Fire a Customer? Seems Crazy but Sometimes it's the Best Option.

11/17/15 7:00 AM Richelle Starke

It’s an uncomfortable topic, and certainly something most restaurant owners don’t enjoy talking about.

The idea of “firing” a customer seems almost counter-intuitive to profitability. Paying guests are the lifeblood of your business, after all, and the restaurant and foodservice industry is built around customer service.

The customer is always right, right?

Yet sometimes it’s in the best interest of your business and your staff to ask a guest not to return.

When should you make that judgment call? And, once you’ve decided it’s the right move, how do you approach that difficult conversation?

When to part ways

As even the most junior server knows, some guests will do or say things that just drive you nuts.

Maybe it’s too many seemingly over-the-top requests or a list of what you believe to be unwarranted complaints. But neither of these is reason enough to ask someone to leave.

While we probably can’t agree on a one-size-fits-all rule, it’s safe to say that, if you’re asking someone not to return to your establishment, they must be doing more harm than good.

Or as one customer service blogger put it, “the tangible and intangible costs of serving the customer outweigh the cash and any goodwill received from the customer.”

More specifically, they might fall into one of these categories:

1. Abusive Behavior

If the guest is making obscene comments or inappropriate advances to your staff or other guests, shut the behavior down quickly.

Violence, evidence of substance or alcohol abuse, or anything else that threatens the safety of others should be an instant deal-breaker.

As Mark Rousseau, GM for Via Cibo North York, says, “No one has the right to be abusive to your staff in any way shape or form. If they're at the point where they feel they have to be abusive, we don't need their business at all.”

2. Impossible to please

It’s a fine line between difficult to please and truly impossible to please.

In most cases, giving your customer the benefit of the doubt is the best policy – the majority of guests are reasonable, rational people who want to have a great dining experience; they’re not out to cause you headaches.

But every now and then you reach a legitimate impasse. If a returning customer is repeatedly unhappy with the way the food is prepared, it might simply mean that, as Rousseau puts it, “they don’t align with your philosophy.”

If you feel you’ve done everything in your power (within reason of course) to make the situation right, and there is no feasible way to satisfy their needs, maybe it’s time for the talk.

Ameego co-founder, Jason Wagenaar, recalls an example from his serving days. A table of regulars had come to the restaurant for dinner, and yet again there was an issue with their order. "Their food was cooked to spec - virtually nothing wrong with it - but as usual, they weren’t satisfied," says Wagenaar. "On this occasion they'd eaten more than half their meals before complaining the food tasted burnt and asking for a discount. As this had been one of several similar incidents, management had had enough. Our manager went to the table and politely said, ‘although we appreciate you coming in, we will no longer be able to provide you with service. We cannot meet your level of satisfaction. So thanks for your patronage, but we ask that you not return.'"

3. Taking advantage

This category is arguably the most subjective. Ultimately, it’s up to you and/or your management team to determine when a customer is no longer “profitable,” for lack of a better word.

Someone who tries to fight you on a dine-in only policy on half-price wings night or other house rules, for example, might fall into this bucket.

If it’s a regular customer or you have a way of tracking order history, it’s helpful to watch for patterns – such as multiple credits on their account when ordering take-out or other consistent disputes that might suggest they’re intentionally working the system.

How to have the conversation

Next comes the (even more) difficult part: how do you actually deal with the situation?

There are a ton of business books and articles with advice on how to approach heated or emotionally-charged conversations.

If you’re looking to coach or mentor your staff in this area, consider resources like Crucial Conversations or Difficult Conversations or Fierce Conversations (There’s definitely a trend in these titles).

In general, here are a few things to consider:

  • Double Check.  As Stephen Covey famously said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Though you or your staff have hopefully already been in discussion with the customer, it never hurts to attempt diplomacy one last time before resorting to “firing” him or her. Seek to understand the root of the guest’s concern; you may even try asking “What could we do to fix this situation for you?” This step also serves as a final check for you to weigh the benefit versus cost of losing this customer.
  • Be the grown up. The worst thing you can do when tempers flare is to mirror the aggressive or inappropriate behavior. Regardless of how the guest responds, your role is to diffuse the situation quickly and professionally. Without getting defensive or being condescending, kindly but firmly state your case and make your request for them to leave. While the golden rule might sound cliché, it really can be helpful to treat the person the way you’d want to be treated – regardless of whether you think they deserve it.
  • Remember the rest. If the situation warrants it, find a way to move the conversation away from other patrons so as not to disrupt or negatively impact their experiences. This precaution might seem like a no-brainer, but in the heat of the moment it’s sometimes easy to overlook. While the upset customer might want to draw maximum attention to their concerns, you (or your staff) should not lose focus on the bigger picture: the rest of your guests.
  • Find common ground. The Crucial Conversations authors refer to this as “the pool of shared meaning” – but at its most basic, the principle is this: find something – anything – you can both agree on. In the case of the impossible to please customer, for example, this could simply be reinforcing your desire for them to enjoy their dining experience… then acknowledging the best way for that to happen might be at another restaurant. This way, you’re showing genuine concern for your customer without compromising your food or brand standards.
  • Train your team. While you’ll often be dealing with situations on a case-by-case basis, there are ways to help prepare your team for how to handle a difficult customer. If you’re part of a larger franchise or you have existing policies in place, be sure to communicate them regularly and consistently to your staff. Consider tools like a manager log book, where managers can record any customer issues of note from their shift to help identify patterns of troubling behavior. Especially if your staff or managers are early in their careers, you may want to take a few minutes in a staff meeting to role play some common scenarios – so that your team feels empowered to tackle tense situations and knows when to escalate to their leader.

With all that in mind, here are a few examples to get you started:

For the ‘Abusive Behavior’ customer, try:

"Your server let me know that you made some comments that were inappropriate and made her feel very uncomfortable. I'm going to have to ask you to leave. Let me walk you out."

Or: “Your behavior has been disruptive to the staff and other guests, so I’m going to have to ask that you leave.”

For an ‘Impossible to Please’ guest, try:

"We want you to enjoy your meal, and we've tried a few times now to make it right. It seems like the way we prepare things isn't a match for your preferences, so next time we ask that you try a different establishment."

Or: “We really want to make this right for you, but it seems like our approach isn’t a fit for you. We’d like you to consider another establishment in future.”

For someone who falls in the ‘Taking Advantage’ category, try:

"Thanks for sharing your concerns. I've noticed that this isn't the first time we've run into a challenge like this, and in past we've provided a discount or credited your account. So, unfortunately, we're going to have to say 'no' this time and suggest you not order from us again in future."

Or: “While we’re not able to _______, what I can do is ___________. If that‘s still not meeting your needs, then we’re probably not the right choice for you.”

What do you think? In your experience, are there different reasons you’d “fire” a customer? What’s your advice for how to ask a guest to leave?

A special thanks to Ameego clients Parry Roy (Brewsters Brewing Company), Mark Rousseau, (Via Cibo North Yorkand Cory Medd (Two Guys and a Pizza Place) for their input on this topic.

Topics: Leadership, Restaurant Culture