Unhappy Customers: How to Deal

Omar Visram
Unhappy Customers: How to Deal
Table of Contents

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We have all been there before: our favourite restaurant that has for years delivered on its promise of good service and quality food one day just can’t get anything right.

For me it was a dirty wine glass, slow service, and missing menu items that got me a little bit excited last week. Throughout the meal, my wife and I went from laughing at the experience to arguing among ourselves about what to do.  

Finally, to my wife’s chagrin, I got ahold of the manager and informed him of our displeasure with the entire dining experience.  Unlike a lot of patrons, I did not go in with an expectation that I would receive any kind of compensation.  In fact, it had not crossed my mind.  Most importantly, I wanted this manager to understand that I could see that the restaurant was failing on multiple fronts.

My rationale for being vocal in such situations is that I would want my customers to tell me about such issues with my service rather than quietly disappearing and engaging other service providers.  

The response I received from the manager was surprising.  He was very apologetic and informed me of a number of operational issues they were having with their new menu.  He then informed me that dinner would be complementary.  My estimate of the meal cost is $80.  I was shocked at this gesture, and was very grateful.  In reality, however, it had ruined the evening and created some tension at the table.  

Upon analyzing the manager’s response, I began to question what I would do if I had been in his situation.  More importantly, I began to question what the right decision for a business is in such situations.  

In reality, I believe that this manager’s gesture though very generous, was largely ineffective - I will nonetheless think twice about returning to this particular dining establishment.  

So how should you respond to unhappy customers?  I think there are three simple considerations to make when devising policies for your staff and managers.  

1. Address the issue

Head on, but realize that unhappy customers do not care about your operational problems.  The customer only cares about outcomes.  As customer service people, it is easy to pour our hearts out and share all of the minute details for the failure.  When such situations arise, we often feel frustrated which then results in an emotional outpouring of our frustration.  In reality, an admission of failure is all that is required and an explanation of what will be done to correct the situation.  

2. Use a combination of current and delayed compensation.

While instinctively we want to let customers leave without paying, this does nothing to ensure that the customer returns to provide you with another opportunity to gain back their trust.  Immediate compensation generally has higher value to a customer, but should not be used in isolation.  If the customer does not come back, they are lost forever.  This is why it is critical that businesses provide an incentive for unhappy customers to return.  In my situation, the appropriate response would have been partial compensation for the bad experience, followed some sort of credit for a future dining experience.  

3. Realize that customer satisfaction is an art.  

While it is important to establish boundaries with your employees and managers on what level of compensation can be provided to a customer.  It is then a good idea to set parameters such as requiring a combination of current and delayed compensation and a dollar cap.  The decision making on the exact compensation should then be established by the person interacting with the customer.  Since customer satisfaction is an art so you cannot force the same solution on every situation.  

If managed correctly, it is possible to turn a negative customer experience into a positive situation.  Assuming the situation is handled correctly your patrons may leave better understanding your organizational values and your commitment to their satisfaction.  It is critical, however, that these situations be handled effectively. You only get one shot at making it right. Don’t blow it!

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