AIFS Guide to

Handling Customer Food Complaints

Learn how to handle food complaints with empathy and expertise — and turn unhappy customers into loyal customers.
AIFS Guide to Handling Customer Food Complaints

This guide was designed to help food businesses respond to food complaints with confidence and empathy.

Customer food complaints offer an opportunity to turn an unhappy customer into a loyal customer and gain valuable insights that will help you to improve food safety and service in your establishment.

In This Resource


Introduction

Handling Customer Food Complaints

The Australian Institute of Food Safety (AIFS) is committed to helping food businesses protect their business and their customers.

This guide is intended to help businesses confidently respond to food complaints by being professional and empathetic.

Some examples of why customers may make a food complaint are:

  • a customer is served a meal that is improperly cooked or prepared
  • a customer receives food that has been contaminated by a physical object or chemicals
  • a customer witnesses what they believe to be unsafe food handling practices by an employee
  • a customer complains that your food business gave them food poisoning

Of all the complaints your business will receive, food poisoning complaints must be handled with the utmost care. According to the Department of Health in Australia, there are roughly 4.1 million domestically acquired cases of food-borne gastroenteritis in Australia every year.

On average, this results in:

  • 6.5 million days of lost work
  • $1.25 billion annual cost to the Australian economy
  • 1 million doctors appointments
  • 31,920 hospitalisations
  • 86 deaths

This guide will walk you through:

  • why it’s important to embrace customer complaints
  • where customers will complain (online, phone, email, in person)
  • what frontline employees and managers should say and do when handling a complaint
  • how to protect your business, staff and customers when faced with a food poisoning claim

The Customer Complaint: A Blessing Not a Curse

Handling Customer Food Complaints

In the food industry, it’s almost impossible to win back a customer after they have experienced poor customer service. Customers may stay silent about their bad experience — but only until they walk out the door.

Knowing how to handle customer food complaints properly will allow you to take a proactive approach to customer service.

This will help you to avoid losing business from unhappy customers who won’t hesitate to speak up to friends, colleagues and their online communities.

Customer feedback is a gift and you should actively seek it out. By creating opportunities for customers to communicate with you, you will:

  • gain valuable insights about your customers
  • identify aspects of your business that your customers like and what you can improve
  • demonstrate receptiveness and transparency, helping to build loyalty and trust

Businesses with solid reputations for providing excellent customer service:

  • understand where and how customers complain
  • respond to food complaints with empathy
  • protect their business and their customers’ health and welfare 

Where & How Customers Complain About Your Business

Handling Customer Food Complaints

Customers have high expectations. If a customer is unhappy about something, they may complain in person, or they may:

  • contact you by phone or email
  • review your business online or on social media
  • contact their local health department

Knowing what options customers have when complaining about your business makes it easier for you to respond to complaints. Properly responding to complaints can help you to avoid losing future business and keeps current customers loyal.

CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS RECEIVED BY EMAIL OR PHONE

Always make sure your customers have a way of getting in touch with you.

Prominently display your business’s contact information on a Contact Us page. The Contact Us page should be part of the main navigation of your website. You should also include your business’s contact information in the footer of your website.

On your Contact Us page, we recommend encouraging your customers to contact you by email as opposed to the phone. For example:

To place an order for pick-up or to make a reservation, please call us at (02) 2222 2222.

We love to hear from our customers! For any concerns or comments, please email us at [email protected]

When customers telephone your business, there is a risk that:

  • the call will not be answered
  • the message will be recorded but not passed along
  • the customer will have to wait on hold

Your business can minimise these risks by communicating with staff about the importance of addressing customer complaints and having a customer complaint form near the telephone. The complaint form ensures employees collect all the necessary information while on the phone with the customer.

Some tech-savvy businesses even have complaint forms accessible on tablets. Employees are trained to complete the form, attach it to an email, mark the email as high importance and then send it to a manager or supervisor. 

CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA

To date, the most popular online review site is Google. In addition to Google, three other popular options for sharing reviews are Facebook, Yelp and Zomato.

It’s important your business officially claims its business listing on each of these sites. By claiming your business listing, you can receive alerts when reviews are posted, respond to reviews and request fraudulent reviews be removed.

Follow the below links to claim your business listing:

Yelp and Zomato have received accusations from small business owners that their customer reviews are biased. Some businesses accuse these two websites of hiding positive reviews or listing negative reviews more prominently. It’s common for both to contact businesses offering to release positive reviews for a fee.

Having to monitor the online reputation of your business may seem overwhelming. Some businesses appoint an employee with daily downtime to address poor reviews. As an example, a restaurant may have alerts directed to a hostess. The hostess checks and responds to reviews at the beginning and end of their shift.

CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS TO GOVERNMENT AGENCIES

Customers may go directly to the public health department with improper food handling or food poisoning accusations. It’s common for health departments to send an Inspector to your business after receiving accusations from a customer. Always welcome the Inspector into your business. Inspectors are your allies, not your enemies. 


Training Staff to Respond to Customer Food Complaints

Handling Customer Food Complaints

As a rule, it’s best to train your staff when to notify a supervisor or manager of a complaint. Staff who are not trained to handle complaints can end up making the situation worse, even when trying to help.

The below two situations provide examples of employees who should have informed their manager or supervisor of a complaint.

  1. Michelle, a clerk in a discount store, is approached by a customer complaining that the chips she purchased from the store yesterday are past their expiry date. In an attempt to rectify the situation, Michelle brings the customer a new bag of chips and takes the expired bag away, with no further dialogue. Michelle thinks she’s resolved the situation, but the customer leaves with the impression that selling expired food isn’t a concern for the business and never returns.
  2. Barry, a barista in a coffee shop, responds to a Google review claiming that a latte he served caused food poisoning. He responds to the review with an apology to the customer and an offer for a free latte. The customer files a lawsuit against the coffee chain; part of the customer’s evidence of wrongdoing is Barry’s response.

Before training your staff and setting clear expectations of how customer complaints are handled, ask your staff to tell you about a time when they had a poor customer service experience. Ask employees:

  • what was said to them
  • how long it took for a resolution
  • how they felt about the business after the incident
  • if they ever returned to the business
  • if they shared their experience with others

Having employees share stories of their poor service experiences helps them remember what it feels like to be a customer with a complaint.

When customers approach your staff with a complaint, they have expectations that the employee will be:

  • calm
  • attentive
  • resourceful
  • accountable

Tip: Using the abbreviation CARA may be a useful tool when training or providing feedback to staff.

CALM

It is important for employees to remember not to take the complaint personally and to avoid the urge to get defensive. Let the customer be right — even when they’re wrong. Cutting a customer off mid-sentence or using a dismissive tone will only exacerbate the situation.

If you know an employee is short-tempered, instruct them to immediately remove themselves when faced with a challenging customer complaint. Although it’s never recommended to pass the customer to someone else, it’s better to remove an employee from a situation than have an unpleasant scene for other customers to watch.

ATTENTIVE

It is important to listen before attempting to explain, challenging the complaint or offering a resolution. Train employees to stay calm and focus their undivided attention on the unhappy customer to make sure that they feel heard. If the situation is complex, the employee can take down some notes so the customer knows they are being taken seriously.

Instruct employees not to engage in helping another customer, take phone calls or perform other work tasks while addressing complaints. Also, coach employees to make eye contact, leave their arms uncrossed and use neutral facial expressions.

Once finished listening to the customer, the employee needs to inform the customer what immediate action they are taking (example: going to the kitchen to speak with the chef or calling the manager who is in her office). Customers may feel abandoned if an employee isn’t direct with them about where they’re going and what they’re doing.

RESOURCEFUL

Customers don’t expect your employees to have all the answers, but expect your employees to have most of the answers or know where to go for the answers.

It’s common for employees to ‘fill in the blanks’ when they don’t have the answer. But providing the wrong information to customers can be more damaging than not providing any information at all. Instruct employees to keep to the facts. If they aren’t sure how to answer a question, it’s always best to find someone in the business who can.

ACCOUNTABLE

The customer wants to know who is going to solve their problem. A frontline employee may not be able to rectify a situation but they can take ownership of the complaint. Taking ownership may avoid the dangers of over-promising and under-delivering.

The employee can own the customer’s complaint by following up with the manager or supervisor. Even the most effective leaders need a nudge now and then to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

In addition to CARA, make sure employees handle customer food complaints with consistency. Every customer is different. The important thing to remember is to give each customer the same level of service. Remind staff that whether the customer is yelling or speaking calmly, to stay positive and be as helpful as possible.

THANKING THE CUSTOMER

Customers can provide valuable insight into a problem and how they think it should be fixed. Instruct employees to thank the customer for bringing the problem to your attention and giving you the opportunity to fix it. Thanking a customer can put you on a quicker path to resolving the complaint. 


Resolving Customer Food Complaints

Handling Customer Food Complaints

Treat each complaint as though it’s the first time you’ve heard it.

AVOID SYMPATHY AND ADOPT EMPATHY

Sympathy communicates you feel sorry for the customer; empathy communicates you’ve been in the customer’s shoes and understand where they’re coming from. Empathy tends to be more useful when handling a complaint.

As a manager or supervisor, practise empathy when responding to a customer’s food complaint by being prepared, ensuring you’ve satisfied the customer and making improvements to avoid the same issue happening to another customer.

Commit to following these best practices when dealing with customer complaints.

1. BE PREPARED

It is not uncommon for customers making a complaint to have to repeat themselves as they are passed from a frontline employee to management. There’s nothing worse than having to repeat yourself over and over again unnecessarily.

Avoid turning annoyed customers into angry customers by providing staff with customer complaint forms. All the employee needs to do is take down the details of the complaint and, if taking the complaint over the phone, the customer’s contact information so that the manager can call them back to discuss a resolution. This form will not only eliminate the need for the customer to repeat themselves, but will also allow you to review the details of the complaint with the employee.

It is also good practice to speak to other employees, if necessary, to gain a clearer understanding of what may have happened, and to review the order details in your Point of Sale (POS) system.

2. SATISFY

Consider how you would feel if you were in the customer’s shoes and strive to empathise with their situation. Drop the formalities and speak to the customer as if they were an acquaintance (a little familiarity can go a long way toward getting customers on your side). Be authentic and avoid responding to complaints using the same script, regardless of the nature of the complaint.

When it comes time to offer a resolution, ask the customer what they feel would be fair to resolve the situation (if they haven’t already told you). Knowing what the customer feels is fair can help you to meet their expectations.

As part of your response, let the customers know what you’re going to change. You don’t have to go into specific details. For example, share with the customer that you’ve:

  • updated your sanitation policy
  • changed a supplier
  • spoken directly to an employee

The customer wants to know that what they experienced won’t happen to them again or to anyone else. When they know you’re making changes to your business, it may be easier for them to trust you again.

3. IMPROVE

Take advantage of customer food complaints to make improvements to your food business. Record and organise meaningful or recurring complaints to identify problems and implement changes to your Food Safety Program. Look at how you can further train and educate your staff to avoid future food complaints.

Remember: if a customer has given you a second chance, it is unlikely they will give you a third — regardless of the compensation.

4. BE QUICK!

The longer you take to respond to a customer the more time they have to stew about it; as they get angrier, they are more likely to share their bad experience with more (and more) people.

Most businesses make it a policy to respond to customer complaints within 24 hours. But we live in a world where we get what we want when we want it. The quicker your response, the more likely you’ll be able to win back the customer. Aim to respond to customers within two hours (if not sooner).

5. WALK A FINE LINE BETWEEN THE CUSTOMER AND THE EMPLOYEE

Food complaints may be a result of employees with poor food handling skills.

When speaking to the employee after the complaint is resolved, position the situation as an opportunity for the employee to improve. Explain to them what you said to the customer and why. Not doing so will put you at risk of a dip in staff morale.


Tips for Handling Online Complaints

Handling Customer Food Complaints

Today, managing your online reputation is a crucial part of running a successful business. Between 80 and 95 percent of people will review your business’s online reviews to decide whether or not to walk through your doors.

Enough negative reviews can seriously hurt your bottom line, so it’s important to know how to navigate online complaints properly.

When responding to a negative online review, the most important aspect of your response is speed. Social media experts recommend responding to negative reviews within one hour of the review being posted. A scathing review that is left unanswered, or answered poorly, has the potential to go viral, doing severe damage to your business.

Your response needs to be human; sending an automated response can continue to anger the customer.

When submitting a response:

  • write like you would speak
  • use the customer’s name or handle
  • provide your contact information

Fixing the issue should never be done on the review platform. It’s important that you take the conversation from being public to being private.

Direct the customer to contact you by email or phone (direct line if possible). Having the conversation offline shows that you’re serious about resolving the customer’s complaint. It may also prevent further negative comments from other reviewers. 


Handling Food Poisoning Claims

Handling Customer Food Complaints

Although determining the source of a food-borne illness is difficult, and in most circumstances won’t be traced back to your business, it’s important that you handle complaints of food poisoning with extreme caution. Food-borne illness complaints can have a serious impact on your food business.

Even if your business isn’t shut down by the authorities, the damage to your reputation can be hard to overcome.

Some complaints that you receive may not be legitimate. Many people don’t realise that food-borne illnesses have an incubation period. They tend to blame the last meal they ate, especially if it contains ingredients they don’t normally consume.

However, even if you suspect that the customer didn’t get sick from eating food that your business prepared, always investigate the customer’s complaint.

If the food prepared by your business has caused someone to become sick, acting immediately can prevent the same thing happening to others.

WHAT TO DO WHEN FACED WITH A FOOD POISONING COMPLAINT

There are three steps to dealing with food-borne illness complaints:

1. Respond to the customer

2. Inform the health authorities

3. Investigate the complaint

STEP 1: RESPOND TO THE CUSTOMER

All employees in a food business should be trained to handle food-borne illness complaints. When receiving the complaint, employees should use a customer complaint form.

In addition to the customer’s contact information (name, address, phone and email), the form should collect the following information:

  • details about what was eaten including the date and time
  • if any other members of their party ate the same food
  • what symptoms they have or are currently experiencing
  • when the customer first started to experience symptoms
  • if the customer has visited a doctor and if so the doctor’s diagnosis
  • if the customer has contacted the health authorities

If the customer is still sick and has not already visited a health professional, advise them to do so. Never try to diagnose the type of food-borne illness or pass on medical advice to a person making a complaint.

STEP 2: INFORM THE HEALTH AUTHORITIES

After a complaint has been made, you should contact your local health authorities to inform them of the complaint. In some cities, it is mandatory that you contact the health authorities.

While you may be worried about the impact on your business, the health authorities need to collect information about food-borne illness outbreaks so that they can identify the source of the outbreak and prevent others from getting sick.

STEP 3: INVESTIGATE THE COMPLAINT

There are many causes of food-borne illness outbreaks. Some of the most common ones include:

  • sick employees
  • employees practising poor personal hygiene
  • contaminated food
  • improperly prepared food
  • incorrect time and temperature control of food
  • inadequate cleaning and sanitising

BE READY FOR THE WORST

Set up a crisis management team to handle worst-case scenarios. The crisis management team may include the owners of the business, managers, chefs, HR personnel and anyone else in a position of authority.

Together the crisis management team should brainstorm all possible serious incidents that could occur in the food business.

Examples of serious incidents could be a food-borne illness outbreak, an allergic reaction or a physical contaminant such as a piece of wire from a scrubbing brush being found in food.


Building a Complaints Policy & Culture of Service Excellence

unhappy restaurant customer complaining to a waiter

CREATING A CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS POLICY

In addition to having a system for you and your employees to follow when handling customer complaints, you may want to create a formal Food Handling Complaint Policy.

Create a policy that’s specific to your business. Consider different scenarios where your business might run into customer complaints. For example, if:

  • your business is short-staffed
  • the customer is angry even after they receive an apology
  • food isn’t delivered on time
  • an order goes missing

Your policy should be in writing and available for everyone in your business to read.

CREATING A CULTURE OF SERVICE EXCELLENCE

Whether starting small with some one-on-one training or completely changing what’s expected of your staff, look across your business to see how you can start making changes.

Consider doing the following:

  • posting service tips in break rooms
  • sending regular electronic communication leveraging intranets, email or apps
  • conducting short pre-shift meetings before employees start work
  • performing employee onboarding and performance reviews

Most importantly, look for opportunities where you can reward staff when successfully following your complaint handling guidelines or policy.


About the Australian Institute of Food Safety

As Australia’s largest provider of food safety education, the Australian Institute of Food Safety is dedicated to helping organisations protect their business and their customers from food-borne illness.

As a community focused organisation we deliver public health information to food businesses and consumers in order to improve food safety throughout Australia.

AIFS delivers nationally recognised training that meets all federal and state compliance requirements related to food safety. This includes Food Safety Supervisor and Food Handler compliance training.

The mission of the Australian Institute of Food Safety is to reduce food-borne illness within Australia by educating, advocating and promoting food safety. 

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