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By: Dr. John T. Self

How to Deal with a Difficult Customer

Dealing with difficult customers is a fact of restaurant life. These "negative" customers can lead to employee burnout, low staff morale, or be responsible for someone leaving the industry entirely. We've all heard that one disgruntled customer can lead to the loss of at least six others by word of mouth alone.

The good news is that this seemingly "lose-lose" situation can be turned around. If it's handled correctly, difficult customers can be turned into some the most loyal, long term customers you'll ever see. Here's seven basic steps that will help you turn these "service disconnects" into opportunities.

Step One: Assume the customer is telling the truth.
If you train your employees to always assume the customer is truthful, you have just taken away a major source of stress related to service careers. The employee is not having a confrontation, nor are they conducting an interrogation; They are not looking for the negative, but listening to what is being told to them without having to be a judge that must rule in favour of the company because of a misplaced loyalty.

P>Step Two: Let the customer talk.
Let them air out the whole situation. This accomplishes two things. It allows the customer to tell their story with all the details and emotion that they feel is necessary. This step is vital to let the customer drain some of their emotion and anger. Don't say anything, except to give body language that you are listening intently.

A good idea BEFORE you start the listening / information-gathering step is to delegate all interruptions to someone else so that your entire attention is devoted to the customer. You want an automatic jump in the level of anger and frustration for the customer? Then interrupt their story with "Excuse me", "Just a minute", or "What were you saying?" Always listen without interruption or comments. Also remember that listening is the beginning of the information gathering process for yourself, which is vital not only to rectifying the customer's problem, but to avoiding it in the future.

P>Step Three: Be empathetic.
This is the step to (finally) begin communicating. Express understanding with how they feel or were treated. You're not admitting guilt. You don't even have to agree with them.

You do have to communicate understanding. Your tone of voice and body language both go a long way to reinforce what you are say. (There's nothing worse then a manager coming over to a table with their hands on their hips, challenging, " Is there a problem here?") In fact, without the proper tone or body language, your words will sound hollow.

Step Four: Understanding.
This is the main step in reaching the customer; this is where you ask any questions that you need to have the complete picture of the negative experience. Ask relevant questions to clarify your understanding of the facts. Resist jumping to conclusions until you are satisfied that you understand the entire situation.

Step Five: Solution.
Solve the problem. Come to closure that you both feel good about. Remember the customer was telling you the truth. Tell the customer what you will do to rectify the situation. Make the customer feel good about the solution. Do not sound angry yourself or make the customer feel guilty.

A good guideline is to deliver more than you promised. For example, if you said you would refund the customer, add a gift certificate for another meal. That not only solves the original problem, it brings them back again.

Step Six: Follow-up.
If there is any way to follow-up with the customer after the fact, you need to do it. Whether by e-mail, letter or phone, this step is very impressive.

Step Seven: Take steps to fix the problem(s) that caused the problem in the first place.
A good idea to keep a log or journal of customer complaints to enable you to see any trends. Remember that the best managers prevent problems rather than just fix them.

About the author:  John T. Self is a lecturer at The Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly Pomona). Prior to entering academe, Dr. Self spent fifteen years in the restaurant industry. While in the corporate world, he worked for several chains including overseeing six restaurants with sales of over twenty million dollars. He has also owned three independent restaurants. While at Golden Gate University, he started the partnership with Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China and is continuing in that involvement at Cal Poly.

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