When you are not happy...

Last updated 12:31 31/10/2012

Last week I received a message in the form of a comment from an Omnivore reader - Caroline had been out for a meal, in a restaurant that was not busy, and had received cruddy food and/or service. She made her complaint known to the waiter, and then, feeling that her complaint had fallen on deaf ears, and been resolutely brushed off and ignored, she had posted a review on an online review site.

This review got rather more attention than the in-person complaint - she got a hostile response from the restaurant, banning her from the place in question - and their other eateries!

Her questions, then, are severalfold - how should a restaurant accept negative feedback? How should you complain about a poor experience? And - are you better served to tell people in person than to post on an online review site?

I have actually broached this before, in a post about complaining and tipping, but this time I thought I would consult an expert - someone I know in "the bizz" about how they go about dealing with dissatisfied customers.

So, I spoke to Steve Logan, of Wellington's celebrated Logan Brown. Now, in my experience, you wouldn't have too much cause for any complaint at their restaurant - their food is beautiful (thanks to chef Shaun Clouston and his kitchen crew), and they put a lot of work into ensuring that their standards of service are appropriate, and polished, and befitting a restaurant of their calibre. But, even so, every so often even they get someone who is displeased by something about their meal.

Steve had the following suggestions, for both restaurateurs and diners alike;

1)   Say something at the time. Broach the fact that you are unhappy with your waiter, or the maître 'd - any restaurant worth its' salt will hear you out and seek to find an equitable solution. It is no good to passive-aggressively act as though all is okay, then lash out in a public forum - by that stage it is too late, and the opportunity for something to be done to resolve the matter has gone.

2)   Take the emotion out of things. Be entirely objective - just the facts. If you were dissatisfied with something, explain in what way you feel you have been let down.

3)   Be realistic about what has occurred - if you are in a cheap restaurant, unless it is something totally unforgivable (raw chicken, alien substances in the food), it is less of a big deal than if you have been short-changed in a place of a higher standard.

4)   Vote with your feet, totally - if somewhere is bad, by all means don't go back. But likewise, if it is good, feel free to tell people that it is good. Word of mouth is the best advertising any business can have.

5)   Restaurants - try to figure out what people's motivations or drivers are. Some people are just unhappy and looking for something to lash out about. Some people are not going to be happy with anything, or any solution offered. These people are hard work - good luck with them. Try not to set them off...

I honestly don't know how I feel about online review sites. Here on The Omnivore, I try to tell you about great, inspired and inspiring food experiences in which I have partaken. If I tell you I think something is good, it is because I genuinely believe that it is - something of a case of "if you can't say something nice".

If I have something not so good, I probably do not make mention of it here on the blog (I know you must all think I write up everything I eat here, but, somewhat terrifyingly, I actually don't). And I probably don't go back. And I probably tell people I know that it wasn't great (although, because I am such an accomplished eater, and I keep my ear to the ground, and I take heed of suggestions from people whose opinions I rate, my strike out rate is pretty low).

The fact that everyone can now have their voice heard online is, I reckon, both liberating and oppressive. It is unmediated, and can do a lot of damage that is possibly unwarranted. The internet reads real cold - ever sent and email or text, only to read it back and get an inflection or tone that you never intended? I think Steve's advice about removing emotion from your reaction is good, and I think you have to take some reviews with a grain of salt - some people are pretty transparent.

A curious post-script to Caroline's message came when she received a message from the restaurant's owners - they had, in fact, been sub-letting the place, and the message spelled out some of the background to their circumstances, together with some wine and a hearty apology, which was probably what had been warranted in the first place - there are often behind the scenes reasons why a place, even somewhere quite good, might be a bit off...

Ultimately I think it is about working together to achieve a satisfactory outcome for all parties. I am intrigued to hear from readers who have been involved in any sort of interaction as to how it unfolded - from cafes and restaurants, how do you deal with complaints, and from punters - how satisfied have you been with an eatery's response after a complaint?

And how do you feel about online review sites? Do you contribute? Do you read them? How much credence do you give them - grain of salt?!

Photo from Mattes/Studies/Fun

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