How to Address Customer Complaints and Negative Reviews

A constructive complaint can improve your business. Follow our suggestions for how to turn negative reviews into positive changes.
December 8, 2021

Complaints and unfavourable customer reviews will happen in any food establishment — it’s the reality of being part of the service industry. While the online world has brought convenience to processes like ordering or deliveries, for example, there are also numerous forums online where customers may review you, and not so nicely. Your business’s reputation and bottom line may hinge on how you respond to these complaints.

Learn how you can turn negative reviews into positive business changes by dealing with complaints of all kinds effectively.

Create a complaints policy

Implement a policy for when and how to deal with each type of complaint.

An effective complaints policy should:

  • explain the steps you would like customers to take when making complaints
  • identify the steps your business will take to address the complaints
  • show or give examples of solutions the business offers to resolve the complaints
  • inform customers about ongoing improvements and demonstrate that your organisation values their feedback and patronage

If you have a website, dedicate a page to customer feedback, which includes complaints.

The policy could include a form that staff can give to a customer who has a complaint to lodge. Customers can fill out and submit the form, which can then be sent directly to a manager or employee who is trained to deal with it. A formal process lets the customer feel heard — as long as you make sure you reply with a fulsome solution in a reasonable timeframe. Most customers will appreciate the effort to resolve their issue, and will not want to escalate things any further.

Equip employees with skills to manage complaints

Part of training new employees is equipping them with the policy used to address inevitable complaints. If staff are aware of a set process before a bad review happens, they’ll know how to respond and will be able to help mitigate the issue.

Everyone in the business should be well versed in appropriately handling customer complaints. At staff meetings, you could have employees act out common situations that happen in your business, or a recent complaint a customer made, and have them show how they would respond. Let other staff members contribute ideas, and collaboratively figure out how to approach certain situations to retain the customer and prevent them from telling others about a negative experience with your business.

If you received a complaint about a specific employee, train everyone in how to respond to that type of issue instead of singling the staff member out or putting them on the spot. This will only hurt staff morale.

Resolving complaints can actually help staff become better at their jobs. The more complaints staff deal with, the better they’ll become at de-escalating tense situations and keeping calm under stress — these are valuable skills in every industry, and certainly in a busy food business.

Take care of online complaints right away

If the complaint is made public online, take a few steps to make it right:

  • Never delete it: as tempting as it may be, deleting a complaint or negative comment will likely anger the customer further, and they’ll find somewhere else to post the same issue.
  • Apologise: Let them know their complaint has been heard, express regret that their experience was not a positive one and assure them you’re taking every step to make things right.
  • Invite the customer to a private conversation: Solve the problem, but do so directly with the customer rather than on a public review forum. Ask the customer to contact you by email or phone — this shows you’re serious about resolving the issue, and could prevent others from writing bad reviews.
  • Say thanks: Make sure they know you appreciate their patience and understanding.

Following these rules can turn an upset customer into a fan. It’s all in your response.

Seek out similarities

Ask yourself how often similar complaints come up. If more than one customer raises the same issue, it needs to be dealt with right away. When it comes to complaints, certain trends may emerge, like:

  • the same customer voicing issues
  • the same complaint arising repeatedly
  • a specific employee being on shift when the complaints are made
  • specific food or dishes that receive more complaints than others
  • a certain time of day or day of the week when more complaints are made
  • a specific type of complaint (whether about service or a product)

Patterns can help you identify and fix a problem. For example, if there are regular complaints about a certain dish being undercooked, maybe staff need more training on safe food cooking temperatures. If complaints are about slow dinner service, perhaps you need more staff during that busy shift.

Use feedback constructively

You want to strike the right balance when handling any complaint. Take what’s useful from the complaint and use that to improve your business. Disregard any aspect of the complaint that’s not constructive, and remember that not every customer will be happy with your service or product.

If a customer has a specific issue that can be remedied, you should do everything in your power to address that issue. For example, say they ordered one item and received another — that is something that could be rectified by refunding their order or offering them a discount next time they visit the establishment. If they’ve posted a public complaint, address them directly, in a brief, professional and courteous manner, letting them know you’ll follow up in a private message or email.

The worst thing you can do is get offended and reply unprofessionally or angrily. You could lose their business, not to mention that of anyone else who sees the review. Remember that there’s no isolated complaint, especially with online reviews that can be shared dozens or even hundreds of times to large audiences, so one small issue can quickly snowball.

Be ready to address food safety complaints

If someone lodges a complaint, they’re pinpointing a problem that you can address to improve your business overall. The bad review may be targeting a certain person, process or product, but this is a perfect opportunity to take a look at how things are run in all areas of your establishment.

Some complaints can be resolved quickly and easily. A more serious customer complaint about a food-borne illness outbreak, however, could have major long-lasting consequences.

Food-borne illness complaints could have a large impact on your business. Use the Australian Institute of Food Safety’s (AIFS) Guide to Handling Customer Food Complaints to learn a comprehensive approach for responding to customer food complaints, including serious food-borne illness complaints, and how to prevent it from happening to other customers.