Bad customer service normally means you have one or several less customers. 59 % of US customers tell their friends about a bad customer service experience all the time (as I will do later on) and 35 % mention it sometimes. Look at this amazing graphic from Infographics. They have more like it.

Great customer service may not guarantee a restaurant’s success, but bad customer service can doom it. Of course, restaurant owners are in the hospitality business, so almost all emphasize (and expect) certain standards of behavior from their staff. Yet it shouldn’t end there and extends into business policies.

To be clear, restaurant owners do well in regards to customer service generally and let customers concentrate on the food rather than the behavior of staff. But I came across a situation (not with a restaurant thankfully) that will illustrate an important point about customer service.

A few days ago, I made a purchase from Best Buy, which took more than time and effort than it should. Soon I learned the product was defective and had to be returned, and so I tried to replace it at the nearest Best Buy to my work (I bought it near my home). They gave me all sorts of trouble (because of supposed corporate policies), enraging me. The policies didn’t make sense and employees and managers lied to me. I swore to stay away from Best Buy in the future as it caused me unneeded grief. It worked out in the end but the damage was done.

What I’d like to focus on is the issue was business policies.

Before I go into the nitty gritty, I’d like to acknowledge a fact of business: businesses small and large need policies and a set way they do things. Restaurants have them, hairdressers have them, drug stores have them and Internet retailers have them. Some are outside a business’s hands because they are mandated by insurance or law, but I am not talking about that.

We are talking about the policies restaurant’s make on their own. There are several reasons for these policies. First, the owner cannot always be there and he wants to communicate correct behavior even when not there. The second reason is so that no customers get preferential treatment. Finally, it protects the business’s health, financially and otherwise.

Although it is not acknowledged frequently, policies compete with the saying “the customer’s always right.” For small businesses, policies are a little bit different than big companies. There isn’t a Terms and Conditions contract. For restaurants, it is frequently in person and when some friction arises from these policies, a lot is at stake for customers. So how does a restaurant handle policies and provide excellent customer service.

1. Play it Cool, Never Lie and Listen, Listen, Listen

When a customer doesn’t like a policy, your staff should pass it off to person in charge and the manager or owner should spend more time listening that talking. After a short statement of what the policy is, let them talk (and listen carefully). Often, their frustration will fade when they get to express it.

A firm yet cool response does the trick most of the time. A back and forth is never a good idea. That can lead to shouting and true anger. So a manager has to be patient (but acknowledge their anger and apologize for the inconvenience) and stay around as long as the customer wants to continue the conversation. Short answers are better than long answers. When the truth will do more harm than good, managers and owners should know how to dance around the subject (slightly change the subject).

2. Clearly DIsplay and Communicate Unique Policies

Information is crucial so that you don’t have dissatisfied customers. Both customers and staff need to know what to expect.

If a customer doesn’t know about the policy, they are more likely to feel it is unfair. Signage is very important, whether it’s on the menu, in the window or on your website. No surprise or hidden clauses/fees.

Next, you should clearly state the policy to your staff members, especially to the managers. Highlight the main points, but make sure that managers have a grasp of the details. Also, provide a rational reason for the policy that staff members and managers can quickly explain to customers. Some parts of the explanation you may want your staff to emphasize and others you may want to gloss over. They have to know this.

3. Make Sure Policies Are Logical

With my Best Buy experience, the policy was irrational and inconsistent. If the policy is irrational (and too unorthodox), you will invite conflict. This is the kind of conflict when your customers will talk circles around your employees and there is nothing you can do about it.

To avoid idiotic policies, you should think about it from a customer’s perspective. As the creator of policies always assumes it to be logical, ask someone you trust who is willing to give you an honest answer. Many times, you need to reformulate the small parts (or the wording) to become logical and sound. It pretty simple. Customers are more likely to tell their friends about a bad customer service experience when the policies were plain unfair (as they feel more justified).

4. Strategic Exceptions and Limited Manager Discretion

Policies aren’t laws. Every so often, customers come to you in good faith (and for good reason) to ask for an exception from the policy. This involves customers that won’t back down or seem really pissed. This is a hard decision, and even harder for managers.

An owner or manager has to make an assessment on the spot about what to do. Normally these kinds of things are isolated incidents (and exceptions should rarely be made on a consistent basis with any customer). If an exception will cause very little harm and the customer seems passionate about the principle, you should formulate a way for an exception to be made. This has to go perfectly according to script. Exceptions normally go along with customers who didn’t know of the policy, not for those that feel entitled to something. Customers also with a reasonable argument can sometimes be given an exception (but this is more risky as what happens if they continually use it).

A manager should be expected to inform the owner of all of these incidents where customers are noticeably unhappy with a policy. It helps bettering your customer service and reviewing your manager’s response to provide guidance. Remember the wrong dissatisfied customer can turn dozens off to your restaurant and possibly cause bad press.

Lastly, as a manager gains experience, you should allow them to use their discretion (but always inform you when they do) to some degree. If they don’t treat every case differently, they are likely infuriate a customer. So you feel comfortable and your managers feel comfortable, you should have your managers shadow you on busy nights so they can witness how to deal with this situation.

Final Thoughts

In short, policies put restaurants in difficult situations even though they are necessary to some extent. When push comes to shove, preparation and confidence are key to keeping great customer service and avoiding the horror stories which injure restaurants.