Being in the food business, I love to eat out, and do so nearly every day. My routine takes me occasionally to fine dining, often to casual dining, and even more often to simple (ie carinderia or hole in the wall) dining. From this routine of mine, I’ve seen a whole range of service levels, and I’ve personally witnessed how many establishments handle “difficult” customers with both difficulty and success.
We’ve had our own share of these “difficult” customers in our Reyes Barbecue chain of stores. This is part and parcel of the business we are in. For us, every “difficult” customer is a great source of new learning on what we need to improve on to take our organization’s service culture to the next level. But to develop a good service culture requires a lot of thinking and hard work – from hiring, to the development and enforcement of systems and procedures, to constant customer feedback sourcing and analysis, to systematic documentation, and finally to constant upgrading of internal training systems.
Our story starts with customer feedback. Have you ever experienced a waiter or server replying with these tactless statements and excuses when you raise a valid complaint to them about your meal or the speed of service :
- “Trainee lang po ako.”
- “Sunog daw po talaga iyan sabi ng manuals namin.”
- “Ewan ko po Ma’m, di ko kasalanan iyan. Tinanggap lamang po namin mula sa commissary iyan.”
- “Absent po kasi ang supervisor namin.”
- “Binyag po kasi ng anak ng isang waiter, nag-ninong yung supervisor kaya tatlo lang kami dito at hindi lima.”
- “Yan lang po kasi ang turo ng head office namin sa amin.”
Or were you ever in this situation in a hole in the wall restaurant or food court stall :
Customer : “Pahingi ng extra sabaw please.” (As the broth was quite tasty). Server (with a glare) : “May bayad po yan!” – as if the customer could not pay for a measly cup of clear broth … Why could the server not have simply smiled instead and said “P25.00 lang po, isa po ba ?”
During the early stages of Reyes Barbecue, this was the way some of our service staff would handle customers. Because we were a new brand and wanted to tap all opportunities available, we expanded very quickly, not realizing that our organization’s service skills development could not keep up with the speed of our store expansion.
Thankfully, because we have always prominently displayed our company contact emails and numbers in our stores, customers did give us the feedback I mentioned earlier. Reviewing all these negative customer feedback on how we handled those situations really made my hair turn white. We immediately decided to slow down our store expansion and focus all our efforts on fine-tuning our organizational training system.
What is a Difficult Customer
To us, a difficult customer is one who is :
- A person who goes to Reyes Barbecue to have an enjoyable time with our food, service and ambience.
- A human being with feelings and emotions, not just cash in our cash register.
- A great potential ally.
- The reason why we are in business.
In fact, isn’t it a likely fact that the country with a relatively high proportion of difficult, demanding customers, will also be the country that will create the better brands ?
When a customer has already become angry or upset, for one reason or another, we can only control this anger to a certain extent. But as a food service brand, what is most important for us is to ensure that this customer’s anger has not been in vain – for him/her and for our organization. We need to make sure that from this experience, our organization will adapt, adjust and improve.
CRISIS MANAGEMENT MANUAL
Acronym For Handling Difficult Customers – “L-R-E-A-A-R-D”
LISTEN – RESTATE – EMPATHIZE – APOLOGIZE – ACT – RELAY – DOCUMENT
After a number of years of being in the food service business, we’ve managed to develop a systematic internal process for handling customers, which in itself is also in a constant state of evolution and improvement. These are the key elements :
- Do not focus on the cursing and yelling.
“The best people in service operations are also the best listeners. They deal with upset customers every day, and sometimes call after call. They do not focus on the cursing or yelling, but instead they go deeper to understand the reason for the frustration and strive to find a solution within their own toolbox. These skills are extremely relevant throughout an organization.”
Frank Eliason (SVP for Social Media of Citibank New York)
- Look the customer in the eye.
- Listen intently.
- Listen with the intent to fix the system. Do not pretend to listen while preparing in your mind the alibi that you shall declare to the customer, in an effort to protect your own image. We reiterate to our crew the value of always thinking of the bigger picture : think of the company’s lost image and goodwill, and the effects on your job, rather than on that temporary bruise on your personal ego by the customer.
- Do not interrupt. Let the customer vent it all up.
- Restate only after the customer has finished speaking.
- Repeat the words of the customer verbatim to show that you understood and cared about what the customer said.
- Never argue, never point fingers to the kitchen or commissary or anyone else. Own up to the mistake even if it was not your own fault but that of your co-employee.
In the rare but possible situation where a complaint actually has no basis, and the customer is in reality attempting to use his/her stature to intimidate the server and pull a fast extortion on the store, this could be an effectve way to handle the situation (a true story) :
Problem: A policeman in uniform ordered and paid for a Boneless Chicken Barbecue Meal. After consuming three fourths of the entire meal, he calls the crew and demands that the meal be replaced “because the skin was burnt,“ brandishing his police badge for the crew to see.
Solution: Crew must say “Parang awa niyo na po, Sir. Ako po ang sisingilin ng company auditor para sa meal na hindi nabayaran.”
Result: Immediately the police smiled, agreed not to pursue his replacement demand, finished his meal, and left the store feeling good he had helped the server and “forgiven” the store.
- While you are restating the complaint, it is best to put yourself in the shoes of the customer.
- Make the customer feel you and the company are on his side.
- Share in the customer’s suffering. Share in the customer’s feelings.
- Remove the line separating yourself from the customer. Imagine that you and the customer both love Reyes Barbecue and are just having a “meeting” on how to improve Reyes Barbecue’s service.
From our experience, the only problem with empathizing is the situation in which a particular customer insists that we “overcook” our Boneless Chicken Barbecue or Pork Barbecue (ie a deviation from the company standard). To us, eating overcooked meat is like eating cardboard. But we also have to recognize that there is a segment of the Pinoy eat-out population that is culturaly inclined to have their meat cooked “well done.”
How do we resolve this ? Chefs all over the world recommend a little pink in the middle as the right doneness for meat. The Japanese even have sashimi which they don’t cook at all. Five-star restaurants serve steak tartare which is like beef sashimi. According to our resident Food Technology Consultant Dean Teofilo Mejia, the inner part of meat is aseptic, meaning there is no harm in having the middle part a little pink so long as the outside is blackened well.
My wife, Inez, also prefers her steak cooked well-done. What I notice is that when she makes this request in fine dining restaurants, the restaurant does not do an actual “well done,” but cooks the meat just a few seconds more from medium. This is a happy compromise, and my wife is usually satisfied.
Our standard is for our pork barbecue to be grilled to 90% of the internal temparature for medium doneness. Therefore, when faced with requests for “well-done” cooking from Reyes Barbecue customers, our crew is instructed not to immediately grill the pork barbecue to the “well-done” level (ie 110% of target internal temparature), but instead to cook it a little bit more, up to 95% of the medium-well temparature. With this, the customer is satisfied, and our pork barbecue is still very juicy, so it is a happy compromise. If, however, in the rarest circumstances the customer is still not satisfied at 95%, only then can the meat be grilled to the deviation level of 110% of doneness.
- An apology is necessary, but simply saying “sorry for what happened” to the customer is not enough.
- Apologize by replacing the item immediately, if that was the problem.
- If the store’s lapse was so major that the customer was justifiably upset, give the customer something extra, like a “peace offering,” such as free meals to take home or free dessert or drinks to go with their current meal.
- If the customer is hospitalized right after eating in the store for whatever reason, send someone there to assist and pay the bills immediately. Do not be stingy, as long as this is within reasonable bounds.
- What the customers are actually looking for is our corrective ACTION.
- Communicate with the aggrieved customers as soon as possible via email or social media to inform them of exactly what actions the organization is taking to address the service weaknesses they experienced.
- Remember that 93% of what we communicate is done through our non-verbal, unspoken actions or gestures. Actions are more important than words.
Most of the time it is a wiser move to give dissatisfied customers more tokens than necessary. Major complaints are very rare in occurrence and a company will not go out of business just because it was extra generous in giving free meals to these rare difficult customers.
In addition, other gestures that could turn such difficult customer situations around are : 1) ask for their email address and send them meal certificates on their birthdays – this way, you could convert a difficult customer into your most effective mystery customer ; 2) if these converted difficult customers happen to be students, you could even hire and actually pay them as your own mystery customer researchers.
ACTION – RELAY – DOCUMENT.
Future customers should benefit from a customer complaint. The point at which the customer is pacified and has left the store is just the starting point of Reyes Barbecue’s task to upgrade and improve its service level. At this point, Reyes Barbecue management processes and analyzes the store incident. A text broadcast to Store Team Leaders of all the other Reyes Barbecue stores is immediately sent so that the others will be alerted and enjoined to prevent a similar situation from happening in their respective stores. It is our strict rule that a complaint in one branch is texted by the concerned Store Team Leader to all the other branches within 1 hour.
Way back in 2006 we had a complaint about an allergic reaction to one of our seafood meals. The customer’s allergic reaction was so severe that she had to be hospitalized. We paid the bills accordingly and ordered the removal of the item from our menu pending the investigation and research on the allergic trigger. Interestingly, the hospitalized customer was with a group of five officemates, all of whom ordered the same seafood meal. But only one of the five had an allergic reaction. We researched and found out that the allergic reaction experienced has a 1 in 5000 chance of happening. Therefore, it is entirely possible that we would experience a similar situation again in our other stores. Thus, we took steps to educate our store teams on this matter, document the situation as well as the manner of handling, and incorporate these into our Operations Manual and training modules. Today, not only is our seafood handling manual enhanced, our teams better trained, our stores are also all prepared with the prescription of a simple allergy tablet as first aid, in case this situation happens again.
ACTION INCIDENT REPORTS
The detailed narratives, findings and advisories gathered from the Action-Relay-Document section of our crisis management process are chronicled in our our A.I.R. (Action Incident Report).
Here is our flowchart. It looks complicated, but rest assured, in terms of execution, it is not.
If the case involves our service system, the Store Team Leader with the assistance of the Area Group Store Head emails an A.I.R. to the whole organization within 48 hours. The A.I.R. would contain management directives on how to handle the situation.
If the case involves our food, the analytical process is more complex, and thus the A.I.R. for this would not contain any immediate management directive on handling or resolving the concern.
We would typically take a month to study and process the report findings concerning any aspect of our products, as we would pull out the statistical and narrative records on similar or related complaints, and allow a reasonable period of time for our R&D to study and determine if there is a need to adjust anything on our product’s recipe, preparation, cooking, handling or storage procedures.
This is the advantage of having many stores. The mistake of one becomes the strength of all.
To win back the trust of the customer, we must email them, thank them for taking the time and effort to give us feedback, even if this was negative, and invite them to come back, to visit any store to see the improvement that was inspired by their feedback and concern.
How To Minimize Difficult Customers
Over time we have realized that you can actually minimize the number of your difficult customers. This can be done by :
- Active Small Talk.
- Advertising Corporate Social Responsibility Activities Of The Company.
- An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. If your staff learns the art of Small Talk, you shall never experience any difficult customer. Reyes Barbecue is still in the learning stage. We are currently polishing the Small Talk Training module for our store teams.
- Active Small Talk is about establishing a personal relationship with the customers so all avenues of communication can be opened.
- Active Small Talk is the friendly gesture of saying anything relevant to the customers to make them feel they are not only welcome but are also warmly regarded as friends. The following are examples:
- Suggestive sell. Example: “Are you in a hurry? Our quickest dish is our best seller Boneless Chicken Barbecue. If you are not in a hurry, you can order our grilled tuna which is delicious but needs 30 minutes to prepare, grill and serve.”
- “Ang daming taong nanood ng Katy Perry concert, Sir, diyan din ba kayo galling? Maganda ba yung concert?”
- “Taga FEU po kayo (customer wearing FEU jacket), sino po ang nanalo sa basketball kanina, NU o FEU?” … “Congratulations, Sir!”
- “Did you enjoy the Boneless Chicken Barbecue you ate the last time you visited us, Sir ?”
- Talk about the weather. “Malakas po ba ang ulan?
- Talk about the food. “We have Sinigang sa Miso on pilot here, Sir. Would you like to try this instead of your usual soup ?”
- Talk about where he ate the yesterday. “Wala po kayo dito for lunch yesterday, Sir. Saan po kayo kumain ?”
- “Hi, Sir ! Bakit ngayon lang po kayo nakabalik …?”
- “Bukod po dito sa anong branch po ng Reyes Barbecue kayo madalas?”
- “Ang ganda po ng damit ninyo.”
- “Ang cute naman po ng baby ninyo.”
- “Sir ako na po ang kukuha ng litrato ninyo para kumpleto kayo sa picture.”
- Through Active Small Talk sincerely made, we win the trust and goodwill of the customer such that when they encounter our rare but possible service or product lapses, they will treat these with understanding.
- One case that happened a year ago concerned a new customer who walked in ordered a breakfast meal. Unfortunately, the store was packed the previous day and had not yet bought the necessary groceries to replenish their stocks, which included the eggs. The customer had to wait, was of course annoyed, and lodged a complaint. In such cases, we advise our stores that instead of making the customer wait for an hour while the crew rushes to buy the eggs, confront the brutal fact of a service lapse, tell the customer the truth, own up to the lapse, and suggest to the customer to order the best seller Boneless Chicken Barbecue instead.
- Bear in mind that not engaging in Active Small Talk is like encountering a classmate in a party and never even bothering to approach, say hello and talk to him about something the whole night. Service crew members are required to engage in some small talk, no matter how briefly.
- If your crew member engages a customer in Active Small Talk, this customer will not be difficult, and will simply whisper in his ear, saying gently … “My friend, there’s a fly in my soup, please just replace it quickly.” … With no one noticing, thus deftly preserving the crew member’s and the brand’s dignity.
- A wise practice is to expect all customers to be potential difficult customers. With this in mind, one can see why Active Small Talk must be done constantly, aggressively.
- If your store receives a customer complaint posted through social media, this is a clear indication that your store team has not not been actively doing small talk with their customers.
Advertise Corporate Social Responsibility Activities Of The Company.
- Knowing that your company gives back to society makes customers more forgiving and supportive.
- Put eco-friendly notices in your packaging.
- Feature in your in-store televsion any CSR projects being undertaken by the company.
- Do you know that for every Boneless Chicken Barbecue you order from Reyes Barbecue you are actually helping the poor ? The bones we get from your Boneless Chicken Barbecue are made into lugaw for our school feeding program with Makabata Foundation, outreach feeding programs with Golden Acres, Mandaluyong Medical Missions, and food donations to Kaisahang Buhay Foundation
Aggravating Circumstances – How Regular Customers May Become Difficult Customers – Mismanagement Signals
Always remember that our customers’ understanding and patience can only stretch so far. Even our regular customers expect and deserve our consistency, and their regard for us can change if we do not pay attention to important details. Let us not take details for granted. Signs of store mismanagement are communicated to customers immediately by examples such as these :
- Some letters of the neon signage are busted.
- Crew are visibly chit-chatting with each other – an annoying distraction from the customer’s perspective.
The crew are paid for their time so when they are on duty, full attention must be given to the customers whether they are needed or not. Horse playing and gossiping scares customers. They are telltale signs of the probability that the food wasn’t handled professionally.
We tell our people, “instead of gossiping among yourselves, why don’t you just entertain yourselves by doing Active Small Talk to lonely customers. Ask them for service and menu suggestions. Ask them to help our stores by telling their officemates to try us too.”
- Some crew members are not in proper uniform, not wearing standard identification.
- A customer from another table who arrived later got his meal first.
- Aircon is not cold enough.
- Surroundings are not clean, not spic and span, tables left uncleared.
- Poor customer traffic.
- Crew members do not project a smart, energetic image. Fumbles, slow movement, lack of confidence, hesitation, shyness, absence of eye contact.
- Crew member is holding a cellphone.
- Crew are not paying attention, not alert, not informed, not service-oriented.
When customers see these signs, even the most loyal ones may voice out nasty complaints, aggravated by these signs of poor attention to details, which communicate a low level of professional work ethics, which reduces the value of their over-alll dining experience in the store.
Check Social Media Weekly For Any Customer Review or Feedback
We in Reyes Barbecue are grateful for any and all customer feedback – positive and negative – because we believe that customer feedback is the best source for identifying the areas for improvement we need to focus on. The challenge for us is how to source this useful feedback.
The challenge stems from the fact that most Filipino customers are too polite – we consider it bad manners to complain or create a scene in public, and we do not feel comfortable giving negative feedback thinking it will offend (even if we end up complaining about our negative experience to all our friends).
There is also the element of fear, and lack of understanding of the role of feedback in business. We see this in some of our store crew who hide customer complaints from management thinking they will be penalized for them, when in actuality, they will be thanked for raising these to management attention, even if these complaints were actually due to their own lapses.
We try to address this crew attitude by inculcating in them the idea that job security actually comes from loving the company organization more than oneself. The idea that if one’s mistakes are shared with all for learning purposes, these mistakes allow the individual and the organization together to become stronger, not weaker.
However, over time we have noted that only five percent of negative and therefore useful customer feedback comes from our stores. Ninety-five percent of our useful customer feedback comes from social media (texts and emails from friends, postings on our Facebook page, reviews by bloggers), and reviews of our numerous roving company quality auditors.
The lesson here therefore is, regularly check social media, for you to know the real situation from the point of view of customers, and take all these blogged comments seriously. Have all your store teams read these blogs regularly and include these blogs in your future training modules on customer service.
The Reyes Barbecue Culture With Respect To Handling Difficult Customers.
- We in Reyes Barbecue have decided that the best assurance of business longevity is consistent high quality. Therefore, rather than engage in promotions or other gimmicks that produce short term effects, we have embarked on a strategy of quality. The faster you run the more likely you will stumble. We want to attain success slowly but surely through the shaping of a strong culture of quality. Our time and efforts are now focused on putting in place the systems that will ensure this. We are aggressively preparing our people.
- An important point is that we have a very good Quality Head, who walks the talk.
- We focus on correcting the system rather than superficially concentrating on diffusing the anger of a difficult customer. We deem as unacceptable a statement from our crew to the tune of “Sir, hindi naman po nagalit yung nagreklamo noong nasa store siya.” We reiterate to our staff that a comment is important whether or not the customer shouted or created a scene in the store, or quietly left.
- We abide by the wise words of the successful and popular New York restaurateur Danny Meyer who said … “The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.”Anybody in business makes mistakes. What is important is that you grow from these mistakes. Have an open mind and never assume the customer is unreasonable.
- Reyes Barbecue is proud to be now 12 years old and 45 branches strong. We were able to document and create solutions for all the complaints we received throughout the years, and implement them in all our branches. You may not see us as perfect now, but wait and see, as we are just building up our momentum. Our documented experiences will help the future generations of Reyes Barbecue management achieve our goal of busines longevity. We aim to be globally competitive in 3 to 5 years.
Reyes Barbecue is a medium-sized, emerging food service player with a clear market positioning. Like many of our fellow entrepreneurial companies, we have limitations on capital and employee skill. Because of this limitation on employee skill, the most difficult part of managing the company is to ensure that our huge investment in training delivers real results.
Customers today are more sophisticated and more demanding. Imagine the challenge we have – most of our employees have never had any exposure whatsoever to world class service, paying attention to details, reading and following a manual, adhering to processes and systems, taking proactive measures, acting in a professional manner, thinking and communicating thoughts clearly and all other professional practices needed in the conduct of business.
Hard handed enforcement, regular classroom training and having a detailed Operations Manual are simply not enough to ensure that training will deliver results.
We discovered over the years that the key to a sustained successful business is a strong and effective company culture.
We realized that we should build our own distinct Reyes Barbecue culture, and this culture will itself galvanize the organization and steer our people toward getting their acts together. Thus, for this year, our 12th year of operations, we are heavily investing on culture-building rather than on store expansion.
Our A.I.R. flowchart is posted to all stores. We conduct a weekly Case Study (Harvard style) Training to our 40 key company people. Husband and wife Frank and Inez prepare the weekly lesson plan, and facilitate the three hour training themselves.
We pressure the “wrong” people to resign and look for the “right” people to replace them. We have an available Crisis Manual, in written and audio formats.
After almost a year of undertaking this culture building initiative, we are gratified to see all the positive results – in sales, in employee morale, in employee pride. Watch out for Reyes Barbecue three years from now or even next year!!! You shall surely enjoy our food and service even more.