November 22, 2022

Server Tips: 3 Best Practices for Dealing With Difficult Customers

In this article: 3 tips for waitstaff dealing with unhappy or difficult customers. 

“To work in the restaurant industry, you have to have really thick skin.”

Why have I heard this more times than I can count?

Well, mostly because it’s true. Working in a restaurant requires being very “on point” for an entire meal service, all while possibly having customers yell at you, managers frustrated with you, and taking a few cry breaks in the walk-in. We love this life, but we definitely need thick skin to survive it some days.

The COVID-19 pandemic has really brought out the worst in a lot of people. We are seeing our way through some really uncertain times, which when paired with the labor shortage and inflation makes for the perfect equation of dissatisfied and impatient customers. 

Dealing with difficult customers is just something that you have to accept will happen, so why not be prepared for it when it does? If you have a plan, you can relax and just deal with issues as they come up.

Here are 3 tips to remember when dealing with difficult customers in your restaurant:

1. Stay calm and be honest about the situation.

Staying calm when a customer becomes unhappy is really the hardest part. I always get a rush of butterflies in my stomach when I know somebody is unhappy, especially if I know that I messed something up. 

The second an issue occurs, make a decision to be really clear about what happened. If you made an error and the customer is upset with you, be very honest with yourself, the guest and your manager about what happened. No matter what, being honest is the only way out!

Hint: I’ve made some big mistakes before, and I’ve tried to lie my way out of them once or twice. I never got out unscathed! Honesty is so much easier.

If the guest is unhappy about something you weren’t involved with (the shrimp scampi they ordered 5 years ago isn’t on the menu anymore), then simply gather as much information as possible. You can’t solve a problem if you’re too worked up in the drama to even know what the problem is.

2. Listen! And do what you can to fix the problem.

Listen to what the customer is saying. Sometimes that means doing some decoding work, so remember to stay calm. People get very intense when they are hungry and upset about their food (I honestly think this is a survival mechanism in our brains) so the easiest way to resolve an issue is to fix it rapidly. The longer they wait, the hungrier and grumpier they get, the more likely the situation will escalate.

Are they waiting on a re-fire or long ticket item? Offer bread, quick appetizers, refill their drinks constantly, and give them HONEST updates about how long they should expect to wait.

Are they upset about the price of an item increasing? Calmly explain why the price has increased. Honestly I would just make a joke here. It’s 2022 of course the price has increased. People like when you’re real with them.

Do they not like their table? Make sure you know what it is that they don’t like about it, then check with the host team to see if they can move to a different table. If you can’t move them, see if you can make them comfortable where they are. Is it too loud? Ask the manager to turn the music down. Too cold? See if you can shut a door or turn the air down. 

Try to fix the problem! Showing initiative even if you are cleaning up your own mess is a great way to recover guests, and your managers will be impressed too.

However, there will be times that you can’t solve the problem on your own, so it’s important to know exactly when to get a manager involved.

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3. Get a manager involved

Don’t ever wait too long to get a manager involved! Learn to anticipate when someone is going to definitely want to speak to a manager (sometimes you just know) and cut right to the chase by asking your manager to handle the situation.

Remember that your relationship with the customer is relatively short. They are probably with you for about 2 hours, give or take. It can’t take you 30 minutes to resolve an issue, you simply don’t have the time. 

Your managers are your support system. They are there to help you do your job, and they should also be able to tell when a customer isn’t going to be satisfied by anything in your control. You and your managers have to be on the same team, whose focus is delivering a great product with great customer service, but who don’t tolerate hate or violence. 

*Note: If you are working somewhere that you don’t feel like your managers would support you when necessary, I suggest applying for a new job sooner than later.

Remember to breathe

At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember when dealing with difficult customers is to take deep breaths and try not to take anything too personally. 

Stay calm, and pay attention to what the issue is. Resolve it if you can, and if you can’t get your manager involved. Stay honest throughout the entire process, and try to stay aware of what works and what doesn’t so you can continue to get better at conflict management. Like anything, it’s a skill that takes developing.

Working in a restaurant does require a thick skin, but more than that it takes character and integrity to deal with issues quickly and seamlessly under high pressure. Take it easy on yourself - you’re doing the best you can!

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