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Complaints: The whine list

21 December 2006

"What do you mean you haven't got our favourite food?"

"How are things?" you ask. "Oh, mustn't grumble," goes the well-worn reply. "Mustn't grumble" - that sums it up, really. We British don't like to complain, do we? All that conflict just isn't our way. We hate to be seen to make a fuss, especially in public, and if one of us does get uppity, then the rest of us are embarrassed, which is when we look the other way, start up a friendly conversation with someone we normally despise or start taking unnecessary trips to the bathroom.

Yet a recent Caterer survey of the hospitality trade puts the Brits at the top of the list of moaners, taking responsibility for just over 50% of complaints. Next are our visitors from across the Atlantic, responsible, it seems, for about 18% of whinges the rest of Europe is close behind with 16%. However, if this gives the impression that we're actually a bit more forthright than we imagine, think again.

There are, of course, many more British guests staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants and drinking in our pubs every night than there are overseas visitors. Proportionately, we should expect, therefore, to see a much higher percentage of complaints coming from UK residents and much lower from the Americans. All in all, it seems to confirm what we instinctively know: upset a British customer and they'll likely slope off, tell their friend and never come back. Upset an American and they'll sue your ass off.

Whatever the source, dealing with complaints is a day-to-day issue for all in the trade. Even the best-run, highest-quality establishments will have to deal with the dissatisfied, if only because some people simply won't like the product. Complaints aren't always the result of doing something wrong sometimes it's simply that the customer doesn't appreciate what you've done correctly. Responses to the survey, for instance, included displeasure expressed about the curliness of a Cumberland sausage, the rawness of steak tartare and a requested "very, very well done steak" being "overcooked".

Overcooked and undercooked food is, according to the respondents, the leading cause of dissatisfaction. No real surprise there when you recognise that one man's medium steak is another's idea of still-living flesh, and that while some of us like to eat our fish at the point where it is just, and only just, cooked, there's a great swathe of folk out there who prefer it poached, baked or fried until it has the texture of a three-ply tissue.

A matter of style

It's in areas like this, where it's actually a matter of style or taste, that dealing with complaints becomes most complicated. If a customer has suffered a long delay in being served (the second most common cause of annoyance in the survey), it's a matter of fact that they've waited too long - the obvious course of action being to apologise, compensate in some way and make damn sure it doesn't happen again. If, on the other hand, they're distressed that you didn't pour their wine and it's simply not the house style to do so, then a little more robustness is needed.

In other words, complaints need to be treated on their merits. Is it a recurring problem? If so, maybe a change in policy is needed. Is it just the personal likes or dislikes of one person? Then maybe you need to politely ignore it and continue doing the things that work for the majority of your clients. It's about expectations, too. If your business is primarily serving the leisure sector, the survey shows that the volume of complaints is likely to be much higher than those serving the business person. After all, it is their money rather than their employer's their time available to take up grievances is greater and they are actually staying there for the purpose of enjoying themselves rather than as an unavoidable add-on to a working day.

The bigger the business the more difficult it is to empower staff to make those judgements. We've probably all known places that are renowned as a soft touch for the "professional complainers", handing out refunds, free meals and complimentary stays at the first sign of a gravy stain. This is probably one of the reasons why Marriott International UK & Ireland vice-president Robert Gaymer-Jones says his general managers are required to be "intimately involved" with every complaint. The aim is to resolve issues before the guest leaves the property and if a problem comes up again and again, teams are created to focus on ways to fix it quickly.

This is also a subject close to Tim Gordon's heart as general manager of the Radisson SAS Heathrow. "It's a real point for me. I talk to the guys on the front desk, and every single complaint comes to me," he says. And it doesn't stop there - every negative comment from a guest gets a personal response from the GM.

For a small business, it's a lot easier for the owner or manager to give personal attention and, in many ways, dealing with complaints effectively is even more crucial. A small rural pub or restaurant, for example, is especially vulnerable to the destructive influence of the dissatisfied customer. In a small community news of bad experiences can spread quickly, and the opinions of a few can soon colour the spending habits of the many.

Tendency to complain

And we'd better watch out: historically, the British might not be the most vocal in voicing their grievances, but the survey shows that 72% of those replying felt that the tendency to complain had increased in the past decade.

This could, of course, be the tip of a coming iceberg. Visitors to Greece, for instance, might have noticed a mandatory addendum to restaurant menus helpfully informing them that legislation requires that a complaint book is kept on the premises and they should feel free to use it if they're not satisfied. A troubling glimpse of the future here, perhaps? Something else to be slotted into that space increasingly crowded with disclaimers about GM ingredients, the use of unpasteurised eggs and, of course, dishes that include nuts (or might at some time in their history have come into contact with a nut, or maybe once shared a mutual acquaintance with somebody who had an uncle who once met a nut).

Solicited or otherwise, the implication is that the industry will need to respond by sharpening up its practices in response to the increase in the volume of complaints. Policies will need to cover a multitude of different scenarios in terms of how the complaint should be dealt with and when compensation is appropriate. An enhanced sense of humour would probably be of assistance, too. What other attitude can you adopt if you find yourself confronted, as one respondent did, by an irate man furious that the model featured in the free preview footage of the adult film he subsequently paid to view didn't actually appear in the movie? They gave him his money back, of course - with a smile.

Top 10 complaints from the survey

  • "I don't like the shade of blue of the sofa in my room - I want to move!"
  • An American woman was disappointed that the antique furniture in the hotel "looked so old".
  • While swimming in the ocean in front of the hotel some guests encountered live fish. They checked out at once.
  • A guest raised a "serious grievance" that the ice cubes in his drink were too large.
  • A pet-friendly hotel was berated because it didn't have stocks of a guest's dog's favourite food.
  • A moan about the absence of a sea view during a period of fog.
  • A man making a vociferous objection to the fact that the hotel did not have erotic films available 24 hours a day. He insisted that porn was his main reason for staying in a hotel.
  • A church group who sent back a chocolate dessert after correctly detecting that it had a splash of rum in it, having not previously announced that they were teetotallers. They had unknowingly already consumed cider in the sauce with their pork and wine in a number of other dishes.
  • On paying, a customer complained that the restaurant was cold. When it was pointed out that the restaurant was very warm and he had also been sitting right next to a radiator, he said, somewhat triumphantly, that it was switched off. It was: the thermostat cut in when the temperature reached 25°C.
  • Finally, "There are too many women in your pub."
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