Complaints are magical little moments that allow you, as a waiter, to look deep into the soul of the guest and see what makes them tick. You see beyond the well-dressed (or otherwise) exterior and deep down into their insecurities and paranoid psychosis. Or something, not that I want to over-think things. Sometimes a steak is just an overcooked piece of meat and not the start of a mental breakdown.
But quite often when a customer complains it's less about you or your restaurant's inability to sling three appetizing courses over two hours down onto a table, and more about the punter and their state of mind. Honestly some days I know they're only one overcooked tuna away from a William "D?Fens" Foster moment.
Take this bed wetter extraordinaire who asked me to change his steak as there was a grilled tomato on his plate.
"Yeah I don't eat tomato, don't like them. Never have done, they taste yuck."
He actually said yuck. This fully-grown, professional looking, man of about 40, maybe 45 years old, said tomatoes are, "YUCK." I was tempted to ask if they made him sicky in his tum-tum. But I didn't.
So you want a new steak?
"Eh yeah ... it's just the tomato..."
Mmmmmkay....eh. I'll see what the chef says. He'll probably just take the tomato off though.
He looked really upset, I mean it must have been a great relief to him that he had his wife with there to help him through this difficult time. She held his hand across the table as I spoke to him the way someone would as if they knew their friend was about to get bad news.
This incident saddened me somewhat. Men - they used to be more, you know, manly.
I have another regular guest who comes in every single week in life with his large and raucous family. Every week he complains. Every week it's something different, and every week we deal with it. The man, in his late fifties, doesn't get to speak at home, probably hasn't been listened to in years.
So he comes to my restaurant every week and complains about something because he knows I have to deal with it, I have to listen to him and I have to make it right. He rarely has grounds to complain but what are ya gonna do? We are his last refuge, his last ear, in a world that stopped listening to him years ago.
Complaining isn't easy. Some people don't want the confrontation and some just get it all wrong. But it needn't be a them-versus-us moment nor does it need to ruin your night. A well-dealt-with complaint is a beautiful thing but it all starts with you explaining yourself properly. Actually, it all starts with us making a mess of things but you know what I mean.
Here are the top five things to do when you're going to complain.
1. Calm down
First thing to do is breathe. Seriously, calm down. It's a tomato on your plate not the contents of a 1-year-old child's nappy. Flying off the handle will do nothing for your cause, no matter how justifiable it may be. This is why terrorism doesn't work. You're not a terrorist are you? Your waiter is your greatest ally in this situation unless they are the one you are complaining about obviously. Alienating the waiter will make everything so much harder. You need them on your side.
2. Act fast
If you have an issue with your food, then bring it to the attention of your waiter as soon as you possibly can. The countless times I have checked back on tables a few minutes after they have started to be told everything is tickety-boo only for them to complain at the end over empty plates would make your head actually spin. I CAN'T DO ANYTHING WHEN YOUR PLATE IS EMPTY!
3. Be clear
Clearly state the nature of your upset - the upset with your food that is, I care not for your religious, personal and/or political gripes. Just shrugging your shoulders and saying, "Didn't like ... not nice" like a huffy teenager will seriously get you nowhere. If I'm going to the kitchen with your plate of food to face thy mortal nemesis in ill-fitting whites, I'm doing it armed with the facts not with shrugged shoulders and the word "meh." You gotta help me to help you.
4. Trust me
Trust the waiter to do his job. If he says he's gonna fix it for you, then let him do so. A good waiter will rectify the food issue and make changes on your bill accordingly. Telling him you want this free and that free and wine for everyone is just gonna get his back up. Like I said, you want the waiter on your side; he's the one that is going to go to the chef and the manager and make everything lovely again.