If you own, manage or work in a food business, you’ve likely dealt with your fair share of unhappy customers. It’s never a pleasant experience, even when the customer is perfectly polite about expressing their frustration.
Some food service workers take complaints too personally; others don’t care enough and still more assume that every complaining customer is simply looking for a free meal. While there are certainly some instances where a complaint feels unjustified, most customer complaints are legitimate and something your business can learn from — and use to its advantage.
Why complaining customers are a food business’s best customers
THEY GIVE YOU A CHANCE TO KEEP THEIR BUSINESS
An unhappy customer can be difficult to deal with, but they’re the best kind of customer — because they give you a chance to keep their business. Instead of simply writing you off and complaining about your business to their family and friends, they’re expressing their dissatisfaction directly to you and giving you a chance to remedy the situation.
This is a gift! More often than not, customers don’t give you that chance. They simply walk away and give their business to your competitors. In an industry as competitive as food service, you can’t afford to let that happen.
It costs roughly seven times more to acquire a new customer than it does to retain an existing one; retaining unhappy customers through the satisfactory resolution of complaints can have a dramatic effect on your bottom line. In fact, it’s estimated that a two percent increase in customer retention has the same effect as decreasing costs by ten percent (Leading on the Edge of Chaos, Emmett Murphy & Mark Murphy).
It’s also important to remember that a customer is never “just one customer”. On average, a dissatisfied customer will tell 9 to 15 people about their negative experience and despite anything you’ve heard, the most credible form of advertising remains word-of-mouth recommendations from the people we know and trust.
THEY HIGHLIGHT A PROBLEM YOU CAN FIX
A customer complaint highlights a problem, whether it’s with your product, your employees or your processes. This is critical information for everyone in the business. By listening to your customers, you can use their feedback to improve your product or service and avoid future complaints.
To make this work for you, you’re going to want to have a system in place to record the reasons that customers complain and the details of those complaints. Review this information regularly (at least once a month), investigate what went wrong and determine how you can prevent it from happening again.
When analysing your records, ask yourself the following questions:
- How often does the same complaint arise?
- Has the same customer reported this previously?
- Are there any patterns or trends that emerge?
Look for patterns such as:
- specific employees on shift
- type of food / specific dishes that receive more complaints than others
- day of the week / time of day where complaints come in more frequently
- type of complaint (service / product)
For example, frequent complaints about undercooked food may highlight a need to enrol kitchen staff in a food safety training course, whereas a higher-than-average number of complaints about your weekday lunch service may indicate a need for “more hands on deck” during these shifts.
By identifying where your business is falling short, you can take corrective action to improve your customers’ experience, thereby decreasing the number of complaints you receive and the costs associated with them.
Remember, the success of the business affects the income of everyone who works in it. It’s in everyone’s best interest to care about and work to improve customer satisfaction.
THEY HELP YOU GET BETTER AT HANDLING COMPLAINTS
It’s important to remember that customer complaints are inevitable. A food business that has never been tested by a customer complaint is one of two things: imaginary or not open yet.
Despite your very best efforts, mistakes can and will happen. Generally, people are pretty forgiving of mistakes — how you choose to handle a complaint is what makes the difference between keeping or losing a customer.
The good news is that the more complaints your team handles, the better they get at handling them. Dealing with upset customers can teach employees valuable skills, such as how to de-escalate a tense situation and how to stay calm under stress. Customer complaints can also help you to develop your business’s customer complaints policy.
Unfortunately, some customers will exaggerate or even fake complaints to get discounts, a free meal or other compensation. Recognise that these complaints are few and far between, and treat each customer complaint as an opportunity to improve your product and deliver a better quality of customer service. In doing so, you are making a commitment to your customers, who are likely to reward you with repeat business and positive word-of-mouth.
Food-borne illness complaints
Food-borne illness complaints, or claims that your business gave a customer food poisoning, can have a serious impact on a food business and must be handled with the utmost care. Even if your business isn’t investigated by the authorities, your reputation could be permanently damaged.
It’s important to be prepared and have a procedure in place to deal with food-borne illness complaints, including keeping detailed records and training your employees to respond to the customer.
It's a good idea to use a standardised form to collect the details of a food-borne illness complaint; keep it by the phone to ensure that employees capture all of the information required from the customer.
Click here to download a free Food-borne Illness Complaints Form.