How should restaurants respond to negative comments on social media?

By Cynthia Hollidge
August 29, 2014
How should restaurants respond to negative comments on social media?

Not long ago I was checking out a trendy restaurant in Toronto as I often do to keep up with what’s happening on the restaurant scene. I took a seat at the bar to get a better feel of the establishment and chat a little with the bartender. I decided to ask a question I often get asked, “Does your restaurant respond to negative comments posted on your social media channels?” His answer was fast and direct: NEVER.

An interesting conversation ensued. It was clear to me that he was very “social media savvy” and was high enough on the chain of command to have a reason for his answer. But he simply reiterated that everyone knows you don’t respond to negative comments on social media, and what followed was a general consensus of the other staff working behind the bar and a couple of patrons agreeing. I politely stated that I was not in agreement.

No simple answer

To be clear, I don’t think you should respond to every negative post or review on the Internet. We all know some comments are posted by unreliable sources; sometimes even by saboteurs bent on your destruction. However, to bury one’s head in the sand or believe that one’s establishment can do no wrong would be foolish.

We all know operators do their best to ensure every customer has a great experience, but to think that we don’t ever have issues from time to time is irresponsible. I think many operators have been in a similar situation on a busy Friday night: Your chef has been called away for a family emergency, and you’re forced to replace him or her with your sous chef or “next best person” in the kitchen. We all try to build an interchangeable kitchen staff, but sometimes we just have to do the best we can. The same situation can apply to your front-of-the-house staff. How many social media posts have you read complaining about serving staff or the host/hostess? Can they all be coming from disgruntled ex-employees or random antagonists with too much time on their hands? Probably not.
Think about it from this perspective: If you were in your restaurant and a customer complained about their order or their server, would you simply ignore them? Of course not! You would rectify the situation immediately. Your first response would be an apology followed by establishing what your customer was unhappy about, likely followed by some sort of compensation for their troubles.

Establish an assessment protocol

The first step in deciding whether or not to respond to a negative post is to perform an assessment. Whether it is on your own social media channel or an external website, you first need to assess the nature of the complaint. Is it just a rant, on a site dedicated to negative reviews, is it misinformed, or is it an unhappy customer? Some posts just need to be monitored, and some, like misinformed or unhappy customers, need to be addressed. If someone has taken the time to address you directly they should not be ignored.

Take the time to correct misinformation and restore the faith of unhappy clients. Remember that social media is about engaging your customers in conversation. If a customer has posted a complaint on your Facebook or Twitter account, be as genuine in your response as if they were standing in front of you at your restaurant. Think twice and write once. Invite that customer to contact you directly and take the conversation out of the public view to get further details.

Choose responses wisely

That said, not every posting needs to be addressed. Recently I read a blog posting about a popular restaurant in Toronto. The author’s comments were mostly negative and the string of comments that ensued was equally negative with the odd response in defense of the restaurant. The string of negative comments seemed to morph, from a comment about the food and service to a long conversation about the pretentiousness of the staff and clientele. If you truly value this type of blogger’s comments, address their concerns with your staff at your next meeting and respond to the blogger. Thank them for their comments; sincerely apologize for their unfavourable experience, and let them know that you have taken it seriously and reviewed their feedback with your staff. Then, invite the blogger to come back into the restaurant for another try.

On the other hand, if the blogger is writing about the way you make your risotto because it’s not their thing or they don’t like your lighting… well, comments of opinion really do not require a response from you. You can’t be all things to all people.

Join the conversation

As I said and I’m sure you’ve heard, social media is about engaging your customers in conversation. The more the owners of a business participate, the more it is seen as authentic and useful by others participating. As online communities grow in size and mature, members are more likely to step in and manage the conversation themselves. But when it comes to responding to negative comments, remember that we are in the service industry; our jobs are to take care of our clients.

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About the author

Cynthia Hollidge is president of Toronto-based foodservice marketing firm CCS Creative. A recognized expert in the food presentation, marketing and distribution industry in North America, she has had over 25 years experience serving in managerial and executive positions in the food industry. With a unique ability to visualize the overall picture, her insight is a much sought-after asset valued by her clients.

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