5 Steps to Dealing with an Aggressive Restaurant Customer

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The key is always to help protect staff and diners.

Dealing with difficult or unhappy customers has always been a big part of working in the restaurant industry. Recently, however, things have gotten even worse. Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, aggressive customers have displayed increased levels of bad behavior. Here are five steps to help you defuse a combat situation before it becomes dangerous.

1: Prepare

The first step is to prepare all staff at your facility for issues that may arise. Aggressive restaurant and hotel customers have become an important security topic. Even ServSafe, an international program that offers training and certification exams on food and alcohol, recognized this as a serious problem. It released COVID-19 training modules on conflict de-escalation in September 2020 for hospitality professionals.

Create an action plan to deal with problems that could escalate into dangerous situations. This includes leeway for each team member to offer things, such as free desserts or discounts, to appease disgruntled diners. Also discuss when to involve a manager, as some aggressive clients think they can get away with more if the worker is not in a position of authority to do anything.

Hold frequent team meetings to implement and refine these plans to ensure security measures are working. Keep communication open to address any additional concerns that may arise. Ask employees how they want things handled to feel safe in their work environment.

2: Be proactive

Always choose to err on the side of most bosses with a valid complaint. Pay attention to all your tables to ward off grievances. In the event of a staff shortage, it is especially important to adopt a teamwork mentality. Let diners know that they can flag any employee for help. Agree with co-workers to monitor the entire dining room, not just their personal sections.

Acknowledge and correct any problems immediately with a positive attitude. Show genuine concern for your customers’ experience to turn things around. Many diners are frustrated with the long wait times and lack of staff to attend to their needs as they are used to, especially repeat customers. Explain to them that you are just as unhappy as they are not being able to welcome them as you would like. Acknowledgment and appreciation of their understanding and patience can still go a long way.

If possible, allow staff to take a break after dealing with a difficult table to compose themselves. Remind them that bad diners shouldn’t affect how they treat the next table. Customers spending their bad days on unhappy workers can trigger a snowball effect if they aren’t handled properly.

3: Stay calm

It’s a sad truth that there are people you’ll never please no matter what you try to do. Some aggressive clients refuse to see anything other than their own problems. Unfortunately, restaurants struggling with staff and food shortages are frequently faced with this type of entitlement. They see rude behavior from diners, such as refusing to pay for meals already consumed or even throwing away their orders once they are finally ready.

This is where staying calm in the situation becomes very important. Ensuring all staff are on the same page when it comes to discount policies helps prevent customers from using the “They did this for me last time” excuse or other misleading tactics to get what they want. Discuss strict protocol if things escalate and get combative. The safety of employees and other diners is not worth the risk of recouping some losses.

Make sure staff know not to interact with aggressive customers if they feel unsafe. Tell them to stay calm and ask for help, and never try to physically stop a customer from leaving. Instead, have them observe the features of the person and try to get a license plate from a safe distance. This will help if a police report needs to be filed and theft charges are brought against the walkouts to get them to pay what is owed.

4: Set limits

One of the most positive things to come from the 2020 pandemic is the “customer isn’t always right” mindset, at odds with a traditional cliché in the service industry. Workers and owners realize they don’t have to suffer public abuse to make a profit. In fact, many of the typically aggressive patrons quickly learn how little energy they hold when on private property. They are forced to learn that they must behave well in order to be able to eat in a restaurant. These customers have long believed that they have the right to do as they wish, simply because they are paying for a service.

Install cameras that record video and audio and hang signs clearly indicating that everyone is being recorded. Also, place signs on the front door, host booth, and even on menus stating that if a customer yells, threatens, or verbally abuses employees, they will have to leave the premises. Owners in the hospitality industry must establish rules and follow consequences with those who break those rules. This includes expulsion and banning unruly guests from returning until they can act like decent human beings.

Call the authorities if dangerous people refuse to leave. File trespassing charges against anyone who tries to come back and cause trouble after being told to stay away.

5: Protect staff

For years, many establishments have had “secret” buttons that employees can press in an emergency. These call the managers or security on site, or even connect directly to the local law enforcement agency. These buttons are usually placed under or near cash registers. They help prevent thefts, walkouts and other thefts. The problem with these traditional security measures is that the danger does not always occur near cash registers. Aggressive customers could turn violent before a staff member can reach the buttons to call for help.

Alternative options, such as wireless panic buttons, do not require a direct connection to a telephone line or an alarm system. You can mount them anywhere in the building. Bluetooth and backup connectivity provides a reliable connection. This is true even in areas where Wi-Fi and cell phone service are generally weaker. This creates a safer environment as help is always available anywhere inside the premises. It also lets customers know that they won’t get away with being combative, even in the less populated areas of the restaurant.

These five steps for dealing with aggressive customers in the restaurant and hospitality industry will help protect staff and diners. Use them to stop a potentially violent situation before it can harm anyone. Hopefully, over time, maintaining strict rules about unruly customers receiving disciplinary action will allow workers to face fewer violent situations. Until then, everyone must shorten it as much as possible by implementing strict security procedures.

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