know (but they don’t), love to criticize (because they can), and get a charge out of disrupting your day? Sure – but really, they are a small percentage of the population. I know, I have been on all sides of the issue as a line cook, chef, manager, and customer – this small percentage can really throw everyone off their game and into a funk.
Here is the reality: A decade or so ago, the standard rule of thumb was that every dissatisfied customer would tell ten others about his or her experience and those ten would dilute the story and pass it on to their acquaintances. Today’s dissatisfied guest can post their unhappiness immediately on line while the emotions of anger or disappointment are at their peak and tell thousands of readers about their issues. Here is why this is so wrong:
 The anonymous nature of on-line criticism removes the need for unhappy guests to interact with another human being and give the property a chance to recover. Once that complaint is posted, you can’t take it back (unless it is proven to be ill-founded or too malicious).
 We all know of times when we let our emotions get the better of us and given a little time, we settle down and think our response through more clearly. An emotional guest can pull out their cell phone while still in the restaurant and fire off a scathing review before they have taken a breath and thought their response through.
 Once posted, the restaurant must now move into damage control mode. Management scrambles to respond to the review (without an opportunity to interface with the unhappy guest) and explain their way out of an issue that could have been rectified while the guest was in the restaurant.
 Once a guest leaves unhappy, the opportunity for a restaurant to correct their failure and win the guest back is very slim. If at all possible, restaurants should never let a guest leave unhappy.
 Any response that a restaurant posts on these popular critique sites always seems to be reactionary vs. action oriented. The restaurant can’t win in this situation. If they don’t respond it appears that they don’t care about unhappy guests and if they do respond it always seems to come across as lame excuses. “We were busier than we thought and understaffed that night”, or: “One of our cooks walked off the job and put the kitchen behind”, or: “It is so hard to find good help in our tourist town, but we do the best we can”, etc. etc. In the end, the guest doesn’t care about your problems, nor should they. This is your job to make sure the guest is unaware of the myriad of daily issues that crop up in restaurants.
 Every restaurant does face challenges and although it is our job to make sure that every service is stellar, the food is always perfect, the drinks are always incredible, and the service is fast, efficient, and technically perfect – stuff happens. On-line complaints are a snapshot of one persons experience on one night. This may not reflect anything more than an isolated incident – yet when posted it sends a signal to guests to stay away.
 Finally, the biggest problem with on-line complaint sites is that customers pay attention to them. More and more people are looking for third party endorsements of the products and services they are about to spend money on. People tend to trust unsolicited reviews more than formal reviews and they certainly don’t trust business-sponsored advertisements. Left without any other viable choice – guests read these on-line reviews and make their decisions. We have all fallen into the depths of acceptance – viewing on-line customer reviews as a true indication of the value of a product or service. We read product reviews on Amazon, follow Trip Advisor and Yelp, search Google for any comments on a company, product or service, and do so as a natural process. The standard-bearers of professional review like AAA, Mobil Guide, Michelin, Consumer Reports, and the like seem to be taking a back seat to those emotional posts using the web and social media.
So why do these sites exist and flourish? The answer is simple: businesses have failed to develop a dialogue with customers. We are all guilty of not taking steps to ask guests how they like our product or service, listen to them when they challenge what we do, and exceed their expectations with recovery from mistakes.
I worked as a chef for an exceptional hotel/resort. As part of the management team we lived by in-house comment cards and interactions with guests. ANY dissatisfaction expressed by a guest was an opportunity for a specific department head to make amends. First and foremost we had to try and make corrections before a guest left the resort, but if that wasn’t possible, then the manager owned the problem and resolution until we exhausted every opportunity to fix the issue. We were, empowered to make decisions from an apology to account credits, from inviting a guest back for a meal “on the chef”, to calling them on the phone or meeting them in person to give them an opportunity to vent and see our commitment to correction. In most cases, this worked extremely well because the guest rarely expected serious resolution.
Guests use on-line sites because they feel powerless otherwise. Guests feel that the only way that the property will listen and the only way the guest will feel a level of satisfaction is to slam the property to an audience of thousands.
“I’M AN UNHAPPY CUSTOMER – HEAR ME ROAR!”
Build a reputation for acknowledging and correcting your mistakes and I know that those negative complaints on-line will diminish. These sites provide a service that is based on the missed opportunities of businesses across all spectrums. Ideally, we would all do it right the first time, but realistically, mistakes will be made. Own up to them, fix them as quickly as possible, thank the guest for bringing it to your attention, and work hard not to make the same mistakes in the future.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
The following link to an episode of “Chef” is funny, but unfortunately reflective of how we sometimes feel and act (at some level) when guests choose not to act they way we want them to.