The Right Way To Complain

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - November 15, 2006
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I know if you can’t say anything nice you shouldn’t say anything at all, but when it comes to the restaurant industry, it’s better to be heard complaining than to leave and tell your friends you’re never going back.

I’m not that much of a complainer, really. I can get as snip-py as the next person when restaurant service is bad, but for the most part I’m always so grateful to be out and eating at a table that isn’t covered in macaroni and cheese that I tend to let a lot of the little things go. When you eat three meals a day with two little boys who think it’s hilarious to see how much yogurt they can throw at each other, or how much grape juice they can dribble onto the floor before Mommy notices, it’s always a pleasure to eat out.

But I know that restaurants need feedback - good and bad - because as customers, we’re the only measure they have of how they’re doing. In Hawaii, we’re famous for suffering in silence. We’d rather leave a restaurant feeling bad and then tell everyone we can about the poor service or bad food. I know this is true, because people have no hesitation in calling my radio show and letting thousands of listeners hear about their experience - but invariably they have never told the restaurant.

Perhaps we need some help with our complaining. I called Pam Chambers, the owner of Pam Chambers Consulting, to see if she had any advice for those of us who hate to make a fuss. She’s not only a mistress of protocol and politeness, she’s also an effective complainer. I asked her for some effective complaining techniques.

“The Oreo cookie approach is easily the most effective,” she says. “If I need to get what I want, I will begin by telling the server something positive then give them my complaint, and then end on another positive note,” she says. “People should be able to get what they want in a restaurant without feeling that they’re being intimidated.”

The main stumbling block in Hawaii seems to be that we don’t think it’s nice to complain. And that somehow we look bad if we do.

“We do need to know what’s wrong,” says Albert Tsuru, manager of the relatively complaint-free Side Street Inn. “But it helps when people know how to complain.”

Be pleasant, be direct and know exactly what you’re complaining about.

Oh, and don’t take it out on the servers if your steak is too rare or your ahi too cold.

“We just bring the food,” says a waitress who wishes to remain anonymous. “We don’t cook it or plate it. It really does help if people complain nicely - we want people to have a good time when they come out to eat.”

Another good way to complain is to do so as soon as you feel things aren’t going right. Lingering over something that’s ruining your meal is just going to prolong the agony, and can often start a chain reaction. If you have a problem with a server, just ask to be seated in a different section - don’t wait until the end of the meal and then not leave a tip. Chances are the server is just going to think you’re a rotten tipper and not realize you had a problem with him or her.

If your food isn’t right, send it back immediately. Don’t sit there and eat most of it and then expect the kitchen to fix what’s left on the plate.

“I’ve had customers who eat almost everything and then say they didn’t like it,” says one incredulous server. “Who’s going to take that seriously?”

And do ask to speak to a manager.

“Most restaurant managers want to know what’s wrong before you leave the restaurant so we can have a chance to fix it,” says Albert. “If people leave and are unhappy with something, they’re not giving us the opportunity to help. We can’t make it right if we don’t know what’s wrong.”

With competition for your dining dollars at an all-time high in Honolulu, think of complaints as your way of showing your favorite restaurant you care.

Happy eating!

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