Turning a Negative into a Positive: Strategies for Dealing with Criticism and Complaints

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the idea that people remember negative experiences far more clearly than positive experiences, and these negative experiences have a much more lasting effect on people than do positive experiences. While the article in question discussed the implications of this phenomenon for corporate America, it also has implications for those in the restaurant industry, both in regard to employees as well as to customers.


It’s inevitable that you will, at some point in time, have to have a negative conversation with an employee. Whether it’s a case of a server who makes mistakes when taking orders or a cook who is over seasoning the food or a hostess who is incorrectly estimating wait times, unpleasant conversations have to be had, but it is possible to mitigate people’s natural response to criticism.

There’s a simple method that should be followed when it is necessary to criticize an employee’s behavior:

  • Start off with the criticism. While many of us prefer  to lead into the criticism with some positives, the reality is that employees will pay more attention to the criticism and any information that follows it than they will to the information presented beforehand.
  • Don’t pile on the criticism. Any criticism can be a huge blow to an employee’s morale, so it’s important to only offer one piece of criticism at a time.
  • Offer positive feedback after you have presented the criticism. If you want your employee’s morale to stay high, don’t end on a low note. Tell the employee what he or she is doing well, as you want the employee to continue those behaviors. The employee is more likely to remember this praise, so the entire negative experience can have a positive outcome.

Ultimately, the bottom line of your restaurant depends upon your employees providing great customer service, and that’s not possible when their morale is constantly dropping because of improperly handled criticism.


What are the implications of this article for customers? Obviously, you’re not going to criticize them, but you may have to deal with a negative experience that they’re having in your restaurant.

According to the RightNow 2011 Customer Experience Impact Report,

  • 26% of customers will post a comment on their Facebook or Twitter page after a negative experience.
  • 89% of customers will do business with one of your competitors after they have a negative experience with you.

However, the negative experience does not have to lead to a loss of business. Customers respond positively to businesses that address their concerns, and 22% of customers will post a positive comment in these instances.

That means that if you want to retain your customers, you must deal with their problems immediately. Follow the method below to deal with any customer complaints or problems:

  • Listen to the customer. What is the problem? What do they want you to do to fix that problem? Don’t assume you know the answer.
  • Fix the problem. There will be some circumstances where you can’t give the customer exactly what he or she wants, but most of the time, fixes are fairly easy. It also never hurts to go above and beyond the necessary; after all, you want that customer to tell his or her friends how great the experience was at your restaurant, not that you did the bare minimum to resolve a problem.
  • Be gracious. Apologize for the problem, and thank the customer for his or her business. Check back with the customer to verify that the problem has been resolved.

While all of this might sound like common sense, you are subject to the same reactions to criticism as everyone else. Having a plan in place for the almost inevitable complaints will minimize the potential loss of customers that can occur in these situations and will allow you to keep your own feelings out of the picture. After all, you want your customers to walk out of your restaurant and tell their friends about the great experience they had, not about how the entire experience was a disaster.

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