October 23, 2012 |

Customer Complaints: The Flipside

By Denise Greer

customer complaint to social media “Just say, ‘Yes,’” is the advice veteran pizzeria operator Jeff Cohen lends to handling customer complaints. Cohen, who opened Pizza Loft in Davie, Florida in 1975, applies a giving mentality to his shop. In fact, when customers walk in, they pass by a prominent sign at the front door reading, “Customer service is what we do,” laying the groundwork for Pizza Loft’s hospitality.

Whether it’s dine-in, delivery or carryout, mistakes are inevitable. The laws of probability say that customer complaints are going to pop up every once in awhile. But, effectively handling those errors can turn unhappy guests into loyal patrons.

Cohen says he looks forward to complaints. “It’s the perfect opportunity to turn them into regulars, he says. When complaints come, “we own it. It’s our fault, even if it’s not.” In the cases where the customer mistakenly ordered something they didn’t want, Cohen says, “We go ahead and give it to them.” To help minimize wrong orders, Cohen trains servers and phone operators to read back the order again even after they have recited orders given. Even then, mishaps can occur.

When it’s wrong, Pizza Loft employees are trained to say, “I’m sorry.” They never make excuses, never argue. In addition to managers, servers and hostesses also are empowered to handle issues.“Employees can do whatever it takes to make a guest happy,” he says. “Even if it doesn’t call for something extra, we give something extra.”

Cohen believes in going beyond replacing a wrong item. his servers offer to wrap up the mistake for the customer to enjoy later or share with family or coworkers. also, while the party waits for a new item to be made, a complimentary low-cost food item such as garlic rolls is delivered to the table to mend the gap.

When the server feels the customer is not satisfied, Cohen asks that his staff seek him out right away. “Everyone likes to have interaction with the owner,” he says, expanding that sometimes an owner’s presence can calm the situation.

Mark Roppolo of Roppolo’s Pizzeria in Austin, Texas, is also easily accessible to handle grievances at his two Sicilian- style pizza locations. His restaurant operates a little differently from Pizza Loft. roppolo’s doesn’t have a wait staff and instead uses runners to deliver pizza throughout one location’s three- story dining area. runners and cashiers are instructed to call on managers to handle any complaint.

Of the 1,000 slices Roppolo serves on a Friday or Saturday night, Roppolo says three or four people might complain. The main beef at Roppolo’s comes from the crust. People may think it’s too dark or not dark enough and too crispy or not crispy enough. It’s a matter of preference and that’s an easy fix. Roppolo replaces the item and it’s off the check.

If a customer steps over the line — Roppolo admits that it has only happened with intoxicated customers — he has a firm policy of refunding the person and asking them to leave.

Roppolo and his managers use their best judgments to decide when a situation warrants that extra something such as a gift certificate to use at a future visit. he is hesitant to offer gift certificates if he believes the person is just looking for a deal. That’s why Roppolo says the extras are optional.

Restaurant consultant and industry analyst Aaron Allen says that is a common perception among restaurateurs. “Why not give a complainant a full free meal? There is this feeling that if we start doing that then everybody will complain so they can get something for free,” he says.

He encourages operators to look at the broader picture. Many operators spend thousands of dollars on advertising to acquire new customers, yet some resist comping meals and/ or providing a future meal to a person who complains.

Replacing a pizza may not be enough, Allen warns. “Just recooking it doesn’t feel like compensation for that hassle,” he says. “how can you not just make it right but how can you make it a little better than what the customer expected?”

To compensate a complainant, Allen says, “I would encourage things that are bounce back — things that will encourage them to come back another time.”

Whether it is you, a manager or an employee who handles a complaint, Allen offers recommendations when addressing a disgruntled customer:

  • Listen first.
  • Show empathy.
  • Remain calm and positive.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Ask questions so they know you are listening.

Allen says that you should never correct a customer who is explaining a problem. “There is no victory in convincing the customer they are wrong,” he says. “have that customer feel that they were somehow healed — restored — through that process,” Allen says.
The last step is follow-up, Allen says. “have a record of who had voiced complaints and a program for bounce backs,” he says. “remember all feedback is good feedback.”

Red Flags

Perceptive wait staff and management have the power to head off complaints in some cases.

“One thing to watch is the sequence of service and how long it is taking between each step in the sequence,” says Aaron Allen, a restaurant consultant in Maitland, Florida. If one of those goes past the allotted time, he suggests it’s an occasion to step in and reassure the customer or even present menu samples. “If you can let some of that steam off before they hit that boiling point, they’ll patiently wait longer,” he adds. Take a moment to study your customers. “Changes in posture, tone and communications style can all be signals that there is something that might be going wrong,” he says.

“If they have a look of being con- fused or puzzled, that can be an indication to go over and to ask questions ahead of a complaint that might be on the way.”

Denise Greer is associate editor of Pizza Today.