A Complaint Is an Opportunity to Build a Customer for Life

Paolo’s Ristorante of Rockville, Md., was jam-packed one Friday night, and a large problem was brewing. A 7:30 p.m. reservation made by Mrs. McCleary had gone awry. This was an important dinner for her. She’d met with the manager, no fewer than 10 times to ensure that everything was arranged for her brother’s birthday. He was arriving from Ireland, and she hadn’t seen him in 10 years. The restaurant had planned an exceptional night: a Veuve Clicquot Champagne toast, a special menu and a birthday cake. The manager had alerted the host of the reservation and special seating.

Face the Storm

The problem began when a woman showed up at the host stand at 7:25 p.m. and stated that she had a large party. The host got excited. “Oh, are you Mrs. McCleary?” he asked. Seizing the opportunity, the woman slyly looked at the reservation sheet sprawling on the floor. Noticing the huge line behind her, she said, “Yes!” Lloyd quickly escorted the party to the McCleary table.

Back at the host stand, the real Mrs. McCleary showed up. She and her fellow guests crowded around the host stand, steaming mad. The host frantically searched for the manager. Carefully pulling Mrs. McCleary aside, the manager faced his accuser. Slightly bending his knees to get on her level, he gave her his undivided attention, careful not to interrupt. Mrs. McCleary blasted him with a barrage of anger. “This is pathetic! This is pitiful,” she said. “My brother arrives in 10 minutes, and you don’t have our table?” The manager patiently listened.

Listen, Empathize and Fix

After McCleary let out a final sigh, the manager spoke. “Mrs. McCleary, I made a mistake. You have every right to be angry,” he said. “This is not up to our standards, and no one should have to go through what you’ve gone through. I’m glad you told me about this so now I can escort you to the bar and treat you and your guests to our finest Champagne and appetizers. And, I’ll check back every 10 minutes until we have a table for you.”

An hour later, she was seated. Although most of the party was appeased, Mrs. McCleary was still fuming. “I take full responsibility. This was completely my fault. I’m paying for the entire celebration, start to finish. But please give us a second chance,” the manager implored.

“No way,” Mrs. McCleary said. “As a matter of fact, I’m calling the Washington Post food critic and the Washingtonian magazine. I’ll bury you and your little restaurant!”

Plan a Creative Comeback

Later that night, the manager instructed the host to stop by a local flower shop, pick up a dozen long-stem roses and deliver them to Mrs. McCleary’s office — not her home. This had to be an event.

“I know your party was upset last night, but I hope you’ll come back and give us another try,” the host said, as he graciously handed her roses in front of her co-workers. Looking a little sheepish, Mrs. McCleary relented. “I admit that I was pretty angry last night. I said some terrible things, and I’m sorry. I know you bent over backward for us, and with this beautiful gesture, I can assure you we’ll be back.”

She did, in fact, return the following Friday with family, friends and co-workers. “Welcome back, Mrs. McCleary. Thank you for giving us a second chance and, most importantly, for your feedback,” the manager said with a smile.

Have a Plan

The manager had turned an atrocious situation into the kind of word-of-mouth advertising that money can’t buy. He knew exactly what to do.

1) Listen. First, he gave his undivided attention to Mrs. McCleary without interrupting.

2) Empathize. He used phrases like, “I made a mistake.” “You have every right to be angry.” “This is not up to our standards.” He proved he was on her side.

3) Apologize. He didn’t annoy her by saying, “I’m sorry,” over and over. He used the affirmative phrase “I apologize.”

4) React. The manager responded with a planned approach. He escorted Mrs. McCleary to the bar for complimentary Champagne and appetizers. He checked back every 10 minutes. He comped the entire dinner. The next day he bought her flowers and invited her to return.

5) Notify. Later, he took full responsibility in front of the entire staff, saying it wasn’t the host’s fault. Then he reviewed the steps necessary to avoid the problem in the future.

6) Thank. He thanked Mrs. McCleary for her patience and feedback.  

Reap the Benefits

Over the next few days, weeks and months, any time Mrs. McCleary wanted to have dinner with friends, where did she go? Paolo’s. Any time she had a business luncheon, where did she go? Paolo’s. After tracking her sales, the manager realized Mrs. McCleary brought in $120,000 in repeat business and referrals. 

Think of when watch a movie and later can’t remember the title or actors’ names. But, you always remember iconic performances, such as Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.” Why? Because Hanks put on the show of a lifetime. In the same way, guests don’t remember ho-hum experiences — only great ones. The McCleary story underscores the fact that well-handled complaints create customers for life. 

Never forget that guests have a greater intent to return when they have a complaint that’s resolved magnificently than if they have no complaint at all.


For more great ideas, be sure to check out Bob Brown's session, "Blow Away the Competition With 'Wow' Service" on March 12 at 9:30 a.m. during the Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show in Las Vegas. For more information, visit www.NCBShow.com.


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