Tree Talk: HR Corner: Customer Service 101: Keeping your Cool with Not So Cool Customers

Social media continues to play an ever-expanding role in the foodservice industry, and although you may think about all the great opportunities, you must also be aware of the dangers. Lately, companies’ poor customer service has been exposed through online videos, blogs and Web reviews, to name a few. However, the most notorious cases, such as employees losing their cool, make newspaper headlines and are all too often featured on the evening news.There’s a common denominator in most of these cases: an irate customer provokes the employee, and the employee, without thinking, explodes. In order to avoid having your reputation shattered to pieces by a scandalous viral video, you must provide superior customer service to create an all-around positive experience for your customers. This starts by hiring assertive individuals who can be easily trained to deal with not so cool customers and manage their anger effectively for the business.

It is noteworthy that some employers overlook the fact that the employees behind the counter are the face of the establishment. Even though these employees might be at the bottom of the organization, hierarchically speaking, they are critical for the success of the business.They play a major role in creating a positive experience, ensuring that your customers continue to come back and recommend your business. However, an employee displaying unprofessional behavior such as yelling at a customer, throwing a drink, tampering with products or even physically assaulting a patron will ruin your customers’ experience and the reputation of your business. Furthermore, today’s social media and video- sharing websites can spread negative press like a wildfire, leaving companies with a great deal of damage control ahead of them. Simply take a look at the guitar-breaking airline or some of the fast food companies that have been featured in the evening news with disgraceful behavior from their employees.

To start with, focus on the controllable variables, which are creating a positive experience and building a team of asser tive individuals. You should be clear in the type of atmosphere you want to create in your business, and then hire accordingly. Remember that customer service goes well beyond telling your employees to put on a smile.Your customers begin to form an opinion of your establishment before they ever set foot in it; if you surpass their preconceived expectations set by your marketing and reputation, you are off to a good start. Once the customers enter your establishment, your employees are responsible for making them feel welcomed. In addition to being polite and helpful, the employee should be knowledgeable about the product, contribute to the ease of ordering, and ensure the product itself is presented at the highest quality – all are also critical for customer satisfaction. 1

Excellent customer service and a positive environment will minimize or eliminate the number of angry customers; you may, however, still face a sporadic irate customer. Addressing a complaint or a mistake can be one of the toughest tests that your employees face, and since you may not always be around when this occurs, you must train personnel accordingly.The B.L.A.S.T. model, for example, is a great tool used by many companies in the foodser vice industr y in dealing with angry customers. 2 The acronym stands for:

Believe: Although it may seem that the customer may be incorrect about the situation, always give him the benefit of the doubt.

Listen: Relax and listen. It is important for the customer to feel understood, therefore you need to give him the chance to vent and express the entire complaint. After the customer is done venting, rephrase their problem in a calm non-judgmental manner, this will show that you have listened to the problem and understand the customer’s point of view.

Apologize: Even if you feel you have done nothing wrong, always apologize.When a customer is complaining, he expects an apology regardless. A sincere apology will diffuse a great deal of the frustration that the customer has and should help in finding a solution. There is an exception to this rule, though: if a customer calls with a critical complaint, such as food poisoning, don’t apologize since it may be construed as an acceptance of guilt. Instead refer to your company’s procedures for such events.

Satisfy: It is impor tant to take action in solving the problem or concern. Use reasonable judgment in providing a solution; a complimentary dessert, gift card or letter of apology may suffice.

Thank: Don’t forget to thank the customer, since they’re providing your business an oppor tunity to address a mistake and become a better establishment. 3

In addition to teaching the B.L.A.S.T. model during training, make sure you also include role-playing exercises, since this is the only way you can recreate a high-conflict scenario for your employees to practice. Have some of the more seasoned employees play the role of the upset customer, since they may have faced a couple of them already. You can provide them with a few lines to simulate different scenarios, since a heated customer may have a big arsenal of threats, complaints, and tantrums – make sure you provide practice for as many of these variations as you can.

As you let your employees play out these different scenarios, you should observe carefully and take note of your employees’ verbal and nonverbal reactions. Make an effort not to interrupt; take notes instead and provide your feedback at the end of the exercise.You may only interrupt if you think you must make a point immediately; however, fight the urge of pointing out mistakes
as soon as you see them – you will only disturb the flow of the drill.

Make sure you tune into the body language of your staff as they role-play, since nonverbal communication can make a huge difference in how the customer reacts. The customer will react negatively if an employee raises his voice, moves his arms excessively or shows a hint of anger in his facial expression. Similarly, a customer will also get angrier if the employee keeps looking away, crosses his arms or plays with different objects near him. If you see any of these nonverbal cues, point them out and delineate the desired body language to be used when dealing with a customer.

It is important that your employees maintain their composure when dealing with an irate customer. A calm voice tone, impartial facial expression, arms in front of the body and appropriate eye contact should help diffuse a great deal of the customer’s frustration; these nonverbal cues communicate attentiveness and openness. Make sure you include these in your feedback and have your employees apply them in their next turn in the training exercise.

In addition to training employees in dealing with angry customers, be sure to establish a customer service policy. Do not ignore even the smallest complaints and encourage loyal customers to post their positive experience on social media. The reputation of your business is one of the most valuable assets you can have; do not let one hapless person damage it!

1 Kirby, J. (2005) Customer Ser vice Is More Than Just Being Nice To People
2,3 Barneto A. Dealing With Customer Complaints – B.L.A.S.T. Retrieved July 2012