Service Recovery: How To Turn Angry Guests Into Repeat Customers

Photo by Cinzia Orsina

Published: June 3, 2020  

Being a leader in a customer-service-driven world means you’ll inevitably meet an angry guest who wants to talk to you, the glorious brain of the operation. Your role could be a supervisor, manager, shift lead, or even a key position (you “hold a key” to the store and sometimes act in place of the manager). Name the job and you’re going to have to deal with an upset guest or client. That’s just the name of the game, baby. 

If you’re the manger-on-duty, you’ll run into an angry guest at some point.

My experience is in restaurant management, so I’ll be writing about “table touches.” Table touches are when you bless the guests in your establishment with your presence while they’re dining. “Blessing” a guest includes checking in to address something that has gone wrong (we’re going to focus here today) or merely stopping by to say hey! Both are useful in their own little ways. 

A table touch is visiting a table to see how the meal is progressing.

If you work in a different industry, don’t worry! There are many transferable skills from Food-and-Beverage Land. I’m asking you to have an open mind and think of relatable situations in your workplace. Maybe you own a business and have to talk to angry guests on the phone; if so, you can use this information to simmer them down.

Even if you don’t use table touches in your industry you can still learn from reading this.

Before you even think about going into battle, make sure you have armor. Huh? Before you head to the table to talk to Tim (our angry guest today), make sure you understand why he’s upset. Get all the intel you can (make it quick, though!) from your employee and press on into battle, I mean, to Tim’s table.

Get the scoop before you go talk to the guest.
Photo by K8

Bonus: Maintain an overall positive demeanor and don’t shy away from eye contact.

You’ve got armor. That’s great. Grab your weapon. No, put down the 50% off coupon! For your weapon, you’re going to need a script that works, as many companies have. To have such a practical script, maybe they hired a psychologist to see what words work the best, heck if I know. But what I do know is that what I learned in the corporate world actually works. 

One example of a script that works is to give a summary to let the guest so that the guest knows you understand what’s going on, and then slap a fat, genuine, humble apology on the end. Next, inform the guest of how you plan to fix it the situation. Compensate if necessary, but compensation isn’t always needed!

But if you make everything right and the guest seems to be relaxed, give the guest a reason to come back. The reason can be a drink-on-the-house for next time or a free entry to an event you’re having next week. Tailor to the specific needs of that guest, if you can! I’ve made regulars from bad starts! Be humble, let the guest know what’s going on, and fix the fuck up, I mean, error. We’re all human, and most guests will understand that if you act like a human too!

Summarize and provide a solution and incentive to come back. 

Now that you’ve got your script perfected and you know what’s going on, you’re ready to talk to Tim, our angry guest. Let’s go into battle. Grab your armor and weapon, crew!

Tim’s explained to you that he’s appalled at how things have gone so far; he hasn’t been greeted and he’s starving! He just landed from Nova Scotia and hasn’t eaten since his hotel breakfast, and even that was awful (and now it’s your fault!)

Remember what you read here today with Carrie Jean (YW). You’ve summarized, apologized, and went through your script. What you need to add to the script, and what you should never underestimate, is empathy. Add a golden surprise statement of empathy. Say something like, “I’d be mad if I had to wait for my server, especially if I was starving. I remember I had the worst experience like that at a hotel, too. Let’s get you some real food, and fast!” This little slice of empathy and understanding will take you far.

Never underestimate using empathy.
Photo by Fabrizio Magoni

Sometimes, the bulk of the recovery process stops there. Sometimes, time is satisfied with a quick best seller, a turkey BLT; other times you’ve got an Angry Tim on your hands and you’ll have to dig deeper to win him over. Match your guest and the guest’s expectations. You’ll learn a groove for finding what the guest is wanting. 

Match the guest’s expectations.

Yes, sometimes only a comp (taking the item or another item of benefit off of the bill) will rectify a guest complaint. But be cautious to not overcompensate! I’ve done this before and it’s pretty embarrassing. Some of your diners will have plenty of money to buy your dish, three times over. They don’t want a cheap fix; they want you to make it right. When this happened to me, the man became obviously offended when I handed him the bill and explained what I did. 

Overcompensation can be perceived as offensive.

Now, other customers are looking for a comp and they’re happy with that. Try to get a feel for what they want while you’re at the table. And if you truly don’t know, you can attempt to ask them in a very soft way.

Tim is happy with your turkey BLT. That’s great. Re-establish the situation now. Can you go back to your tasks or do you need to take over? Do you need to assign Tim to a different server/bartender/housekeeper? In some situations, I’ve taken over the situation completely and served the guest myself until the guest was done. 

Re-establish the situation before you go back to your tasks.

Most of the time I handed them over to my A+ server, Andrea (who ended up taking my position after I left!). I knew she genuinely cared about whether or not the guest had a good time, and that attitude always translated into her giving great service. She was super good at service recovery, but to get her to perform the recovery I had to ask her very nicely and bribe her with a chicken sandwich.

Don’t let the servers go in blindly, either. Let them know they’re going into battle with you. Tell them what happened to Tim, what made him mad, and what his current state is. Is Tim still pissed, or is he more laid back now? 

Delegate the situation to your star performer! But give that individual a heads up beforehand.

Make sure to check on the guests at least twice more before they leave: once right after you’ve fixed the situation, and again right before they leave. I like to slide in perfectly at the host stand before they head out of the door. Don’t hover; just make yourself available. 

Check back in before they leave.

And one super huge thing to remember: you cannot save them all. They may be mad due to external factors; not everyone is mad at you. More than likely, they’re mad at something else. Find grace inside yourself and detach yourself from the idea that they’re mad at you. Most of the time, they’re just hangry! 

People can have displaced anger, and you cannot win them all.

Tim should be pretty chipper by now (admittedly, the scotch freebie helped). You’ve empathized, apologized, gave him some compensation, and gave him an extra reason to come back: an appetizer for next time! Andrea took over and all was well in F&B Land, once more. 

I hope you found some useful tidbits here! And if you’re not in restaurants, I hope you found some common ground. If not, comment below and I’ll try to help you find ways to recover those guests!

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Thanks for reading and remember to have fun! 

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