Hospitality Helper: The Best Way to Deal with an Angry Customer

angry customerAnyone who’s owned a restaurant or cafe—or, especially, a bar—has had to deal with an angry customer at one time or another. I’m not talking about a dissatisfied customer: I’m talking about one who is well and truly angry. Dealing with people who’ve gotten themselves to that level can be extremely tense, even upsetting. But it’s a fact of life for hospitality owners that they’re going to have deal with someone like this, and likely more than once. It helps to be prepared, then, so that even in the chaos of the situation you can remain calm.

And the number one thing you can do?

#1 – Remain calm.

When a customer raises his voice, it can almost feel disorienting. What happened? Why is this person yelling? You started your day looking to do your job: open up the restaurant, serve food, make some people happy. Angry people making a scene was not on your agenda. While you have no control over the behavior of your customers, you do have control over yourself. So stay calm. Shouting down the opposition never works. It only incites them to turn the volume up. Staying calm, and even lowering your voice, demonstrates that you are in control of your actions. Ultimately, your unhappy customer is looking for some fix to a problem, and who better to solve it than the person who’s exhibiting proper control of the situation?

Admittedly, it can be difficult to resist temptation. When someone raises their voice at you, it’s natural to want to return the verbal fire, escalating the battle. Self-defense is instinctive, but it also shouldn’t apply here. Which brings us to tip number two.

#2 – This has nothing to do with you.

To be clear, it’s the outburst that has nothing to do with you. Your kitchen or staff may very well have royally screwed up this customer’s meal. His complaint may be justified, but his anger is not. Whether it’s his volume, or he’s being insulting, his outbursts are coming from some other place. It’s not your job to understand where that place is—you only need to know that you’re not a part of it. No one ever pitched a fit in public because the owner of a cafe didn’t make them feel loved. That damage happened years ago.

So how do you calm someone down who’s yelling at you?

#3 – Listen. Really listen.

Don’t interrupt, not even to validate. Assuming he’s not gone full scary-maniac and screaming at top volume, it won’t even help to ask him to keep his voice down. It sounds really basic, but someone who’s raising his voice is someone who wants to be heard. And when given the chance to vent without reproach, he’ll likely calm down on his own (if not, you do need to be aware of your other customers’ experiences, and maybe invite the customer outside or into your office to continue the conversation). Give him the time he needs to get it all out.

#4 – Identify and acknowledge the problem, but don’t dwell on it.

When your angry customer has said his piece, it’s your turn to speak. Remember that, despite whatever was said in the run up, there are only two things he really wants to hear.

First, that you understand and acknowledge the problem at hand. Repeat the problem back to him, and be sympathetic—I understand how frustrating it is to receive the wrong dish. You chose to dine with us to avoid a hassle with your meal. It’s also a good idea to apologise and accept culpability. We certainly don’t strive to disappoint our customers, and I’m sorry that this has happened. At that point, you’ll want to switch gears from stating the problem to finding a solution, the second thing he wants to hear. But be aware there are some people who might not be able to let go just yet.

If your angry customer keeps bring the conversation back around to the problem, wanting to argue some finer point of why you are your staff were at fault, don’t take the bait. Just keep moving the conversation back to the solution. You can just remind him that your goal is to provide every customer a pleasing experience, acknowledge again that he didn’t receive that, and tell him that your main concern now is making sure everything ends on a high note. Then start offering solutions.

#5 – When all else fails, stop dealing with the angry customer.

For most people, a sincere apology and an offer of some kind of discount or refund will be enough to defuse the situation. Having just lost their minds a little bit, they’ll walk away feeling impressed by your ability to soothe the situation and remind them you value their business. For some, though, there’s just no pleasing them. With people like these, any attempt at a remedy is just an excuse to escalate the stakes: OK, great, I don’t have to pay for my dish, but that doesn’t fix my hunger!  It doesn’t factor in all the time I wasted here!

People saying things like that after you’ve done all you could to make it right will never be satisfied, and you are well within your rights to let them know they’re not welcome back. Tell them their entire meal is on the house, and that they need to leave immediately. Again, there’s no need to raise your voice or otherwise communicate on their level, but you must be firm at this point. Make it clear there is no wiggle room: you’re sorry they had a bad experience, but they need to go.

You’ll never be able to make your angry customer happy if he hasn’t calmed down by that point, and your focus needs to shift to keeping all the nice, pleasant people in your dining room happy. They’ve presumably been enjoying their meals, and you shouldn’t let one person ruin it for everyone.

Nobody goes into hospitality thinking that they’ve signed for conflict resolution, but it’s going to happen. Still, if you stick to these guidelines, any of the possible outcomes of these testy situations can yield some good will:

  1. You successfully defuse the customer’s anger, and offer a solution which the customer thinks is fair. He leaves feeling validated and respecting you for the way you handled the situation. He’ll probably even come back for another meal, and be a lot nicer the second time around. That’s what happens when people are shown respect, even when they might not deserve it. Especially when they might not deserve it.
  2. You successfully defuse the customer’s anger, and offer a solution which the customer thinks is fair. But he’s still pretty worked up when leaves leaves and vows never to return. Congratulations! This is a person you don’t want returning. Plus, all your other customers saw you handle an obnoxious customer with class and professionalism.
  3. You cannot satisfy the customer no matter what, and send him on his way. You’ve lost money on the meal, but have maintained your dignity. Your other customers saw you try your best and approach the situation from the high road. They’ll appreciate that you didn’t let this customer hijack the evening. They’ll respect your level-headedness in realising their comfort needed to take priority over the loudest voice in the room.

Regardless of the outcome, there is one more thing you should always do when everything has calmed down. Instruct your staff to check in with all their tables, and make sure everything’s OK with them. If the disturbance was particularly disruptive, you should also have them acknowledge that with the people who are left behind. It doesn’t have to be an apology for the disturbance (though it could be). It’s best to acknowledge that it was awkward for everyone, and ask if there’s anything you can do make sure they have a great experience with you. There’s never a good time to have an angry customers, but there is a worst time—and that’s right after one of them has already stormed off.

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