How to deal with grumpy guests

04 January 2022 by

We all know how Covid has affected people, but hospitality staff have found they are bearing the brunt of that frustration when dealing with disgruntled guests. Rosalind Mullen talks to operators about their experiences and looks at ways to diffuse customer rage

When hospitality workers started wearing T-shirts with the logo #BeKind, it wasn't hard to understand why. Along with stories about furlough, staff shortages and long hours, the disturbing reports buzzing around the industry and in the media about rude guest behaviour have only increased since reopening after Covid.

Outbursts of swearing and vitriol from customers who feel they are not being served quickly enough or can't get a table are being reported widely. Staff are also dealing with stressful situations, such as collecting credit payments after no-shows or managing angry guests who refuse to follow Covid rules.

Among the shocking stories in the press, we've heard of a front of house manager being called a "plate donkey", a waiter being grabbed by the scruff of the neck "because the toilets were too far away" and staff being identified through personal comments in negative reviews on social media.

Last month, Kris Hall, founder of mental health charity Burnt Chef, witnessed a rude, drunken customer disputing a bill with waiting staff at a budget hotel chain. The guest became aggressive, so Hall stepped in to cool the situation and the management team had to be called. Proof that the guest hadn't paid was presented and they eventually settled the bill, but there was no apology.

There have always been difficult customers, but the situation has been escalating over the past year. David Moore, owner of Pied à Terre, one of London's longest-standing Michelin-starred restaurants, says that in 30 years he has never met so many rude customers as he has since lockdown ended in May.

"Rudeness is fine – I can take it and give it back – but when customers are rude to my team, it's a zero-tolerance policy," he says. "I won't have it in my restaurant. Hopefully, the filters will re-set shortly and polite society will return."

That chimes with James Stockdale, owner and head chef of Hull restaurant Humber Fish Co, who told The Mirror earlier this month that the "nastiness" of customers is the worst he's experienced in 30 years. He said the restaurant has had customers calling staff "liars" when walk-ins are told there are no tables available, and that staff members have been "reduced to tears".

Staff, particularly those new to the industry, are often left traumatised. Comments from staff sent to the Burnt Chef Project in November include: "Customer attitudes have got a lot worse"; "Some of the comments have been nothing short of cruel"; and "It's my name above the door so it affects my mental health heavily, and I take negative comments as a direct reflection of myself" (see panel on mental health).

Covid crisis

Mary Jane (MJ) Flanagan, founder of people culture and employee engagement company Mjinspire, says: "I have heard anecdotally about the increase in customer abuse, particularly when guests are asked to vacate their table after 1.5 hours and when they are asked for a credit card at the booking stage. In addition, when operators had to reduce numbers to tables of six, customers would book two tables of four and then join their tables."

While there's no excuse for rudeness, the global pandemic has clearly affected people's sense of patience. Customers have felt a loss of control over their lives thanks to lockdown, restricted numbers and rules on where they can socialise. In addition, many businesses have increased prices due to rising costs. "Customers are feeling battered," says Flanagan, "and whereas before they would have accepted mediocre service, they won't now because they are at the end of their tether. They are more likely to be angry rather than frustrated and are less willing to put up with inconvenience."

In Flanagan's view, the situation is unlikely to improve soon, but it can be managed. "There's a perfect storm. This is down to a combination of reduced staffing numbers and lack of time to train; an increased pressure on food and drink supplies with daily shortages; and an increase in costs and therefore prices."

People and culture consultant Sean Wheeler echoes the same phrase: "Brexit and Covid have created a perfect storm, with people leaving the UK and not returning. This means that those left have to work longer hours. Hotels are forced to close off floors and restaurants are closing sections and therefore capping sales. Also, the shortage of products is stressful for the front-line teams to explain and means things don't get off to a good start. I don't know why some of the big players don't reprint menus with what they do have rather than tell customers what they don't have when they sit down," says Wheeler.

He believes another way employers can support their staff is through training – even if it's just 10 minutes a day. "You can debrief after each shift. Give your team the skills to be proactive and be able to read the needs of guest in advance," he says.

"There is no need for threatening behaviour, and it should not be tolerated. Leaders need to show leadership, support their people and equip them with the skills and techniques to deal with difficult situations. Staff also need the freedom within a framework to enable them to resolve situations themselves. This will mean they can fix issues more quickly and reduce stress. Let them know they will be supported if needed, and if things go wrong, everyone needs to learn from it rather than blame and undermine the staff member in front of the guest or their colleagues. Respect should always be maintained."

Flanagan agrees, adding that you can train staff to understand what triggers bad-tempered customers and give them techniques for spotting a tricky situation and diffusing it before it happens. She says that ironically many flashpoints have been caused by the new processes and systems operators have brought in to accommodate staff and supply shortages.

"Due to people shortages, the systems and processes have had to change, but the whole customer journey has not been taken into account, resulting in an increased negative impact for customers," she says. Think ahead

Flanagan suggests that operators could head off customer frustration before it happens by thinking through any changes to the customer journey. As an example, she cites her own experience earlier this year at the Institute of Directors, where due to Covid and staff shortages it closed the reception and coffee shop serving the fifth floor training academy, but didn't convey that information to customers.

Flanagan takes up the story: "I found a sign saying all training attendees should go to the fifth floor. Once there, I found the training room, but the floor was deserted… [I rang reception, who] apologised and said they had reduced staff numbers due to Covid and that coffee was being served in the lounge on the ground floor, which was next to the sign asking people to go upstairs. I explained that I did not have a problem with them being short-staffed, but that they should have reworded the sign to ask people to go to the fifth floor after they had enjoyed coffee in the lounge. This is an example of the customer journey not being thought through at each stage."

Good communication, therefore, may prevent the customer from feeling frustrated and likely to complain. Equally, some problems can be fixed by proactive managers. To illustrate, she recounts how she ordered a gin and tonic in a pub, but the barman only mentioned he had no ice after he had served it. "I paid for the drink, but [flagged up to] the manager that the next customer might be less polite and potentially abusive. I then went to the supermarket next door and bought a bag of ice. Managers should take responsibility and do that themselves. Where is the sense of ownership and pride?"

Delivering on your promises is important, too, so if this is no longer possible, let the customer know. "It is crucial to manage expectations," says Flanagan. "The customer's perception is your reality. When photos and descriptions do not match what they see they are going to become increasingly disappointed and more likely to complain."

She adds that the increase in "perfect life stories" on Instagram, is giving a false sense of the service others are delivering, leading customers to compare themselves to that and not being able to understand why it is not the same.

Desk rage

What is particularly upsetting for staff are instances where customers have savaged individuals online using personal descriptions. "Keyboard warriors" are hard to control, but there are protocols that you can follow to ameliorate online abuse (see panel).

So although there are techniques that employers can use to support staff and mitigate situations where customers might behave badly, Wheeler warns that the problem is likely to continue while the industry struggles to get back on its feet.

"Initially, guests were so excited to come back out and were generally charming. They gave businesses and their employees time to get back up to speed, but it has been a while now and for some their patience is running thin. Until the staffing issue is resolved, this will remain a big issue," he says.

Flanagan agrees: "We are hearing of more examples of abusive behaviours by customers across all sectors of [hospitality], I believe this is indicative of the general disregard for the industry. Until the public and government begin to value it and those working within it, the behaviour towards teams will continue to deteriorate."

Managing online abuse

  • Always respond and use your name rather than just your title to make it more personal.
  • The longer the reply the more likely you are to knock the negative responses off the front page.
  • Do not get into an argument with a customer on social media. Ask them to direct message you so you can understand in more detail the issue they have experienced.
  • Do not promise to resolve the problem
  • if you are not able to, as you will receive
  • a backlash.

Look after your own and your employee's mental health

Top tips from the Burnt Chef Project

  • Wake up on time and practice deep breathing.
  • Engage in a thought diary before and after each shift.
  • Let other people know how you are feeling.
  • Identify and list your strengths on paper.
  • Try meditation or be still for 10 minutes.
  • Catch up with friends and family on days off.

General ideas for managers

  • Reduce stress for your team if you are short-staffed by cutting down to a four-day week, or only opening for dinner.
  • Train your staff to understand what might trigger frustration among customers.
  • Ensure there is a manager on the floor observing and engaging with customers to diffuse potential flash points and to show staff they are supported.
  • Train managers to support staff during and after service.
  • De-brief after each service and learn from any difficult situations.

Useful organisations

The Burnt Chef Project

Hospitality Health

Mental Health at Work

Hospitality Action

Now Pause

Anxiety UK


MJ Flanagan on how to deal with rude customers

  • Deliver on your promises, manage expectations and if there is a change let the customer know.
  • Check back to ensure the customer is happy.
  • Adopt the phrase: "How can I help?"
  • Empower and train the team to manage complaints at the source.
  • Ensure shift reports and handovers are completed every shift, so there is a record of all potential problems. This provides ammunition to follow up complaints.
  • Ensure all managers are visible and walk around the room, so they can mitigate potential abuse in real-time during the shift.

Customers rarely go from zero to angry. They will have gone through a few stages first, so watch out for these signs:

  • Displeasure and a sense that "this is not what I expected." They may not tell you,
  • so watch them as a plate arrives. Check to
  • see if they nod at each other because this usually means they are indicating "yes, this
  • is what we wanted".
  • Make sure you do the check-back. Do not ask: "Is everything OK?" Instead, say: "How is your food?" or "Are you enjoying the X,Y,Z?"
  • Managers should pause regularly during a shift and assess the tables. Step back and think about what needs to be done, who has been waiting. Then organise and proceed.
  • Watch for untouched food, the body language of customers and so on.
  • If a customer starts to walk towards reception, come out to meet them.

As a last resort, if you do have to remove abusive customers from your premises, this should be done firmly and politely by the manager – not by security and definitely not by a member of the team.

  • Develop key phrases, such as: "I understand you are frustrated because of X, Y, Z. However, I cannot accept this language/behaviour towards my team. Here is your bill".
  • Have the bill prepared, but be aware they may not pay it and asking them to will make them even angrier.
  • Be calm and do not raise your voice as this can reduce the volume of those you are dealing with.
  • Never use the phrase "calm down" as it can make the situation worse.
  • If the customer is male, the situation can sometimes be diffused by a female manager as it reduces the chance of an alpha male stand-off.
  • Never touch the customer.
  • Be assertive not aggressive.

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