When we get a bad restaurant review, whether an online guest service (eg, OpenTable, TripAdvisor, Yelp), print media, or even live and in person, there is almost always some primary catalyst for the complaint. As a restaurant manager, it’s always worthwhile trying to figure out what it is.
In our restaurants, we pay close attention to exactly what is being said, the entire narrative. If written, we read the entire review carefully. If spoken, we hear them out. We don’t judge the person offering their feedback. We investigate, using our intuitive brains, restaurants smarts, and any data we have about the event from staff or our electronic systems. We root through all of this intel to see if we can uncover if there is something going on in addition to or underneath the complaint -- a seed from which a wide-ranging complaint has now bloomed.
For example, let’s consider a sample negative review on Yelp, a couple that seemed to hate everything about the restaurant, the wait, the service, the food, the ambiance. We engaged them, receiving all of their criticism, every single word. We parsed through it, talking to the host about the experience and their interactions, looking at their reservation time and when they were seated, any notes provided or previous reservations and meals with us, reviewing the food they ate, the timeliness of the meal, the server they had, and when they left. An undercurrent story was revealed, as is very often the case.
This couple was bummed because of what happened early on, and it cast shade over their entire experience. They had recommended our restaurant to their friends and invited them to dinner. We failed to seat them on time for their reservation. The 15 minutes they waited beyond their reservation time was almost humiliating and literally painful. One of the guests had a terribly bad back, and there was nowhere to sit in the waiting area because it was so crowded. Thus, this became the lens through which they saw and experienced everything else about the restaurant that evening. The food and drink they received were executed properly, the service was spot-on once they were seated, and the ambiance was what it always is, but it didn’t matter. Once I understood the seriousness of the catalyst, I could focus on saying sorry for that, and making things right, rather than debating with the guest that in fact their other criticisms were off base.
I was able to deeply and honestly address our completely unacceptable failure to seat them on time or to care for their physical discomfort. I empathized as I have a bad back too. I acknowledged our failure and how much it sucked for them, and offered and promised a “do over” that would allow them to truly enjoy the best we have to offer.
What I didn’t do is get caught up in their highly emotional feedback. I didn’t judge them for their inaccuracies about their service or the food and drink. I didn’t even address it. Had I gotten caught up in any of these pieces of the story, I may have missed what really made them unhappy. And I may have even backed myself into a corner defending us, making the whole scenario worse.
We have a system in our restaurants that we use to filter our online feedback. We call it our Social Media Neutralizer (see graphic below), which has roots in how we respond to negative feedback in person. We use this process for all of our negative feedback, whether live and in person, on the phone, or electronically. It goes something like this:
We get negative feedback on something, anything.
We jump into that magical space between stimulus and response. We don’t throw gasoline on the fire by having an emotional response. We hear without planning our response. We pause, take a breath, and consider carefully what is being said.
We take all of the negative words, overt emotions, loud voices, and even any offensive language, and we toss them all gently into the trash, without mentioning it. This allows for a deep breath and a “step away from the keyboard” moment knowing there’s thinking to be done before formulating a response.
We hear what is being said, all of it. We hear what the complaint is.
We investigate using all of the resources we have.
We work to uncover the CATALYTIC NEGATIVE EVENT.
We sincerely apologize for what we have done wrong. We admit our failure(s) and our mistake(s). We ignore any superfluous complaining that seems to be a ripple of the catalyst.
We try to make amends. We seek a "do over" – a chance to prove ourselves, a chance to win them back.
We follow up with operations to discuss the event and see if there is a “fix” to the problem so it doesn’t happen again; there’s also always coaching and sometimes there’s a systemic change to implement.
We celebrate our efforts. We hope we have earned a loyal guest.
The graphic above illustrates our process. We use our Social Media Neutralizer, or some version of it, for all of the negative feedback we get. Not only does it prove to be a useful tool, but it also is a relief in the midst of an emotional interaction to know that we all have a path to follow and a plan to respond. This process is more akin to the flow of martial arts than the body blows of boxing. The mindset is that engagement is always positive, rather than being oppositional and conflict-centered.
Our Social Media Neutralizer has potential beyond the restaurant industry. Any service industry or retail business could follow this process, from airlines to grocery stores.