You may have read the article on dealing with angry customers in your restaurant. How lucky would you be if all you had to worry about were the folks in your dining room? These days, with online review sites like Yelp, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and countless food blogs, an angry guest's voice can resound well beyond your restaurant's door.
How do you deal with negative online reviews?
Monitoring Your Restaurant Online
You're watching what people say about you online, right? At the very least, you should be:
- Getting Google Alerts with search terms pegged to your restaurant name, your name, your chef/bartender/sommelier's name, or any other term or person of interest associated with your restaurant. You can set them to email you in real time as they Google finds them or as a daily roundup.
- Monitoring Yelp. Unless you haven't opened yet, your restaurant has been listed on Yelp by an eager reviewer who wants to get the prestigious "First to Review" badge. If you haven't visited yet, you need to go see what people are saying about you.
- Watching Twitter for mentions of your restaurant. Use the site's search page, search.twitter.com or, better yet, sign up for the service and take advantage of third-party Twitter apps (TweetDeck, CoTweet or Seesmic, for instance) that can save your searches for you. (Even if you don't plan on tweeting, it's a good idea to at least reserve your restaurant's name so no one else can use it.)
- Scanning Trip Advisor. Though the site is perhaps better known for hotel reviews, there are a number of restaurant reviews there—particularly in cities or neighborhoods with a heavy tourist traffic.
Do You Need to Respond?
So you've found a negative mention online and you're steamed. Do you need to respond? Not always. Let's face it, some folks are just plain crazy. If you've spent any time online, you already know this. If it seems evident from a person's rants that there's a screw loose, avoid responding. Your hope is that people reading their words will recognize them for what they are.
But when do you need to respond?
- When you're at fault and you know it. Sometimes no matter how tight your team is, things go wrong and people complain online. A waiter forgot a drink, the soup was cold, a burger was overdone. It happens. Most reasonable people understand. In cases like these, the easiest and best thing to do is to respond civilly, acknowledge the mistake, and offer to make it right—say, by comping them a round of drinks or a free appetizer next time they visit. The key is twofold: genuinely make that customer happy and show other patrons that you're listening and taking valid criticism to heart.
- When facts are distorted. Perhaps an otherwise well-written review dings your restaurant for serving that aforementioned cold bowl of soup—but the reviewer mentions that he ordered the gazpacho, which is supposed to be cold. Or the poster complains about a fish entree when you don't serve seafood at all. In this case, you should step in and politely correct them.
- To stop the snowball effect. We've seen this ourselves on Serious Eats, where perhaps one community member takes issue with a seemingly minor point a writer has written and then folks start to pile on. If you start to see a snowball of angry comments taking shape, you need to address the issue quickly, before it becomes an avalanche—even if you think the complaints are not valid. The point is that your audience feels it has a valid complaint, and you need to respond to it and fix it.
How to Respond
In the time I've served as Serious Eats's community manager, we've had a number of crises, both small and large, that I've helped deal with. The same lessons I've learned there apply to restaurant damage control.
- First, take a deep breath. You're probably angry when you read a bad review—especially if you're the owner of a mom-and-pop restaurant. The last thing you want to do, however, is go off half-cocked and write an angry review or one that belittles a customer. Every few months, a story ripples through the food blogosphere in which an irate owner responded with a tirade that made more headlines than the original negative review. This story from Phoenix in early August of last year is one such example.
- Listen. Often, your customers just want to know you've heard them and are taking their criticism to heart.
- Don't make excuses if you know you're in the wrong. An aggrieved patron doesn't want to read why you failed them. They want you to acknowledge that you did. Apologizing sincerely and offering to make amends goes a long way in making things right—both for that patron and for anyone lurking in whatever forum you're on as witness to the exchange.
- Take action. Tell the complaining patron what you'll do to make things better—whether it's comping them something for a forgotten appetizer or telling them that you'll talk to the rude staff member. They want to know you've listened and are going to take action. Indicating that you're responsive will go a long way in giving them confidence to return to your restaurant.
- Tip: Run your response through a spell-check and get a second set of eyes on it. Misspellings in your response detract from your message. And having a trusted manager or business partner look it over can give you a second opinion on whether the tone is appropriate.
In the end, managing your response to online criticism isn't much different from what you'd do inside your restaurant—you want to take care of things quietly and quickly without causing a scene.
Image credit: Dave Schumaker