SERVICE: Handling rude customers

Aug. 4, 2003

Paul Paz is a "career waiter" turned hospitality consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the author of "Service At Its Best: Waiter Waitress Training -- A Guide to Becoming a Successful Server" (Prentice-Hall), and operates the hospitality information Web site

Rude customers are an occupational hazard that comes with the territory. It seems that no matter how many customers get great service on any shift, just one rude one can render it miserable.

Sometimes their disappointment is justifiable because we make mistakes. But many times they arrive at our restaurants already angry, and for reasons out of our control. Whether they just got dumped, divorced or fired, etc., suddenly becomes our problem. How many times, drivers, have you been greeted at the door with a look that says, "I'm in the middle of an argument, and you're interruption is not welcome"?

I guess we should expect some of it, really, since most pizza places are busiest at night, the very time when customers are most hungry, thirsty and tired. And from that perspective, perhaps restaurant people are lucky we don't get more rude customers.

Paul Paz

Regardless, the few we do see are still tough to handle, but must be addressed with patience, caring and even some finesse. Here are some suggestions for soothing such savage beasts when the heat's on.

Face-to-face communication is best

1. Smile! It's show time! Train yourself to slap on that smile regardless of the circumstances. (OK, it's acting, but it works!)

2. Eye contact connects you to the customer. But be careful what you do with those eyebrows, and rid yourself of those all-too-obvious rolling eyes.

3. Be warm and genuine. When a tough customer is complaining, imagine you're listening to your favorite niece telling you about her little "hurt."

4. Empathize with them. Tell them, "Oh, I hate it when that happens to me, too."

5. Treat a grumpy guest's problem personally, not merely mechanically. Merely saying, "We'll give you a free one," isn't always the right thing. Customers don't always want something extra, they typically just want you to fix the problem at hand. If it's a food problem, fix it, and then offer compensation if necessary.

Say it and show it: non-verbal communication

Even if the words are right, demeanor, tone, eye contact and body language can shout at a customer, "You are a problem." Be aware of your physical posture, such as the position of your arms and hands (don't cross your arms, or place your hands on your hips), and your facial expressions. As nicely as you may be speaking to a disgruntled guest, body language can negate the message.

When you get a complaint, try the following

1. Eliminate distractions and focus all your attention on the customer. If you're a counter worker, don't stare at the POS the whole time the customer is speaking to you, and if you're a table server, look up from your order pad and into the customer's eyes. The same goes for delivery drivers. Looking at a person demonstrates she has your exclusive attention.

2. Take notes as needed.

3. Once the customer has shared his complaint, repeat his key points: "I see, your food took too long and then it was cold," or "I understand, your pizza arrived with the wrong toppings."

4. Concentrate on what the speaker is saying, without interrupting. Cutting them off just isn't polite, plus it invalidates them.

5. Agree on a comprehensive conclusion that meets her needs. For example, if her pizza has the wrong toppings or is cold, send out a correct one as soon as possible.

6. Consider a peace offer (some call it "compensation"), such as delivering a free side item, beverage, salad or dessert on the make-good. If you're a table server, say, "I'll have them remake your pizza, but in the meantime, would you like a couple of garden salads or breadsticks to munch on? They're on the house."

Definite dos and don'ts


1. Apologize sincerely for any inconvenience.

2. Let upset customers know you're on their side, that you want to meet their needs -- but don't do so at another's expense (i.e., don't blame the pizza maker for a mis-made order, rather let the customer know you'll make fixing the problem a priority.) Focus all discussion on the solution, not the problem.

3. Listen closely so you can fully understand the problem. Allow them to vent if necessary, and if appropriate, call your manager. Seeing the "person in charge" can make them feel their concern is important.


1. Argue. Discuss the situation calmly and stick to the facts.

2. Take it personally. As I mentioned earlier, they might not truly be mad at you or even your restaurant. Often they're mad at some external experience and your restaurant's small mistake may have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

What's neat about these situations is you have a great opportunity to turn that customer's day around. Believe me, if you can fix that person's problem and get his mind off his troubles by fixing the problem at hand, you'll earn his loyalty.

3. Quote policies and rules. Your policies matter little to someone who feels they're being cheated or mistreated. Stick to the problem.

4. Overdo it trying to help people who can't be helped. Though the customer pays the bills, the customer is not always right! There is a big difference between being genuinely humble and allowing yourself to be humiliated by a profane or physically abusive customer. If that happens, immediately excuse yourself and inform a manager of the situation so he can address the customer.

5. Let it make you angry. Once you've encountered a rude customer, it's important to remind yourself that the vast majority of those we serve are wonderful and gracious. So don't let a few incidents make you cynical and negative.

More commentaries from Paul Paz ...

* SERVICE: Cheaters never prosper, especially in restaurants
* SERVICE: Say hello or they'll say goodbye
* What's there to smile about?
* Treat coworkers as courteously as customers

Topics: Service

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