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How to avoid a customer service catastrophe

Training, protocols and a generous spirit can defuse explosive situations

Customer service has been a hot-button topic in recent weeks after a series of highly public events on airlines went viral on social media.

One passenger was dragged from a plane after refusing to give up his overbooked seat. Another was ejected after using the restroom at an unapproved moment, and a flight attendant nearly got into a scuffle over a stroller.

At a time when most people have mobile phones handy to take photos or videos of any potential customer service catastrophe, it has become more important than ever for restaurant operators to train their staff to defuse potentially explosive situations before they become news, said attorney Philippe Weiss, managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, an employment-focused compliance and training subsidiary of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP.

“In the last two or three months, we’ve seen a lot of calls to our team requesting guidance, support and strategies about how to deal with these issues,” Weiss said.

To say customer service is a key factor for restaurants is not an overstatement, Weiss said. Potential customer service catastrophes happen every day across the industry.

One restaurant client, famous for its meatball hoagies, got into hot water after it ran out of the sandwich. A server with the best intentions offered the guest an uneaten half sandwich left over from another table.

Another restaurant faced backlash after a server posted pictures of a complaining guest and his spouse with the nicknames “Grumpy” and “Plumpy.”

At a breakfast spot, guests clashed after a three-year-old was allowed to roam through the restaurant and a misguided cashier suggested that the parents “put a leash on it.”

Does customer service training need to involve lawyers? With social media as a factor, it probably should, Weiss said.

“It has up-ended the entire landscape of both reputational risk and even liability risk,” he said. “You have the court of law, but now the court of public opinion can magnify all those issues.”

When customer service catastrophes go viral, the backstory that most people never see includes all the things that may have occurred before the cameras were turned on, Weiss said.

“We may have done everything right, but what people see is part three, when the cameras come on,” he said. “That’s when a staff member is pushed into a corner or caught in a more conflict-ridden engagement, and that’s what goes out to the world.”

But restaurants can take steps to prevent that situation from reaching that point of conflict he said. Here are some tips:

1. Go above and beyond.

Comping food and drink works. Restaurants should budget for it, Weiss said. But it should be done in a reasonable, systematic way, and only when needed and valuable.

In some cases, restaurants may want to empower experienced and trusted servers to comp meals, offer a free drink or dessert. Weiss recommended using a designated staff member to control how and when to accommodate guests. But the point is to “over-communicate, over-console and over-compensate,” he said.

Unlike most industries, restaurants are in the unique position of being able to build a bridge in the heat of the moment that can turn an irate customer into a loyal one.

“That’s fundamentally what hospitality is all about,” he said. “If you’ve done things right, you’ll have people who not only feel so differently about the restaurant, they’ll talk it up to others.”

2. Train customer-facing employees to speak in a way that reflects the restaurant’s values, standards and conduct rules.

The more fluid those staff members are with the language of your restaurant’s style of hospitality, the less likely they will be thrown off message if a conversation with an unhappy guest begins to escalate, Weiss said.

3. Practice common customer service situations with role play.

Have someone play the role of angry patron and practice techniques, language and body positioning until it feels comfortable and natural.

A script can be developed that helps servers find the right words, but Weiss recommended running that script by legal counsel to make sure it doesn’t cross any lines of liability.

“You don’t want to admit to anything, like we completely ruined A, B and C. You can be sorry about someone’s experience without admitting fault,” he said.

Avoid corporate jargon, legal speak or excess verbiage.

“Use friendly, everyday, plain English,” he said. “If you train and test your people to deliver that script with a smile, they’ll be far more likely to be able to do it in a real tense moment.”

4. If a patron gets disruptive, go in slow and low.

Speak to them slowly, and not in their personal space. If it feels right, get physically on their level, rather than standing over them at the table. Make sure your tone and body language are non-confrontational, he said.

Describe the impact of their conduct, rather than how badly the guest may be behaving. They may always have an excuse for their bad behavior, but they can’t argue with the impact and how it might be affecting others, Weiss said.

5. Establish a customer crisis point person.

Give that person extra training in handling disappointed or demanding customers, and establish procedures.

If a guest has to be asked to leave the premises, for example, Weiss recommended that point person tell the guest something like this, though delivered in their own way. 

“We appreciate that there may be differing views. However, we have rules and standards of conduct that we must uphold in all circumstances on these premises. As the manager, it is my responsibility to ensure that the staff, as well as other guests, are treated consistently with our policies and that they feel comfortable and safe at all times. So, we have to ask you to leave the premises.”

6. Don’t agree with or condone any customer misconduct.

It may be tempting to show support for a regular customer in some situations, but it could create legal landmines.

“The customer is only right so long as he or she is also respectful,” he said.

 7. If a customer has to be removed but won’t go voluntarily, let local law enforcement handle it.

“You don’t want anyone on your staff to get into a physical altercation,” he said. 

The customer crisis point person should have his or her phone pre-programmed to dial 911 with one touch while they try to defuse the situation. 

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

TAGS: Workforce
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