How To Turn Complaints Into Opportunities


Goal: Make sure they leave happy!

More mistakes will occur in the next few weeks than what usually happen in several months.

How your team handles these mistakes – or “opportunities” – will make the difference in THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS of repeat business (and the feedback you receive on social media sites).

If you have not posted a single explanation to all staff (old and new) of how to deal with unhappy guests, YOU NEED TO.

Keep it simple. Here is an example:

Turning a Complaint Into an Opportunity

  1. Acknowledge the complaint
    “I understand that your steak is undercooked…”
  2. Sincerely Apologize
    “I am truly sorry this happened to you…”
  3. Take Action to Please Your Guest
    “I will take care of this immediately…”
  4. Thank Them for the Chance to Make It Right
    “Thank you for the opportunity to make this right for you…”
  5. Alert the manager on duty
    NOTICE that you contact a manager AFTER you have the solution in play (unless it is a SERIOUS issue). Your manager will touch the table before they leave.

Nothing says holidays like a cheese log
The above may seem like common sense, but I can assure you that it is not common practice at most restaurants and bars.

Remember, the key to an apology is SINCERITY- so make sure you always mean it!

Good luck and have a wonderful holiday,
Sean Finter




  1. Dina   •  

    Hi Sean,

    how important is it to follow the order of the above steps? Can any be skipped?

    The below may help to exemplify where I’m coming from more specifically…

    If the server who is responsible for the table at which the unhappy customer is sitting, and that same server is the reason for the customer being unhappy, would you still suggest that (s)he “Take action to please the guest” before “Alerting the Manager on Duty”?

    I ask this because, personally, once I’ve been disgruntled by someone whose salary I’m contributing to, I do not want to give them the opportunity to “make it better.” To me, they don’t deserve a second chance, and I don’t want to have to deal with that person again, at all. In fact, in the past when floor staff have attempted to rectify ill treatment, it only served to make me feel extremely awkward, almost uncomfortably demanding.

    • Sean Finter   •  

      Dina- I understand your concern. Here are 3 things to consider:

      1. Most issues (90%) that occur in a restaurant/bar are “small things”. For example, when my soup is cold I want hot soup- not a manager asking me if she can help me?
      2. It is critical that business systems are built and executed for the 90%- not the 10%.
      3. For the exceptions to the rules you need training and management. Yes, I agree that if your staff know that THEY are “the problem” that they immediately get management involved in the process.
      The bottom line is that the simpler you make this difficult process the more likely you are to have guests leave happy. Good luck.

      • Dina   •  

        Sean, thanks for taking the time to respond to my questions. After reading your response, and reflecting on the general complaints we receive on our floor, you’re absolutely right about the ratio of “small things” to big things. I will start implementing your action plan in the New Year. Can’t wait to see the positive changes in my business.

        Still, I can’t shake the 10%. If I invest time in training my staff, and they still make those big errors, at what point do I simply fire them? I guess I have a couple of members of my team in mind as I write this. Sean, would it be too much to ask you to please offer your feedback as to how much lenience is too much lenience? Or if the answer is not so simple, maybe make it a topic of one of your future posts?

        Love your blog, it is changing the beat of my business, daily.

        • Sean Finter   •  

          On the subject of lenience here are a few things to keep in mind:

          1. “Good is the enemy of Great!”- if good enough is good enough you will never have a great business.

          2. Have clear standards and stick to them- the best run businesses are the simplest ones. Complexity of standards and playing favorites is the death of many businesses.

          3. Your customers expect EXCELLENCE- not for you to overlook or make exceptions for sub-par staff. We are in the HOSPITALITY industry- never let your team lose sight of that.

  2. Jeff   •  


    I’m a big fan of “writing the final chapter” with opportunities of great customer service. I’m in the salon/spa business and we have thousands of guests each month. Without a doubt, a handful of them are going to have a less-than-perfect experience. If we let those folks walk out of the doors and tell the story to their friends and family, we risk them sharing an experience that could hurt our business. If we “write the final chapter” by taking action and making it right, we can control the message that leaves our doors.

    Great stuff. Thanks for adding that facet to your business this year!

    • Sean Finter   •  

      Love the concept of “writing the final chapter” rather than leaving things to chance (Shit Happens! is so 1980’s!). In this day and age a business can have it’s brand assassinated by an angry guest in the taxi on their iPhone on the way home! Managers need to focus on making things right BEFORE the guest leaves the premise.

  3. Alex   •  

    Great comment, David!! Doesn’t the One Minute Apology talk about how NOT to let the same mistake happen twice?

    My favorite step on the list is THANKING THEM FOR THE CHANCE TO MAKE IT RIGHT. This would never have occurred to me earlier in my career, but anyone who gives you a second chance DESERVES thanks, and it adds a level of professionalism and polish that most just don’t have. (great idea for use in your personal life too)

    • Sean Finter   •  

      Thanking them for the chance to make it right really conditions your guests to feel comfortable telling you when things are not up to their expectations. The alternative is to let people “vote with their feet” and spend their money elsewhere not time. And yes, this works equally as well in one’s personal life but perhaps requires a little more humility! ha!

  4. Ant   •  

    Also comes back to your employment policies, there is nothing worse than feeling like you are in a cool competition with the wait/bar staff who couldn’t give a toss about your experience. Easy to teach a nice person the above, harder to do with a kid who would rather text his mates than serve your table, what would your advice be to managers responsible for recruiting?

    • Sean Finter   •  

      You hit the nail on the head: you have to hire GREAT PEOPLE and train them how to do the job. That is a much quicker route than trying to “hire experience” then trying to break their bad habits and bad attitudes. Always remember” YOU CAN’T POLISH A TURD! (so don’t get dirty trying!!)

        • Sean Finter   •  

          OMG!!! I stand corrected!! However, i would not try this with your undesirable staff!

  5. Dave Ross   •  

    Having a step by step recovery system so that all staff know exactly how to deal with complaints / problems not only gives you the opportunity to solve the customer’s problem and hopefully turn the situation around but also helps your staff get through a difficult situation. I see examples all the time when there is an issue, the server / bartender are almost scared to approach the customer rather than knowing exactly how to deal with it and what measures they have the liberty to take in order to solve that problem.

    I also agree that thanking the customer for the opportunity to make it right is a key step, most people don’t like to complain and will simply vote with their feet (ie. not return to your venue for another roll of the dice). However, in order to get the opportunity to make it right we need to make sure there is a “checkback” policy in place. If the server isn’t checking back in with the table a few minutes after food is dropped off then you’ll rarely get this opportunity.

    • Sean Finter   •  

      Good point Dave. I believe it is CRUCIAL to train our young staff on how to deal with these awkward situations (that are often not their fault). As i said, much is this is common sense BUT NOT common practice.

    • Sean Finter   •  

      A good test to understanding if you have a recovery system or not is to ROLE PLAY with your staff. If they don’t know what to do- you don’t have a SYSTEM. If they don’t all handle things in a similar manor- you don’t have a SYSTEM. Great businesses have great systems.

  6. Dan Patterson   •  

    When I read this article, I think of one word. ACCOUNTABILITY…. For me (the newest member to the Calgary Barmetrix team) it means not only to the Owner of the business you are working with but to your own business, team as well. Shows integrity, which in this day in age is hard to come by. My old US MARINE drill Sgt once defined integrity to me as- the willingness to do something right when no one else is around to see it.

    • Sean Finter   •  

      Dan- i used to explain to my wait staff that the rest of the team works JUST AS HARD as they do. The reason they get to keep their tips is down to their willingness to fall on the sword for the team when WE drop the ball. It takes a tremendous amount of integrity to do that properly.

  7. Ryan   •  

    This is a good point Sean, its crucial Staff are trained on how to handle complaints as they arise. I’ll be sure to check the staff boards at my venues and suggest a method similar to this be posted.

    • Sean Finter   •  

      Good idea- i suggest that you use what i posted as a template and have the management team tell you exactly what they want to see happen (different stokes for different folks!)

  8. Ben Davenport   •  

    The “thank them for the opportunity” would go the furthest with me. I feel that this step also allows for the the server/bartender/host to go the extra mile by offering additional customer service that may not be related to the initial complaint. The “How else may I serve you” mentality would be a tremendous follow-up step to this point in the process. Encourage your staff to identify a complaint as a way to stand out from the crowd, as how the complaint is handled will be what the guests remember about the venue. Much like how salespeople look for the objections so that they can be met head on. This mentality throughout venue staff would be an identifier that there is a “system” for handling complaints.

    It’s okay for staff to ask their guests after they have been served this question:

    “if anything is unsatisfactory, are you okay w/ letting me know about it?”

    Every guest that your staff asks this question to will say “yes, I’ll let you know if there’s anything unsatisfactroy” and it alleviates the anxiety that a customer often feels when they aren’t happy about something.

    • Sean Finter   •  

      The top 10% of servers/bartenders establish RAPPORT with their guest. The top 1% have both RAPPORT & TRUST. This is the pinnacle of hospitality and something we all need to strive towards.

  9. Matt   •  

    I find that the owner has a completely different understanding of what is happening when a complaint occurs, they what the staff are actually doing when a complaint happens in most situations. The piece that is missing in most businesses is the setting of clear expectations in the employee induction process but most importantly the follow through and execution of the policy daily. Mistakes happen and are a great opportunity to make a positive impression on your guest.

    Follow the link to see what can happen when you don’t have a service recovery plan. This worked out well in the end for Air Canada as they got a lot of PR but a very dangerous situation, and very funny!

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