Restaurant veteran John Isbell loves guest complaints. “It means the guest likes you enough to give you a chance to fix the situation,” says Isbell, director of learning and development for Nashville, Tennessee-based Logan’s Roadhouse. The casual steakhouse has 235 company-operated and 26 franchised units in 23 states.

Mike Lester, president of The Melting Pot, views each complaint as “a gift.” “It is a second chance to earn our guest’s business back. The only true negative comment or complaint is the one that we don’t hear and cannot react to effectively.” The Tampa, Florida-based fondue restaurant has 135 locations throughout North America.

Complaints are inevitable at even the best restaurant; what’s key is how you react. Here’s how these two restaurants handle less-than-perfect situations:

Reach for the STARS

Logan’s Roadhouse guides its team members with the acronym STARS: Sorry, Thank you, Act, Recover and Share.

Sorry.  Apologize and avoid finger pointing. “No matter how the situation occurred, we’re sorry that the guest didn’t get what he or she wanted,” says Isbell. “We want the guest to be happy.” 

Thank you. Thank the guests for taking the time to point out the problem. Only a fraction of guests do. “You can’t fix the situation until you know about,” says Isbell. He recommends manager “table touches” to root out problems.

Act. Quickly resolve the issue. If the food wasn’t to a customer’s liking, re-cook it or prepare something else, if they prefer.

Recover. Offer something extra to mend your relationship, such as a free dessert or a discount on the next visit. Logan’s requires employees to notify managers of any issues so they can  ensure the guest leaves satisfied. “It makes the guest feel that everybody at the restaurant cares about them,” says Isbell. “No one’s trying to sweep the problem under the rug.”

Share. Inform your team about guest complaints, so they can learn from them. For example, if you receive complaints about undercooked steaks, remind your cooks about your temperature guidelines.

BLAST away complaints

The Melting Pot follows a five-step guest-recovery process called BLAST: Believe, Listen, Apologize, Solve and Thank. Lester outlines the process:

Believe. Don’t let pride cloud your thoughts or confuse your goals. Believe the guest and the guest’s perception.

Listen. Allow the guest to tell you everything. Ask questions and make eye contact.

Apologize. Be genuine and sincere in apologizing to the guest for the less-than-perfect experience. Remember that the guest perception is his or her reality.

Solve. Be calm, take charge, and own the problem. Fix the problem area, but avoid trying to “buy” the guest’s happiness. Make sure the way you resolve the issue leaves the guest happy and with the intent to return soon.

Thank. Sincerely thank the guest for bringing the issue to your attention and giving you an opportunity to resolve it.

Guest recovery in cyberspace

Given the power of social media, it’s more crucial than ever to quickly resolve any issues. “Even the quietest guest can reach hundreds or thousands of others within seconds,” says Gabe Hosler, director of training and operations for Rubio’s, a Carlsbad, Calif.- based fast-casual restaurant with 190 locations. “It’s so important that you satisfy your guest.”

On the upside, social media provides a way to reach customers who left unhappy. Review sites like Yelp let you post public comments or contact guests through private messages. “You have a chance to win back those guests who wrote negative reviews,” Lester says. If you wow them on the repeat visit, they might even post a glowing update.

To manage your restaurant’s online reputation, download our free guide “Online Reviews: The New Word of Mouth.”  For tips to satisfy your customers, check out our Customer Service Training DVD.