Correcting Guest Experiences Gone Wrong

The importance of good customer experience in the hospitality business cannot be emphasised enough. It is the most basic tenet of that very industry. Nonetheless, bad situations are a daily part of every member of this domain. However, what is imperative is learning how to transform such situations from negative instances to positive situations.

Restaurant owner with a group of unhappy customers
Restaurant owner with a group of unhappy customers

In the course of my journey as a hospitality professional and having worked with standalone eateries, national restaurants, international chain of cafés, sports bars and hotel brands, I have encountered various situations where guests had an unhappy experience when food establishments messed up, but with the right attitude these situations were changed into a happy one. Here are some of the instances where I have employed strategies of success in transforming bad situations into good ones.

Case #1: To regain your customer’s trust, don’t just tell the customer in words. Prove it. 

I looked at the elderly guest in shock and then at the cake splattered on the floor that he had just thrown in my direction. “You call this ‘fresh’ cream?” he screamed angrily. I knelt down and dug into the cake with my finger. “You are right, Sir, this isn’t fresh at all. In fact besides being sour, the cream has also absorbed the smell of the dishes in the fridge. I’m sorry. When did you buy this?” I asked.

He looked at me with a surprised look and then cooled down a bit. “Day before yesterday for my wedding anniversary, which was yesterday. When we cut the cake in front of our guests and had the first bite, my wife and I knew we couldn’t serve it to our guests.” A quick look at the label on the cardboard base confirmed when he had bought it.

“This is our fault entirely, Sir. We should have communicated to you that our fresh cream cakes don’t last that long and should be consumed within a few hours. This is our responsibility.” He accepted a refund and left sadly. I discussed this communication gap with my team and a few days later we had a solution.

A week later, he was surprised when I called him to ask if I may visit him and then I handed him a cake with a label on top saying “Best consumed within 6 hours”, and a message on top saying “Sorry, we messed up”. He nodded in acknowledgement. “You listened and acted. Well done!”

I told him, “It wasn’t just me, Sir, everyone on the team worked together to come up with this. We would like you to know that your feedback is truly valuable to us. Please do give us another chance.”

Case #2: Sometimes, it is the response that matters more than the situation.

I had been called to a table at a restaurant I was working at by a celebrity who told me the fish served to her was raw in the centre. I apologised and took it to the chef who decided to resolve the problem by cooking it himself.

A short while later, it was re-served to the guest. I was called back to the table, along with the chef. “It is still raw,” she said. We stood stunned and red-eared in embarrassment. After a few awkward moments of silence, I summoned the courage to speak. “I am truly sorry Ma’am.” I said. “May I please offer you something else instead?”

“No,” she said, “I am not hungry anymore.”

I felt like sinking through the floor and could see the chef squirming as well. The lady watched us both quite red-eyed by now and then very graciously said, “Don’t worry. I’m OK. Bad days happen!”

We bowed out, went to the back of the restaurant and wept. In one stroke she had taught us about forgiveness. Every server on our team learnt that lesson that day. Since then, whenever she visited any of our restaurants we moved to, we served her a different kind of respect – the kind reserved for nobility.

Case #3: When a problem does not seem like a problem from one perspective, resolving it conclusively requires a paradigm shift.

The dimly-lit ground floor restaurant of the hotel had been beautifully renovated and now sported huge French-window style glass sheets for the sunlight to pop in and add cheer. Things looked terrific till one busy day I heard the violent crashing sound of it shattering. I whirled to see the playful little boy who had run into it standing in a pool of splintered glass. He looked at me for a moment and then began to cry.

I ran towards him as did a guest nearby to see a trickle of blood run down his nose and also from his elbow. His mother, the only adult at the table who was dining with her two kids, screamed at her other child and then quite understandably, went berserk. I placed my handkerchief on his bleeding nose, asked one elderly waiter to hold it and sent another to fetch the hotel driver and car. “We need to take him to the hospital now, ma’am,” I said loudly to pull her out of her daze. On our way to the hospital I discovered that they were from out of town. She gratefully acknowledged while I waited for the boy’s nose to be stitched up.

My mind, however, was on the glass. How did this happen? There was a clearly visible 3-inch sticker strip running across the whole length of the window. When I returned to the spot I discovered the problem. The height of the sticker made it visible to an adult but not to a child.

Whilst ordering a new glass I suggested that the complete bottom half be fully covered with a glazed sticker and also that the entire glass be shatter proof despite the high cost. Initially the directors wondered if I was over-reacting, saying it was a freak incident that would not happen again. When I stood my ground on the premise of safety however, everyone agreed.

Case #4: When bad restaurant experiences involve guests themselves being offenders

A restaurant manager once informed me that a guest who was always pointing out some problem or the other under the pretext of getting at least one dish free, had now crossed the line. On visiting the restaurant with her friend the previous day, she had made a scene and walked out refusing to pay the bill entirely. Along with a few team members I watched the visuals from the CCTV footage of her visit.

While there was no audio track, one part of the video left no doubt in anyone’s mind about the reality and her intentions. As they ate their food, she could be seen complaining while her friend shrugged her shoulder more than once to indicate that the food was fine. The lady herself continued eating and did not convey her displeasure to any server. Yet, when the bill came she made a scene and refused to pay. Her friend who found nothing wrong with the food then tried to pay the bill herself, but the errant guest just wouldn’t allow her. They left without paying the bill.

Since we didn’t have the guest’s name or number, I suggested that we speak with her when she next visited the restaurant. Every single service staff member was informed about the incident, shown the face of the guest and briefed about how to deal with her. She visited again in less than a fortnight.

She was politely received, handed over her non-paid bill and asked to pay up. When she declined, she was told that the management had watched what had happened and based on what they saw, had taken a decision not to serve her any more if she opted not to pay. She was banned from the restaurant and did not return. In rare cases, when a guest treats you unfairly time and again, it may become necessary to decline their patronage.

Case #5: Apart from examining right from wrong in an incident, we must be prepared for the legal ramifications of that incident.

I was passed a phone call by a colleague who was finding it hard to deal with an irate guest. The guest told me that our hotel valet had damaged her car, since shortly after she left our restaurant, her car engine had begun to release steam through the bonnet. She added that since her car had just been serviced, it had to be our fault and that we needed to compensate her for it while she would get it fixed by her own mechanic and pass us the bill.

I felt bad about her experience and wanted to give her a fair hearing in case our valet had indeed been responsible. I asked for a few hours to investigate the matter during which I spoke with the valet and other witnesses and also checked where exactly the car had been parked. During this time the guest called me several times.

As I patiently empathised with her, I realised that many bits of her story didn’t add up. Simultaneously we cross-verified the valet’s side of the story with neighbours who didn’t owe allegiance to the valet and found that he was telling the truth. By then, I had also checked with our legal counsel who had confirmed that the disclaimer on the valet tag clearly spelt out that the restaurant cannot be held liable for such a matter in any way. Since she was threatening legal recourse, we asked her to send us a written note which we would reply to legally, and we did. And the matter was resolved.

Anything can happen any time in business, whether it is hospitality or any other.

As the philosopher Epictetus said, ‘It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.’ So modify how you react to situations and suddenly you will find yourself on top of things.