Food Safety Supervisor Guide to Handling Customer Complaints

The Food Safety Supervisor Guide to Handling Customer Complaints explains how you can turn an unhappy customer into a loyal customer.
June 29, 2016

Customer complaints offer an opportunity to turn an unhappy customer into a loyal customer. By dealing with a customer complaint swiftly and considerately, you can alleviate a customer’s tension, win yourself a new ambassador for your business, and arm yourself with new insights to improve your food business’ service.

A formalised Complaints Handling Policy will help you navigate complaints (after all, no business is immune) and come out on top.

Why Do I Need A Complaints Handling Policy?

A Complaints Handling Policy is best designed by someone in a managerial or senior position, such as the business owner or a Food Safety Supervisor, in collaboration with staff. We suggest that you integrate your Complaints Handling Policy with your Food Safety Program to better synchronise the two and achieve optimal results.

Ultimately, a Complaints Handling System allows a business to:

  • Limit mistakes and spend less time fixing them
  • Improve food quality and safety
  • Better understand and anticipate customers’ needs
  • Increase customer happiness
  • Gain more customers through word-of-mouth advertising
  • Retain customers
  • Improve the business’ reputation
  • Spend less time and money on attracting new customers
  • Build a healthier bottom line

Whatever the size of your food business, a Complaints Handling Policy will help you to:

  • Outline a strategy to help your business handle complaints
  • Prepare employees with options they can take to address complaints
  • Train your employees how to handle customer complaints
  • Teach your employees to not assign blame or make excuses, but to focus on being responsive and pleasant to the customer
  • Create guidelines for when an employee should request a manager’s involvement

How Can I Build A Complaints Handling Policy?

Your Complaints Handling Policy should ideally meet two main criteria: a) anticipate potential problems; and b) provide guidelines for reacting swiftly and professionally to customer complaints.

Your policy should be in writing and available for everyone in your business to read and learn. To encourage staff to adopt the guidelines in your policy, you might like to create an encouragement or reward system for staff who handle disgruntled customers’ complaints well.

The Complaints Handling Policy should consider different scenarios where your business might run into customer complaints. For example, if:

  • Your business is short-staffed
  • The customer is angry even after they receive an apology
  • Food isn’t delivered on time
  • An order goes missing

To consolidate and improve this system, provide training for your staff and trial the Complaints Handling Policy for three months, adopting new strategies and ideas in consultation with staff.

Steps to Handling Customer Complaints About Food

Step 1. Listen

Before you say anything, before you attempt to explain, challenge their complaint, or offer a resolution to the situation, listen. Your aim here is to figure out why the customer is upset.

  • Focus: Stay calm. Focus your undivided attention on the unhappy customer to make sure that they feel heard. If the situation is complex, jot down notes so they know you’re taking them seriously.
  • Let the customer say everything they need to say: Allow them to express their complaint without interruption. If they are interrupted, they may feel the need to start over.
  • Remember body language: Maintain good eye contact and avoid crossing your arms over your chest or rolling your eyes, even if you feel frustrated.
  • Respect: Make sure that you at least appear to value and give credence to the customer’s opinion.
  • Avoid the urge to be defensive: Accept ownership of the problem but do not take the complaint personally. Being defensive can inhibit your ability to truly understand why the customer is not satisfied.

Step 2. Display Empathy

  • Consider how you would feel if you were in their shoes: Strive to appear sympathetic toward the customer’s needs by empathising with their situation. Demonstrate that you completely understand their frustration and explain that you are working diligently on a solution.
  • Apologise: Offer a kind apology, even if there’s nothing to apologise for. State your apology clearly and without passive aggression, acknowledging the inconvenience that the problem has caused the customer.
  • Appear friendly: Drop formalities. Speak to the customer as if you were talking with an acquaintance. A little familiarity can go a long way toward getting customers on your side.

Step 3. Clarify the Problem

  • Gather the facts: Find out what the customer wants.
  • Confirm your understanding: Use a phrase such as ‘Let me see if I understand your problem’.
  • Ask your customer: If a complaint is genuine and the mistake is on your end, involve customers in resolution decision-making through phrases such as, “What do you think would be fair?” Ask which solution your customer would prefer. If necessary, offer options for resolving the situation, provided you are able to deliver.

Step 4. Agree On A Resolution

  • Be clear: Propose an action to mend the situation and ask ‘Will that correct the problem to your satisfaction?’ If not, go back and start again. Seek to resolve the customer’s concern in a non-judgmental, empathetic manner.
  • Offer compensation: If a customer has a problem that could have been prevented, such as an overcooked steak or an impolite server, apologise and offer them compensation. Ideas include: a free round of drinks, free dessert, a gift certificate for a future visit, merchandise, or a certain percentage discount off their meal. At a minimum, volunteer to replace cold food or a mistaken order immediately and make sure the kitchen staff understand the urgency of the situation.

Step 5. Solve the Problem

  • Immediacy: Once you have heard the complaint and understand its basis, assure the customer you will fix the problem immediately, and then follow through.
  • Remain calm: Control your breathing. Try to be patient and keep the situation from escalating.
  • Elevate: If the customer’s complaint is more involved, or he or she remains unhappy in spite of your efforts, elevate the customer to a supervisor or manager. Often this move alone is sufficient to alleviate some of the customer’s concerns by instilling in them a sense of importance, that their complaint is significant enough to be elevated to someone higher in the chain of command. However, make sure that you fill the supervisor or manager in on the details of the issue prior to bringing them to speak with the customer.

Step 6. Thank The Customer

  • Thank the customer: Thank the customer for bringing the problem to your attention and giving you an opportunity to fix the issue. Remember, customers can provide valuable insight into a problem that needs to be fixed and how they think it should be resolved.
  • Be kind: Remember, the last thing you say is most likely to be remembered by the customer, and this will impact what your customer reports to friends and family.

Step 7. Learn

  • Consider: Take advantage of the experience to make improvements to your food business.
  • Record: Record and organise meaningful or recurring complaints so that you can use the evidence gathered to implement changes to your customer handling policy.

This public health information was produced and distributed by the Australian Institute of Food Safety Foundation.