How to Deal With Difficult Restaurant Customers
As much as we try to please our customers, sometimes we encounter people who–for one reason or another–display negative behavior.
What can a restaurateur do to avoid a confrontation with these people in your establishment, and how do you neutralize (and perhaps eliminate) their disruptive behavior?
This is not an easy task. It might help you to remember: most of the time, these people are using your restaurant or your employees in order to vent their personal frustrations.
Sometimes people come to your place bringing along their emotional baggage. It would be great if they could leave it at home, but unfortunately, they don’t. You always must try to always maintain your cool. Keep your emotions out of the discussion and think about your other customers. They don’t need to have their experience spoiled by witnessing an unpleasant public argument.
There are three basic types of difficult people: the Critic, the Chatty and the Vociferous. What follows is some advice to help you identify and deal with each type:
1. The Critic
This person likes to put down anything and anybody. They will criticize minor mistakes and pick apart your food, your staff, etc.
How can you deal with them?
Carrie Mason-Draffen, author of 151 Quick Ideas to Deal With Difficult People, writes that this type of person grew up around negativity. They were probably criticized by their parents or others, and developed a negative attitude by replicating what they heard.
These people will wear you down if you keep listening to their continuous complaints about everything – from the way your napkins are folded to the temperature of the food to a two-minute delay in the delivery of their appetizers.
You must remember that these complaints may be directed at your place or your staff, but the root of the dissatisfaction is not in your restaurant. These people are just venting their unhappiness and negativity at your establishment.
Ask your waiters to try to diffuse the negativity by responding with understanding and saying something positive. For instance, if your Critic claims that the food is cold then your staff can respond by saying, “I’m sorry about that. I will bring it back to the kitchen, warm it up and get it right back to you.”
Remind your staff to always be positive in their attitude, and not to take the criticism personally. Critics thrive in conflict and they look for it. You owe it to your other customers to keep a nice, relaxed ambience. If they see that, despite these complaints, your staff is trying to correct the situation and keeping a positive attitude, they will value your place even more.
Please notice that I am talking here about a person with a pattern of negativity, not an angry customer that may be reasonably upset because of a specific dining issue.
“One of the best ways to deal with an angry person is to actively listen to what they are saying,” says Elizabeth Stanczak, executive director of UTSA’s health and counseling services. “Often the angry person is frustrated because they don’t believe they are being heard and think no one wants to help them.”
Always try to listen first to your customers if they are angry. They may have a reason that can be easily solved. Listen to what they have to tell you, and try to come up with a satisfactory solution. This often diffuses their anger and leaves everybody happy. However, if you see that these people are purposely disruptive, politely ask them to leave your place and suggest they come back when they feel less upset. Tell them something like:
“I’m sorry you are not enjoying yourself. Perhaps you should leave tonight and we can start over another time. Since you haven’t enjoyed your time here, your meal is on the house.”
Although you may feel tempted to get your money from these ungrateful people, don’t charge them for the meal. This will likely start a big argument or allow them to make another negative comment.
These people are looking for an excuse to validate their negativity, and asking them to pay while inviting them to leave will provoke their fury. They will make a scene, and will make the dining experience very unpleasant for the rest of your clients. You can’t win this battle.
However, if you ask them to leave with no charges you lose the cost of the food and drinks, but you save the reputation of your restaurant and you ensure that other diners will recognize your willingness to accommodate your disruptive Critic.
2. The Chatty
This person will try to keep your staff always entertained by asking them questions all the time, telling them stories about themselves, etc.
This could be OK if you have a slow day, but it can be very disruptive to your operation if your place is busy.
The Chatty person is very curious and loves to talk (especially about themselves), so they will take any opportunity to talk to your staff, to you, to anybody who wants to listen (or even those who don’t).
How can you deal with them?
If you see that these people are disrupting your employees’ work flow, you can tell your staff to politely say, “I’m sorry, I know that you have something interesting to share, but we are very busy today and I need to serve other tables. Perhaps you can come back on Monday nights, when we have fewer diners and it’s less hectic, and I would have more time to talk with you.”
They should get the point. If not, you may also intervene occasionally by approaching the table and giving a direct instruction to your waiters to attend to another matter or serve a different table. Then say a couple of nice words to these customers and excuse yourself with a smile.
3. The Vociferous
This personality type engages in disruptive behavior in public. Most of the time, they will talk very loudly while dining so that the whole restaurant can hear them. This type is probably the most problematic because he or she is disrupting other clients who are looking for a pleasant dining experience, but doesn’t act with harmful intentions.
How can you deal with them?
These types are simply craving attention. They love to be the life of the party and be recognized by everybody.
It is not easy to deal with these individuals. They may get upset if you ask them to lower their voice or act less obvious since this could be their opportunity to really be the center of attention that they so much crave.
Although there is not much we can do about this behavior, one solution that may work is to move the dining party to a different, more secluded table.
You can tell them that your other clients enjoy listening to your background music, and since they are having such a lively conversation, perhaps sitting at the corner table will be a great solution for everybody. That way, they will have more privacy and the rest of your customers can enjoy their background music.
Also, if your place is not full, and/or if they refuse, you may offer to move nearby diners leaving a space of empty tables around them. This way they will realize that their loud conversation is not really appreciated by the rest of the clients and perhaps they will lower their voices voluntarily.
To conclude, you must try always your best to be polite when dealing with difficult customers. Remember that these people are bringing their own problems and issues to your place, and your restaurant and staff are just the vehicle through which they vent their frustrations.
Distance yourself from the emotions involved in dealing with them and, if your negotiations with these people fail, invite them to leave your restaurant.
Again, although you may be tempted, don’t charge them for their meal. You will lose a meal but they disrupt your business further.
Above all, remember to always put the well being of your staff and your other clients first. If you see that these disruptive people become threatening or violent, don’t hesitate to call the police and let the authorities deal with the problem customers.
Fortunately, most of the people are nice and appreciative of good food and service. The disruptive clients are an annoying minority that needs to be dealt with. Having some tools to work with these people will help you run your business more smoothly.