We’ll spare you the communications theory assumptions Alex Susskind sought to test in his new study, “An Examination of Guest Complaints and Complaint Communication Channels: The Medium Does Matter!” Susskind, an associate professor of foodservice management at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, was writing for an academic journal. Let’s just say that by asking 504 frequent casual diners how they prefer to lodge complaints, the good professor turned up some interesting findings that may have implications for real-world restaurant owners and operators.
The big one is that nearly half of all unhappy guests don’t put much value in face-to-face discussions with line-level employees. They want to talk to the boss. And if the boss isn’t available, their next-favored communication method is to put their complaint in a letter or e-mail and send it to the boss.
Hey, wait a minute. Don’t service experts say the trick is to empower your servers to fix problems like these on the spot? Doesn’t matter. “This study found that complaints lodged face-to-face to nonmanagerial service employees were viewed similarly to complaining via a comment card—a less-rich mode of communication,” is how Susskind sums it up. “These findings suggest that guests view complaints delivered at the line level as less potent than complaints delivered directly to management.” Translation: guests who have a negative experience in your restaurant don’t want to talk to the people who were directly involved in giving it to them; they want to appeal to a higher authority.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Susskind’s study suggests that you can revisit training procedures so that your service personnel are better equipped to handle these issues at the line level.
But no matter who winds up placating a dissatisfied customer, you want to do it quickly and defuse the situation while the customer is still on-site. “Complaints handled within the four walls of the restaurant provide management with an advantage in service recovery because all of the information and circumstances surrounding the problem are still active. In the restaurant you can directly ask guests how they would like to have their complaint resolved,” Susskind concludes. In contrast, if you’re trying to resolve an issue after the fact, as you must do when the customer writes you an angry letter or e-mail, satisfaction is seldom achieved.
So is Susskind right? If you sift through enough research on customer service, it becomes clear why you don’t want dissatisfied customers just to go away. Rule-of-thumb numbers show that roughly 60 percent of complaining customers will eat at your restaurant again if you resolve their service issue, and almost all customers (96 percent in some studies) will come back if you solve their problem to their satisfaction and do so quickly.
Since restaurants thrive on repeat customers, and since it costs so much to acquire a new customer as opposed to keeping one you already have, your incentive here is clear.
Conversely, dissatisfied customers who don’t somehow get satisfied generate a lot of negative word of mouth‚ telling 10 or more people about their negative experience. Your restaurant doesn’t need that.
So many variables come into play during a full-service meal that service errors—real or perceived—are unavoidable. When they happen, there’s going to be an impact on your business. Susskind’s telling you that they can be handled in ways that help you diminish that impact.