How to Handle Negative Customer Reviews and Complaints

A complaint doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Here’s how to best approach negative reviews.
How to Handle Negative Customer Reviews and Complaints
December 2, 2021

While no one wants to face a bad review of their business, with the wide array of online forums available to customers, reviews written and shared by happy and unhappy customers are now just a part of life. However, there are good and bad ways to go about handling not-so-good reviews.

Your reputation and ultimately your business can depend on how you deal with customer complaints, whether small or big. Here are some tips for dealing with a bad review or customer complaint.

Develop a customer complaints policy

Implement a policy for when and how to deal with each type of complaint.

An effective complaints policy should:

  • explain the steps you would like customers to take when making complaints
  • identify the steps your business will take to address the complaints
  • show or give examples of solutions the business offers to resolve the complaints
  • inform customers about ongoing improvements and demonstrate that your organization values their feedback and patronage

If you have a website, dedicate a page to customer feedback, which includes complaints.

The policy could include a form that staff can give to a customer who has a complaint to lodge. Customers can fill out and submit the form, which can then be sent directly to a manager or employee who is trained to deal with it. A formal process lets the customer feel heard — as long as you make sure you reply with a fulsome solution in a reasonable timeframe. Most customers will appreciate the effort to resolve their issue, and will not want to escalate things any further.

Train all employees to deal with complaints

Part of training new employees is equipping them with the policy used to address inevitable complaints. If staff are aware of a set process before a bad review happens, they’ll know how to respond and will be able to help mitigate the issue.

Everyone in the business should be well-versed in appropriately handling customer complaints. At staff meetings, you could have employees act out common situations that happen in your business, or a recent complaint a customer made, and have them show how they would respond. Let other staff members contribute ideas, and collaboratively figure out how to approach certain situations to retain the customer and prevent them from telling others about a negative experience with your business.

If you received a complaint about a specific employee, train everyone on how to respond to that type of issue instead of singling the staff member out or putting them on the spot. This will only hurt staff morale.

Resolving complaints can actually help staff become better at their jobs. The more complaints staff deal with, the better they’ll become at de-escalating tense situations and keeping calm under stress — these are valuable skills in every industry, and certainly in a busy food business.

Address online complaints promptly

If the complaint is made public online, take a few steps to make it right:

  • Don’t delete it: as tempting as it may be, deleting a complaint or negative comment will likely anger the customer further, and they’ll find somewhere else to post the same issue.
  • Apologize: Let them know their complaint has been heard, apologize that their experience was not a positive one and assure them you’re taking every step to make things right.
  • Make the conversation private: Solve the problem, but do so directly with the customer rather than on a public review forum. Ask the customer to contact you by email or phone — this shows you’re serious about resolving the issue and could prevent others from writing negative reviews.
  • Thank the customer: Make sure they know you appreciate their patience and understanding.

Following these rules can turn an upset customer into a fan. It’s all in your response.

Look for patterns

Ask yourself how often similar complaints come up. If more than one customer raises the same issue, it needs to be dealt with right away. When it comes to complaints, certain trends may emerge, like:

  • the same customer voicing issues
  • the same complaint arising repeatedly
  • a specific employee being on shift when the complaints are made
  • specific food or dishes that receive more complaints than others
  • a certain time of day or day of the week when more complaints are lodged
  • a specific type of complaint (whether about service or a product)

Patterns can help you identify and fix a problem. For example, if there are regular complaints about a certain dish being undercooked, maybe staff need more training on safe food cooking temperatures. If complaints are about slow dinner service, perhaps you need more staff during that busy shift.

Take what’s useful, leave what’s not

You want to strike the right balance when handling any complaint. Take what’s useful from the complaint and use that to improve your business. Disregard any aspect of the complaint that’s not constructive, and remember that not every customer will be happy with your service or product.

If a customer has a specific issue that can be remedied, you should do everything in your power to address that issue. For example, say they ordered one item and received another — that is something that could be rectified by refunding their order or offering them a discount the next time they visit the establishment. If they’ve posted a public complaint, address them directly, in a brief, professional and courteous manner, letting them know you’ll follow up in a private message or email.

The worst thing you can do is get offended and reply unprofessionally or angrily. You could lose their business, not to mention that of anyone else who sees the review. Remember that there’s no isolated complaint, especially with online reviews that can be shared dozens or even hundreds of times to large audiences, so one small issue can quickly snowball.

Weigh the seriousness of the complaint

A complaint highlights a problem, whether it’s to do with processes, products or employees. And a problem that’s pointed out can be a great opportunity to improve your business. A complaint about an inefficient process or a certain employee doesn’t have to impact your business as a whole — or at least not long-term — and it should be relatively easy to address. A more serious customer complaint about a food-borne illness outbreak could have major long-lasting consequences.

If you receive a complaint about food-borne illness stemming from your business, this is a serious situation. The Canadian Institute of Food Safety (CIFS) has resources to help you address this problem head-on. The CIFS Guide to Handling Customer Food Complaints provides in-depth information on how to respond to customer food complaints, including food-borne illness complaints that could have significant impact on your food business, and steps to prevent it from happening to other customers.