Common Restaurant Customer Complaints — And How to Handle Them

Jessica Elliott

Jessica couples her 24 years of restaurant and hospitality industry experience with meticulous research to deliver insight into technology, operations, and marketing topics. Her optimized copy helps companies engage their audience while strengthening their communication with clients, employees, and management.

Dissatisfied restaurant clients complaining about bad service

Regardless of your concept or business model, you get your fair share of restaurant customer complaints. Your guests may ask to see a manager, call to complain, or simply leave a negative review online.

However, a large number of people say nothing at all. Unhappy guests won’t give word-of-mouth referrals or social media recommendations. They’ll stop coming in and you’ll never know why.

But, you can take steps to prevent and address common restaurant customer complaints. Explore the top guest grievances and learn how to navigate the tricky realm of customer service.

How restaurant customer complaints affect your business

You need to fill your seats, ramp up sales, and keep your brand at the top of your guests’ minds. While your food is the number one reason people order, a disconnect at one or more touchpoints doesn’t sit well with customers.

The majority of people won’t even complain. They won’t tag your brand online or give you a chance to respond. According to a TripAdvisor study, nearly 100% of hospitality businesses, such as restaurants, consider online reputation management and reviews vital to success.

For example, recently, someone posted on a local community page about picking up a pizza for their elderly grandparents. The post author noticed that none of the back of house staff wore face masks. Now, the customer didn’t want to crucify the business or list the pizzeria’s name. They were just giving folks a reminder to discard the pizza box and wash their hands afterward, especially for vulnerable customers.

But the post received hundreds of comments, including lots of speculation about the specific restaurant. And surely, people privately messaged the customer to get the lowdown and company name.

So, it’s crucial to develop methods to prevent, stay aware of, and fix errors. The benefits of avoiding and managing negative experiences include:

  • Building relationships with your restaurant guests
  • Generating a following of loyal brand ambassadors
  • Reducing time spent on damage control
  • Increasing positive brand sentiment

What are the most common customer complaints?

Dirty silverware, cold food, and wrong orders create dissatisfied guests. Yet, restaurant owners face problems with digital experiences, third-party delivery services, and pandemic concerns. Some examples of customer complaints in restaurants include:

  • A lack of cleanliness in bathrooms, utensils, dining room, or employees
  • Incorrect food temperatures or food that doesn’t look or taste as described on your menu, website, or social media
  • Feeling rushed to finish a meal, often exacerbated by a server taking away the guest’s plate before they’ve finished
  • Impolite restaurant staff in-house or on the phone, or employees using terms of endearment such as sweetie or honey
  • Inaccurate in-house, carry-out, or delivery orders
  • Slow service or long delivery wait times
  • Pandemic-related policies, like mask requirements

Top 5 restaurant guest complaints and solutions

So how do you stay on top of problems, even if your guests don’t call over a manager? For starters, take a look at the typical reasons why people don’t come back or, even worse, never step foot in your doors. Protect your reputation by reviewing common restaurant complaints and solutions.

1. Restaurant cleanliness or safety concerns

Let’s face it. A dirty bathroom is disgusting. But while waiting for their order, guests notice other things as well. When’s the last time you’ve dusted those fake plants, ceiling fans, or wiped down the booth crumb catchers?

Even your employees get extra scrutiny. No one wants food served by an unkempt crew member. Although guests will report an overflowing toilet, they likely won’t tell the manager about those dusty plants. But, when your restaurant’s name comes up in a conversation, your customers will undoubtedly give their opinion.

Employee standards, side work, and manager oversight are solutions to this problem. For instance, your handbook should discuss employee hygiene, hair rules, and safety policies regarding handwashing and mask-wearing. Instruct management to oversee and participate in regular side work, such as cleaning baseboards, windows, and doors. Guests take note when crew members do a little extra cleaning during slow times instead of playing on their phones.

2. Food or drinks don’t meet expectations

Are you using stock food photos on your restaurant website or social media channels? Do you tout your soup as “piping hot?” Your online assets and menu descriptions set food and service expectations—failure to deliver results in restaurant customer complaints.

Now, cold food is never acceptable, but it happens. Other issues stem from improper plating and presentation efforts. The solution to cold food is relatively simple. Immediately bring out hot food or give your guest a fast, comparable item while their meal heats up.

However, your manager must review why cold food was served in the first place. Are your microwaves, thermometers, and heat lights working correctly? Did each staff member do their job accurately, from calling the order to running the food?

As for the issue of stock photos, it’s best not to use generic images of your food. Your visuals are powerful selling tools, so make an effort to display real-life pictures whenever possible. Prevent restaurant customer complaints by:

  • Taking better pictures of your meals
  • Training staff on proper presentation
  • Performing spot checks on food coming out of the kitchen
  • Holding staff accountable for subpar items
  • Gathering user-generated photos from guests

3. Poor restaurant customer service from crew members

Although an extremely rude interaction may result in a complaint online or in-house, people express their dissatisfaction in other ways. They may request a different server next time. Or when it comes time to host an important dinner, they’ll avoid a place where they had terrible service. Common restaurant customer complaints originate from:

  • A new host on a busy night answers the phone with, “Can you please hold?”
  • Employees finish their text messages before looking up to acknowledge a guest.
  • A guest points out that the restroom paper towels are empty, and the employee brushes it off to answer the phone.
  • Staff members refer to guests as honey, hon, or sweetie.
  • A server pulls away a half-eaten plate before the guest is finished.

Avoid bad service by hiring the right people, training new team members, and mentoring staff for better presentation and sales skills. Your management team should catch and address poor behavior or etiquette before it escalates into a full-blown complaint.

4. Slow service, late deliveries, long cook times, and wrong orders

Of course, if a customer waits an abnormally long time for food, it results in a poor experience. However, you’ve probably had guests complain, only to rush over and see it’s only been eight minutes. The thing is, time moves differently depending on the guest, their mood, or the circumstances around their meal.

A nonchalant duo who mentioned they just ate a few hours ago and wants to catch up for a bit probably won’t notice that an appetizer took forever. In contrast, the guest who has movie tickets or crying kids at the table may feel like everything is moving at a snail’s pace.

So how can you address a complaint that many times isn’t even an actual problem? It’s all about appearances and the intuitiveness of your staff. See, guests do certain things when they’re antsy. You may see them looking around more or commenting when they watch a table get an appetizer before they do. Handle these grievances by:

Requiring management to spot check ticket times to catch any problematic orders. Even during high-volume hours, your supervisors should see potential problems and note if a server reports unique circumstances.

Encouraging staff to take actions like checking their ticket times. Also, teach employees about the proper chain of command and when to escalate the problem. Does your server go to the manager? Or do they head into the kitchen to ask the cooks?

Asking teams to communicate with their guests. For example, if someone appears to be agitated, it makes sense to stop by and soothe them. Update guests with their order status, “It looks like about five or so minutes until that broasted chicken comes out of the oven. Can I refill your drink before your food comes?”

5. COVID-19 concerns and complaints

Long after the pandemic ends, your guests will have an opinion on policies. Your crew is made up of regular people. They aren’t epidemiologists or lawmakers. Yet, they may get customer complaints about your requirements. Common grievances include not seating open tables to comply with social distancing guidelines or wearing a mask to the bathroom.

The solution to this concern is the same as many of the above restaurant customer complaints. Hire the best people while training and monitoring your staff. Then, connect the public safety guidelines back to your brand mission and values. Your restaurant relies on ensuring that topmost safety methods are always used, pandemic, or not. And of course, to keep your doors open, you need certain business and health licenses to operate.

Work with your teams to develop scripts to respond to repetitive questions and consider adding a pandemic-specific FAQ page on your website that answers top guest concerns.

How do you calm an upset restaurant guest?

Take a breath and apologize. Yes, it’s that simple. Don’t blame or ask 20 questions. Say you’re sorry and fix the issue. This goes for in-house, online, and phone conversations. Get to the reasons behind the complaint when you’re out of the public eye. Then take steps to prevent problems from happening in the first place.

While you can’t prevent rude customers, the actions you take before the complaint and how you address a customer grievance ultimately impacts your restaurant’s success.

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