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How to deal with customer complaints in food service: Tips and strategies

You’re catering at a festival; you’ve got a queue stretching all the way from your van to the main stage – and a customer is insisting their coffee is cold.

Or you get home after a long evening, decide to check your business social media pages before bed – and there’s a comment that your server was rude.

Dealing with customers’ complaints is part and parcel of running a catering business, but it’s probably among your least favourite aspects of your role. So, what can you do to keep your customers sweet and your online reviews glowing?

Remember: customers may not always be right, but they always think they are – sometimes with justification! Failure to respond to a health and safety concern could even lead to a lawsuit, and while catering public liability insurance will help you cover any costs, the damage to your business could be severe.

Customer Complaint

Read on to discover our top tips for handling complaints in the mobile catering trade.

Customer complaints

Unhappy customers are nothing new. But today’s disgruntled customers don’t always make their grievances known in person – instead, they post them on social media or review websites. 

That means that businesses can’t fix problems on the spot, perhaps by offering free drinks to customers who’ve had to wait for their food. Instead, you’ve got to try to make up lost ground.

And worse, you can no longer fix a problem discreetly – you’ve got to do so publicly, or risk huge reputational damage. And simply offering a freebie could encourage chancers to make frivolous complaints.

So how can you avert negative feedback? And what action should you take if it does come your way? See below for our pointers for handling criticism in-person and on social media.

In-person complaints

If you’re the manager of a busy mobile catering service, you might well need to step up and deal with issues as they arise.

Unless the complaints are very minor, don’t leave your serving staff to handle them alone. That’s a sure-fire way to prompt resignations – and we all know how hard it is to retain good staff in the catering trade.

If you’re not confident in handling tricky situations, do consider training in customer service skills including conflict resolution. You’ll learn all sorts of tips for de-escalating situations that could come in handy.

  1. Do the groundwork

It goes without saying: the best way to deal with negative feedback is to avoid giving your customers cause for complaint!

The biggest factor is staff training. So take your time in ensuring your chefs and servers are all well equipped with the skills and tools to do their jobs. For mobile catering services, speed is often of the essence, so make sure your staff know what they’re doing.

Above all, never skimp on training in health and safety matters. Your staff must be up-to-speed on issues around food hygiene and allergens, otherwise you could find yourself dealing not merely with a complaint, but with an entire lawsuit. Catering public liability insurance is vital in settling such issues.

  1. Invite feedback at the time

Where possible, check in on your customers while they are with you. Warn them if there’s going to be a delay and ask them if they’re happy with their meals.

By giving them an opportunity to raise issues in a timely and non-confrontational manner, you can nip a lot of problems in the bud.

It also means that if the customer does complain afterwards, you could point out – politely – that he or she was happy at the time. However, proceed with caution: you want to de-escalate situations wherever possible.

  1. Listen calmly

If a customer complains, you may feel your hackles rising – particularly if their tone is argumentative or their complaint unreasonable.

But always remain professional. Actively listening and stay calm, and make sure you’ve got all the details about their concern. If the customer is angry, take a deep breath and give yourself a moment to think of how to deal with the situation.

If you vent your frustration, or flatly refuse to listen, the customer is far more likely to take to social media to amplify the complaint.

  1. Respond politely and empathically

Often, just acknowledging a customer’s complaint issue is enough to defuse the situation. So, let them know you understand their disappointment. Unless the customer is blatantly in the wrong, it’s best to apologise and seek a remedy.

Make sure your body language is polite, too. No matter how apologetic your words are, if you have your hands on your hips and a stony expression on your face, you’re giving off hostile signals that will antagonise your customers.

  1. Ask how to fix it

Suppose the customer has been served a meal they didn’t choose, or a side dish has gone AWOL. It’s going to take 20 minutes to prepare their original order, by which time their companions may have finished.

So, offer them a few options. Would they prefer a swap? A free drink or dessert? A 10% discount? By showing them you’re willing to listen and act on their preferences, you’ll go a long way to restoring their goodwill.

Don’t forget: most customers grabbing a bite from a mobile catering van just want to eat and go. They’re as keen to find a reasonable solution to the problem as you are. There may be some chancers, but fortunately, they’re few and far between.

  1. Don’t pass the buck

Often, a simple ‘sorry’ is all the customer needs to hear. If you start trying to shift the blame to your staff, your suppliers or – worse! - your customers, you risk causing further frustration.

Customers are paying you to provide a service and are not interested in what goes on behind the scenes. You might want to explain why the issue has arisen, but don’t try to use it as an excuse. Take ownership of the problem, apologise, and find a quick fix.

  1. Take major concerns seriously

Most complaints are about simple matters such as food quality or delays. But occasionally, customers might point to serious failings.

Health and safety concerns must always be treated with the utmost seriousness, to avoid them getting worse. So, if a customer highlights a problem with your allergen information, your hygiene standards, or even the safety of your mobile catering van, listen carefully and take action promptly.

Failure to do so can lead to the problem snowballing. Catering public liability insurance will help you cover associated costs in fixing the issue, but the damage to your reputation will be huge.

  1. Learn from your mistakes

Everybody makes mistakes. Even Michelin-starred establishments will leave a few customers dissatisfied! And in the busy, ever-changing environment of the mobile catering trade, it’s easy for slip-ups to occur.

So, take the feedback on board, and see how you can improve. Extra staff training? Improved information on your menus? Better links with your suppliers? A few tweaks here and there can make a big difference to the service you offer your customers.

Mobile bar

Social media complaints

Many of the above principles also apply to web complaints. However, the rise of social media and online review sites does present new challenges to catering businesses.

So how do you make sure your online presence works in your favour, not against you? We’ve put together a few tips below.

  1. Invite customer feedback through surveys

Customers often just want to feel heard. By inviting their feedback, perhaps through a customer satisfaction survey, you can allow them to let off steam – privately.

Do let them know how their feedback is being dealt with, otherwise they may remain dissatisfied with your response and take to social media. And see point 8 above – learn from your mistakes!

  1. Categorise any complaints

If you run a large company with several vans, you’re likely to receive several complaints on social media. So it helps to categorise them in terms of importance, and consider your process for responding to each.

For example, the way you handle a complaint about cold coffee is very different from the way you deal with a complaint about health and safety. For the latter, it’s essential that you’ve got catering public liability insurance in place in case any serious issues arise.

  1. Respond to all complaints promptly

People actually expect responses to social media complaints within an hour or so. Of course, this might not be humanly possible if you single-handedly run a mobile catering van! But don’t let problems fester – they probably won’t just go away. Instead, you should reply as quickly as possible, and apologise for any delay.

  1. Signpost to further channels

If a customer complaint is at all serious, urge the customers to contact you directly – give them your contact details such as your name, phone number and email address. Customers appreciate having a named person to contact, and it demonstrates to your other followers that you are determined to make your business the best it can be.

  1. Don’t offer freebies!

It’s common practice to offer a free dessert or similar to customers who make a complaint about your food or service. But it’s unwise to extend this to social media, as you risk encouraging copycat complaints.

  1. Accentuate the positive

You are likely to receive some negative comments on your social media pages, but you should receive some compliments, too. Remember to thank the person for their praise, and let them know you’ll pass on the compliment to the chef or servers.

It’s a great way of building up a rapport with your customer base, encouraging return visits, and amplifying your message around social media.

What are the most common customer complaints?

We really do all make mistakes. So what are the most common pitfalls for food and catering businesses?

Slow service and lengthy wait times leave many customers seeing red – particularly if others are served in front of them! So if you know there will be a wait, let your loyal customers know. Can you carry out more prep in advance, or invest in better equipment?

Food quality is another chief concern. So when planning your menu, make sure you can meet customers’ expectations. Would it be better to offer a smaller menu, but with each dish cooked to perfection? Do your chefs or servers need extra training?

Interactions with staff are another common gripe. Staying polite and friendly when you’re rushed off your feet at a festival is tough, but it really is essential for keeping your customers content. Are there ways of relieving the pressure your servers are under?

The venue itself is another frequent source of dissatisfaction, with customers complaining about atmosphere or cleanliness. Of course, if you’re running a mobile catering service, some issues are out of your hands. But you must always ensure that hygiene and safety are top notch.

Don’t forget things like trailing cables – if your customers trip and hurt themselves, you could be facing more than just a sour comment on social media! Catering public liability insurance will pay compensation for injuries.

Get a quote from Mobilers today

At Mobilers, we know how hard you work to ensure your customers are always happy – and we want to do exactly the same for you.

We’ve got 25 years’ experience in arranging insurance for the catering trade, covering every type of business from ice cream trikes to trailers to market stalls.

We’re specialists in finding liability cover, helping to protect your customers and your business in case of any incidents. We can arrange £5 million catering public liability insurance, £5 million products liability, and £10 million employer’s liability insurance. If your contract to trade at an event stipulates a higher cover level, we can raise the public and products liability to £10 million at no extra cost to you.

Other benefits of the policies we can arrange include: immediate cover, short period policies, discounts for various concessions, and discounts on vehicle cover with liability insurance.

Contact us today for a quote.

Frequently asked questions

How do I handle an aggressive customer who is making a complaint?

Handling an aggressive customer who is making a complaint can be a challenging task. However, it's essential to remain calm and composed during the interaction. Learning how to deal with customer complaints is always an on-going process. However, start by listening attentively to their complaint, showing empathy, and acknowledging their frustration. It's important not to take their anger personally.

Instead, focus on resolving customer complaint at hand. Keep your tone polite and professional throughout the conversation. If possible, offer a reasonable solution or alternative to their problem. Remember, your ultimate goal is to turn unhappy customers' negative experience into a positive one.

How do I better understand my customers' experience?

To better understand my customers' experience, it's essential to put yourself in their shoes. This involves exploring our products or services from their perspective, engaging with them regularly through surveys, feedback sessions or social media, and closely observing their buying behaviour and interactions.

Equally important is staying open to criticism and using it as a tool for improvement. By doing so, I can gain valuable insights into what works and what doesn't, allowing me to refine my offerings and deliver an exceptional customer experience. Remember, a satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all.

What is active listening?

Active listening is more than just hearing what someone is saying; it's about truly understanding the information being communicated. It involves paying full attention, reflecting, clarifying, and responding to a speaker, demonstrating genuine interest in their perspective.

To actively listen it helps build connections, solve problems, and foster better understanding. It's not just nodding your head in agreement, it's about diving deep into the conversation and engaging fully with the speaker.

How to control my emotions when handling customer complaints?

It's natural to feel down when a dissatisfied customer complains and ruins your day and your mood. But remember, it's not personal. To the upset customers, it's about their experience with the product or service, not about you as an individual. Take this as an opportunity to turn things around and provide excellent customer service and continue to create loyal customers.

Resolve the complaint professionally and seek to provide a solution. Not only will this likely appease the unhappy customer, but it'll also help you handle customer complaints effectively and regain your positive mood knowing you've done your best to rectify the situation.


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