Hoteliers and restaurateurs often worry about getting complaints. But with the right approach and processes in place, when it comes to feedback you could find that those grievances can really drive your business forward. Tom Vaughan confronts the criticism
As a nation, the Brits have a complicated relationship with complaining. We can't help but notice when things aren't right, but we'd often rather brood on these annoyances than articulate them. While our American cousins will readily chirp up when they're not happy, Brits are more likely to trudge off and complain to a dozen or so friends that the experience wasn't up to scratch.
It is a situation that makes things ever so tricky for hospitality businesses, for whom so much rests on word of mouth. But with proper procedures in place, you can aim to deal with as many of these complaints before they leave the premises and make sure that only happy customers walk out of your door.
First things first, it is essential to make sure you get full feedback before the customer leaves. "Every complaint, no matter how big or small, presents a golden opportunity to differentiate yourself from your competitors by successful resolution," says Chris Talbot, managing director of Assured Customer Experiences. And that situation is much more likely to be successfully resolved on the premises.
At Oxfordshire country house hotel and restaurant Fallowfields, waiters and reception staff all ask the question: "Could we have done anything to improve your stay/meal?" It's a question, says managing director Anthony Lloyd, that is much more demanding of an answer than the ubiquitous: "Was everything satisfactory?"
At Dartington Hall hotel in Totnes, Devon, general manager Deborah Heather invests a lot of work in the personalities of her staff and the way they deal with complaints. "You've really got to give full eye contact when asking for feedback and show that you will be very grateful for it," she says.
Don't take offence
The most important lesson when receiving a complaint, is never to take it personally. "As a chef it can be easy to get worked up at complaints because you're putting your all into that plate of food," says Tom van Zeller, chef-patron of his eponymous Harrogate restaurant. "But when you have a business, you learn that it is the last thing you should do." Likewise, B&B owners who are welcoming guests into their homes should be cautious not to take offence, says hospitality coach and founder of Zeal Coaching Caroline Cooper.
The key is to listen and understand every complaint. "Listen actively. Don't interrupt. Unpick what the problem is and don't make excuses," says David McHattie, CEO of Customer Service Benchmarking. "The guest's perception is their reality. This is a great chance to show you care and aid your business."
When it comes to dealing with a complaint, the consensus is that it is always better to overcompensate rather than merely compensate. "A truly successful resolution is one that turns the ‘ow' of customer complaint into a ‘wow' of customer delight," Talbot says. "The value of winning a customer-for-life can never be underestimated; in terms of financial value it is perhaps better to do whatever necessary to retain the customer-for-now and to work to make sure they become customer-for-life." Overcompensating by at least a few percent, rather than offering a quid pro quo, should be the very minimum, Cooper agrees.
Through all of this, put your GP to the very back of your mind. "Don't think about the £15 plate of food," McHattie says. "Think about the cost price. For £3 or £4 is it worth getting into an argument? Think of the potential life-time spend of that customer."
Another big no-no is making excuses. "Never say it's not our fault because of this or that," says Lee Cash, founder of Peach Pubs. "People aren't interested in those kind of things. What they are interested in is you getting it right. You have got to train staff for those kind of situations; otherwise they might give the wrong answer."
Businesses with trust in their staff would also be wise to empower them with resolving complaints themselves, rather than bringing in a manager. A staff member who has to delay the process by passing complaints up the line is not going to impress a customer with a speedy resolution. "No one knows a conversation properly unless they are part of it," says Heather. "The worst an empowered staff member can do is overcompensate or undercompensate - so I let them know I'd much rather they overcompensate."
A culture that any feedback is a positive experience means staff will not be afraid to pass complaints up the line. "All a staff member has to do to me is justify the complaint and the compensation and I will never criticise," Lloyd says.
Whatever the recompense, ensure it is appropriate; otherwise it serves no purpose. Cooper tells a story of how she complained about slow service at a restaurant recently and received a complimentary bottle of wine, but as she was going to the theatre afterwards and didn't want to drink, it was a useless gesture. Likewise, Lloyd complained about a terrible night at a hotel owing to a rowdy wedding and received a voucher entitling him to a free bottle of Champagne on his return. "‘Come and spend more money with us?' It was just an insult," he says.
Of course, it's not all about recompense. Matt Shiells-Jones, front-of-house manager at De Vere's Cheadle House in Manchester, wrote a recent book entitled How To Be A Hotel Receptionist. "You can't always just throw money at a problem," he says. "You have to try and explain things sometimes. I had a woman in recently who complained that all her colleagues were staying one day and had been upgraded, whereas she was with us a week and hadn't been. I explained that the upgraded rooms were all booked out later and we were keen she settled in her room for the whole week. She left understanding the situation and contented with it."
Finally, it is essential to understand not just the complaint but the cause of it as well. Logging feedback allows you to look for any recurring problems. "If complaints come in on the same shifts weekly, regardless of staff, you can alter things," Cooper says. "With the best will in the world, if you haven't got enough staff on, mistakes will happen."
When all is said and done, taking feedback is about honesty and generosity. It's about wanting customers to return and enjoy your business as you think they should. And as McHattie says, "It's about saying, ‘Hey, we don't get everything right. But when we don't, we'll fix it'."
The most common complaints
The classic complaint that is easy to make - and often easy to resolve, is that of the overcooked or undercooked steak. The reason for this, says David McHattie, is that customers find it easier to complain at the time about things that are visible. "For example, if the quality of food is bad, people will tell you. But if the service is slow, people tend to go away and talk to others but won't tell you at the time."
Other complaints falling in this category include:
â- Poor view from a room
â- A lack of towels
â- Bad decor
â- The wrong side-order with a meal
â- The wrong drink
â- An error with the bill
â- A rowdy table nearby
While these complaints are most common, it is the less-mentioned, intangible problem that a restaurateur or hotelier must do their utmost to uncover and resolve, before that customer leaves and spreads bad word of mouth.
Dealing with feedback on Tripadvisor
The old adage goes that if you like something, you tell one person; if you dislike something, you tell 10. Wherever those numbers were plucked from, they have surely multiplied in this cyber age, with websites such as TripAdvisor giving negative reviews an audience of thousands.
The good news is that it is not too late to resolve a complaint once it has gone online. "If I were a manager, I would be going online and sincerely apologising," says David McHattie. "There is still a chance to get them back as a loyal customer. Give your phone number and everyone will see you care."
Caroline Cooper agrees: "If I see a complaint online that the management hasn't replied to I think ‘They don't care'. Get online, apologise, show you care and get it offline as quickly as possible. Set up a Google alert to make sure you are kept abreast of any feedback online."
It never hurts to be as involved with your online audience as possible. For example, Tom van Zeller recently changed his policy towards TripAdvisor. Whereas beforehand he was only responding to negative comments, he made it look as if he didn't appreciate the positive, so now takes a minute to reply to all reviews as you would if a customer was giving feedback in your restaurant or hotel.
Like it or loathe it feedback must be embraced
At Tom van Zeller's Harrogate restaurant, the team constantly look for customer feedback. "Like it or loathe it you have to embrace it and if you are going to embrace it, why not encourage it?" van Zeller says.
When a customer is presented with their bill, they are given a bill holder that includes a feedback form. "Sometimes they leave feedback that I hadn't noticed myself - different people have told us that the bins in the toilets are too small, or the paint on front was peeling," van Zeller adds.
When it comes to more serious complaints made during meals, van Zeller and his restaurant manager will come to a conclusion to resolve it. "We will immediately apologise and remove or replace the offending item," he says. "We'll compensate them at the time and when I am back in the restaurant next, I'll phone them to apologise again and offer them a voucher to return for free food. We want to show them that we can justify our costs and prices."
Not only does the restaurant manager check back on tables during mealtimes, but van Zeller has his eye on things. "It's a small kitchen and I see every plate coming back," he explains. "If food has been left, I'm on it. Is there a fault with the dish? Why aren't they happy? I used to see M&S's policy of recharging and replacing and think ‘What's that all about?' but when you have your own brand you realise the importance of that."
Staff should be empowered to deal with recompense
"Any self-respecting hotelier should welcome complaints," says Fallowfields managing director Anthony Lloyd. The procedure at the country house hotel and restaurant is designed to make sure guests feel comfortable to leave feedback at every opportunity.
"It starts with the restaurant manager, who will ask after the meal not just ‘Did you enjoy it?' but ‘How could we improve things?' - a question that demands an answer," Lloyd adds. "They are being asked their opinion so might think it is worth investing their time to give it."
After that, when guests check out, the receptionist asks the same question. If no feedback has been offered and the hotel has the guest's eâ'mail on file, staff will finally send out an eâ'mail asking for feedback. "It gives those who didn't want to say anything at the time, perhaps because they were embarrassed, a chance to answer," Lloyd says. If a response is negative, staff are all empowered to deal with recompense, Lloyd says. After which, either Lloyd or the operations director will be in touch with the guest to say what they have done to rectify the problem.
All complaints are logged on an Excel spreadsheet so that recurring patterns can be spotted.
What is your most ridiculous complaint?
Every complaints should be dealt with utmost seriousness, but some - such as these examples - can prove especially testing.
"When I ordered the whole sea bass I didn't expect to get the entire fish."
I had a guest who, when I served them a dish of duck breast was adamant that what I was presenting him was not a duck breast. Duck was a white meat, he insisted. Whatever way I cut it I couldn't win - I couldn't argue and make him look like an idiot in front of his table, so I just assured him that if he wasn't happy I would change it for whatever he wanted.
David McHattie, CEO of Customer Service Benchmarking
"The hotel is too quiet at night. I can't sleep!"
Guest complaining of black "specks" in the vanilla ice-cream. They said they were foodies and knew their stuff.
I got a call from a guy who was the owner of a multimillion-pound company at 11 o'clock at night telling me that his heater didn't work. We have radiators but not heaters so I asked him to explain what it looked like - he was going ballistic, yelling that it was brown, had two buttons, had Corby written on the front and was not heating the room. I told him that it was a trouser press and he suddenly switched to being very excited, telling me what an amazing invention it was and every hotel should have one - the inventor would make millions!
Matt Shiells-Jones, front of house manager, De Vere Cheadle House, Manchester
"Too much cheese in the welsh rarebit."
"There is too much fish in the fish cake."
My personal favourite is that a hotel bathroom did not provide an in-built washing line that could extend across the room from underneath the bath on which wet bathing costumes could be dried. I politely explained that this was an excellent idea unfortunately we did not have the facility for this but we did ensure the guests swimming garments were freshly laundered for them.
Chris Talbot, managing director of Assured Customer Experiences
The light was casting a shadow of a customer's own head over his food.
A guest moaned there was no peach served with the peach schnapps.
We had a woman who bought a chorizo sandwich, came back five minutes later and was upset it had meat in it. Didn't tell us she was a vegetarian and said she didn't know what chorizo was.
Has to be that the ice-cream is too cold and was hurting her teeth! How can you change that?
Customer complained once because it had snowed overnight and he decided he wanted his money back because he wanted to go for a walk in the garden in the morning.
The wine was ruined because the white was cold and the red was warm, apparently the wrong way around! Very odd.