2010 March: Customer Interaction

You know the signs. The customer pushes their plate away and frowns. Or they peek under the lid of that pizza box and shake their head. Something’s wrong –– and they’re about to complain.

What happens in the next few minutes will determine if that customer’s going to leave satisfied or start spending their hardearned cash somewhere else, say customer service experts and pizza restaurant operators. “Our attempt is to always try to keep the customers,” says Lucille Wahlert, vice president of marketing for Breadeaux Pizza, a Midwest pizza restaurant group based in St. Joseph, Missouri. She believes that about 85 percent of the time, the company resolves the issue, offers the customer some sort of compensation (usually food) and keeps them coming back.

Wahlert handles the complaints that come into the company’s headquarters. Some are by e-mail, others by phone or voicemail. Her three-step system for handling complaints can be applied to in-person complaints at restaurants and in delivery situations.

First, she said, acknowledge the customer and the complaint, Wahlert says. Listen to them, and hear them out entirely. Then, check the complaint for validity. This may require you to do some research and call the customer back if time has lapsed. “Find the ticket and do whatever research needs to be done,” Wahlert says. Make sure the delivery the customer claims was made actually did occur. As the last step, call the customer back with an offer to make the situation right. If it’s the case of a missed delivery or incorrect order, that’s usually easily remedied, and if a free pizza will solve it, it’s worth it.

If the customer’s issue is more complicated, such as complaints about the behavior of personnel, investigate the validity of it. You can’t tell a customer if someone was disciplined or fired. But you can offer free food as compensation for their trouble. In cases where they’ve complained about a particular restaurant’s personnel, they may not want to return to the same restaurant, so Wahlert sometimes offers for the customer to go to another Breadeaux location.

Servers and delivery personnel are the front lines of communication with customers, and good training with those workers can help prevent complaints and keep them from escalating. Paul Paz, a customer service consultant and owner of www.WaitersWorld.com, says that servers too often assume a defensive posture when a customer complains. “We assume they’re wrong, and that they want something for nothing,” Paz said. “But that’s usually not true. There are people like that, but the majority of the public isn’t like that. The value of the customer as a repeat customer is far more than any revenue they’ll make for that one visit. Plus, word of mouth advertising is very valuable.”

Giving food away usually is a call for the manager to make, Paz said. A server or delivery person in a situation where a customer wants a free meal, or even deserves it, should get a manager’s permission before giving food away. In fact, calling a manager to the table when a complaint is made is sometimes the only way to resolve a situation and ensure that it won’t escalate. If a server or delivery person feels that they’re getting angry, they need to find someone else to deal with the customer before they get into an argument.

Finding a way to get rid of the stress of handling a difficult customer is crucial, too, Paz said. Don’t walk around the restaurant muttering –– chances are, your customers will hear you, and they won’t like it. If you have to, go into the walk-in refrigerator and scream, Paz says.

So what about those folks who simply can’t be satisfied? That’s where a computer system that tracks how frequently someone orders from you, and how often they’ve been unhappy, can come in handy. Paz said there are some customers who are chronic complainers, and it should be up to management to explain that if they aren’t happy after their tenth visit, it’s probably time to try another restaurant. Greg Patton, owner of a Breadeaux location in Ottumwa, Iowa, said he told a customer earlier this year that he would no longer deliver pizza to her because she cussed out drivers every time she ordered a pizza and complained. After two weeks away, she called again — and promised to behave. She’s now a regular, and satisfied, customer again.

But for the most part, Patton believes it’s not worth it to lose a customer over the price of a pizza. In many cases, if they got a pizza with incorrect toppings, he simply authorizes the restaurant to make a replacement pizza. Replacement pizzas for delivery move to the head of the line, and the driver rushes another one out to the location to keep the customer satisfied. It throws off the fl ow of the day’s deliveries, but it’s necessary, he says, even in those instances where you know the customer is wrong. “That’s the hardest thing to control,” Patton said. “When they complain, the customer says we said this, and you know they didn’t. You have to just go ahead and take care of them. It’s just not worth it to lose a customer.” ?

How not to handle a complaint

Paul Paz, a customer service consultant who works with restaurant servers, has a short list of things he says are definite don’ts when dealing with difficult customers. Here’s his list:

? Don’t take it personally. Servers and delivery drivers have a tendency to be offended at a complaint. Try not to be, Paz said. “The other side of that is, take it personally, but you only get five seconds,” Paz said. “Then get over it.”
? Don’t speak if you’re getting mad. Keep quiet and just listen. “If you’re getting angry, get someone else to take over,” Paz said. “When you are feeling the tension of that stressful situation, avoid sarcastic comments.”
? Don’t argue.
? Don’t finish a customer’s sentences.
? Don’t use “no”, “but”, or “however.”

Robyn Davis Sekula is a freelance writer living in New Albany, Indiana.

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