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14 min read

This article will pull in mentions from a recent poor experience I had.

All month we have been looking at the fundamentals and most recently we focused on proper training and the steps of service. You can go through all the training, follow all of the steps of service, and still end up with an unhappy guest every once in a while. So how do you go about controlling the damage? Today we will look at dealing with an upset customer.

In the poor customer experience story, I had been overcharged on my bill and had been given the incorrect food. When I pointed out the error, the error was defended and I was told they weren’t running a special at that time. Even when I told them where the price was on the menu, it was still defended and I was made to look cheap. This is terrible damage control.

Only after I had grabbed my jacket and we were leaving was I asked if I wanted to talk with a manager. Further, due to the previous actions of the manager, I had already lost any hope in the manager taking the issue seriously.

I would hope you recognized the errors that occurred in damage control, but below we are going to look at ways to reduce the ill effects.

Catch It Early

The earlier you catch a problem the easier it is to fix. One small problem can lead to a table picking apart every aspect of the service and compound it quickly. If you think there is a problem with the table, address it as soon as possible. Give your customer an out, but also give them the opportunity to explain their dissatisfaction if they desire. “I just wanted to check in and make sure everything is tasting alright. I noticed you are slowing down a bit. Is it just because you filled up on the jalapeƱo poppers or did we mess up on something?


Once a mistake is known the first thing you should do is apologize to the customer for the mistake. Apologize formally, then explain what you are apologizing for and relate to how the customer is feeling. “I apologize that your steak is overcooked, you ordered medium rare and this is definitely well done. I would be upset as well. I can take that away and get you a new one right out.” Ending with a suggested solution helps to move the complaint forward rather than circling back to the complaint again.

When possible, remove the mistake

If the complaint revolves around a screwed up drink or food item, remove that item from the table. The less a customer has to look at mistake, the less they remind themselves of it.

If a customer is okay with the mistake

If a customer is okay with the order but wanted to make sure you knew about it, make sure you ask once more. “Are you sure you don’t want me to re-cook the steak. We can have it out quickly.” If they still choose to keep the mistake, apologize once more and thank them for being understanding. This would also be a good time to offer to buy a drink or dessert for the guest, or take some money off the bill. “Alright, well I appreciate you for being understanding, can I get you another drink or a dessert to make up for it?” If they decline another drink or the dessert, I typically thank them for letting me know and then apologize again. Then when it is time for the bill, take off a portion of or all of the price of the entree. Let them know you aren’t going to charge them fully for something that you screwed up on. If they still insist say something like, “I appreciate you bringing it to my attention so that I can prevent it with future tables, it’s the least I could do for you.”

If a customer is not okay with the mistake

If the customer is not okay with just keeping the food or drink item that was a mistake, remove the item from the table immediately. Ask them if they would like a remake of the item or a different item. If they deny that, let them know they aren’t being charged for the meal they didn’t eat. Additionally, it would be good to buy their drink for them or offer them a gift certificate for a future visit. Apologize again for the mistake, let them know that you understand why they’re angry, and inform them that while you know that it doesn’t help the current situation, you will try to ensure the problem never happens again. Thank them for bringing it to your attention because it gives you the opportunity to know about and fix the mistake.

If the customer is causing a scene

First and foremost stay calm. The minute they get you yelling you’ve lost control of the situation and it will only escalate. If the customer is swearing in the restaurant, harassing a server, or otherwise disturbing a large portion of the restaurant. Immediately diffuse the situation. “Sir, I understand why you are angry, but I can’t have you yelling across the restaurant. If you would like to discuss the issue, I would be happy to do what I can to resolve it, but you are not allowed to harass our employees or other guests.” If the customer continues to cause a scene tell the person that you are covering their bill and they need to leave the restaurant immediately. If they still don’t stop, let them know you will be getting the police involved if they do not leave your establishment. If they still don’t go, call the police. If they do not calm down initially and they have to be removed. Get them outside as quickly as possible, apologize for their poor experience and let them go. It’s not worth fighting over because your are not going to convince them to come back. Let it diffuse and prepare your response for the social reputation sites when then inevitably post. Note: Do not ever touch the guest or their belongings as you try to escort them out, just direct them with your actions and stay stern and firm.

If they stop screaming after the first warning, immediately apologize about the mistake and sympathize with them about the problem (although not their behavior in relation to the problem). “Sir, once again, I understand you’re angry, how can I make it better for you?” Notice that it doesn’t ask for the problem in this instance. Because they are heated up about this, it’s best not to send them into another rant by reminding them of all of the stuff that went wrong. They will inevitably start ranting again. Again, acknowledge that they are upset and again ask how you can make it better. If they begin to insult you, interrupt and say. “I understand that you are angry and that we ruined what was suppose to be a great evening, now I’m trying to help you. If you would let me do that I would be happy to do what I can to make things better, however I won’t have you yelling or swearing at me.” If they still insult you and offer no way to help them, let them know you are covering the bill and ask them to leave. “Well, I apologize for your experience this evening, obviously we can’t make things right for you, I will cover your bill tonight, but I’m going to need to ask you to leave.” See above for notes on if this escalates.

If however they give you a way to help them, do what you can to accommodate, free meals, gift certificates or the like. Don’t hand them cash or anything like that, but do what you can to reasonably accommodate, siding possibly a little heavier on the customer side if their complaints were fully justified. If you think they were trying to cause a scene just to get free meals, do what you think is right. It may be worth buying the meal just to get the scene out of your restaurant.

Once the situation is diffused, then it is okay to get details on the issue. “Once again I deeply apologize for our lack or performance tonight. You came out to have a nice dinner with your family and friends and we failed you. I know that we may have lost you as a future customer. Hopefully not, but either way, would you be willing to share the details of your experience so that I may correct them for future guests? If they share, write it down. This may be some of the most honest, non-watered down information you’ll get from a guest. It might stretch the truth a bit in their favor, but they will definitely not be leaving any details out.

If they choose not to share, don’t press the issue. Say you understand, apologize once more, and ask them to hopefully give you another chance at some point.


We touched on this for very upset guests, but how do you know what is fair compensation for a mistake? Overall, it is something you become more comfortable knowing when you do it more often. However, my suggestion is just enough to make you feel like it’s almost too much. For simple mistakes, a quick replacement and an apology will be fine. If the fix takes a longer amount of time throw on a drink or dessert.

If the problem was a wait for a table, put in an order for an appetizer or two while you are clearing the table and bring it out shortly after they sit down as an unexpected surprise to diffuse the anger before anything else can compound it.

If there are a series of errors, look at offering gift cards, taking an entree or two off, taking a percentage off the bill, or in extreme cases buying the check. If you think the customer would be okay with a free entree and a gift card over buying the bill, go that route as it encourages them to come back again, so you can hopefully make it up to them.

If the problem is with a server, offer them a different server. If the problem with the server is something related to a protected class, such as their gender, race, or expected religion; I personally would ask the guest to leave the restaurant and not return. This is unacceptable behavior and you don’t need that customer in your restaurant. This will show that you back up your employees and do not allow harassment. Further, if doing this because it’s the right thing isn’t enough incentive, this will likely help you avoid a harassment lawsuit from the employee as well as help build employee morale. If the issue is not over a protected class or harassment issue and is related to the servers performance or a personal issue between the guest and the server, remove the server from the table and have a different server take over. Let the server removed from the table know that you apologize, but you are giving the table to another server and that you’ll talk about it after the rush. If you think it’s just the customer and that the server wasn’t at fault, let the server know that, but let them know you have to take them off the table for the customer’s sake. The server will know you still support them and should understand the situation. Sometimes a server just doesn’t jive with a table and sometimes you just get some bad customers.

If the problem was the server’s fault. Talk about the mistakes made, privately, after the shift to ensure that the mistakes are not made again in the future.

If you have an awkward mistake or something out of the ordinary and are unsure how to compensate, ask the guest, “How can I make this right for you?” Most customers will tell you and keep it relatively fair. If they request more than you are comfortable giving say, “I can’t offer that much but I can offer …,” and try to pick part of the compensation they suggested.

When in doubt, make the customer happy. Exceed their expectations. I’ve had good results with the delayed reward with simple mistakes. If a mistake happened on a sandwich and you were able to quickly get a replacement out, that is probably good enough compensation and what is expected from the guest. However, if you bring the check out and inform them that half of their entree was paid for because they had to wait for their correction, now you’ve just exceeded their expectations and likely earned yourself a return customer.

Damage control can certainly be intimidating at times, but as issues arise, you will get more comfortable at catching problems early, apologizing formally, removing the mistake, and correcting and compensating appropriately.