Need to know: how to deal with complaints

By Fred A'Court

- Last updated on GMT

Dealing with complaints: Fred A'Court shares the dos and don'ts
Dealing with complaints: Fred A'Court shares the dos and don'ts

Related tags Customer Social media Occupational safety and health Complaint English-language films

Complaints are an occupational hazard in the pub trade – no matter how good you are – so what are the best ways to deal with them constructively?

The customer is always right. Right? No, wrong! The customer is not always right but, inevitably, sometimes things do go wrong in even the best run of businesses.

Handle a complaint well and the chances are that the customer will most likely value the way it is dealt with and perhaps return.

Handle it badly and they will probably walk away forever and, worse still, broadcast through social media what a terrible establishment it is that they have just visited.

So here is a list of the dos and don’ts of handling customer complaints:


  • Make sure there is a proper procedure for handling complaints, one that is written down
  • Train all staff in customer handling
  • Set up a system for logging complaints that goes beyond the issuing of a simple apology, with all the relevant information including dates, times, staff and customers involved, and a short summary of what the complaint is about. It may help with training and spotting, over time, any unwanted trends
  • Listen carefully to what the customer is saying and give them full, neutral attention
  • Apologise, even if the customer is in the wrong. Sometimes that’s all it takes
  • Try to diffuse the situation if it becomes heated. Perhaps move the customer to another area to deal with the complaint and, if necessary, bring in a more senior person to deal with the issue
  • Offer some form of discount or compensation if merited
  • Be decisive and clear with the customer on what can and cannot be done after fully understanding the complaint
  • Be as friendly and relaxed as possible throughout and in drawing the matter to a close


  • Let the procedure gather dust on a shelf
  • Forget to have a procedure for all the different ways that customers can complain, and that includes by telephone, by letter, through social media sites as well as in person
  • Leave it to all staff to deal with more serious issues. Appoint someone to deal with these and, preferably, a deputy
  • Make defensive comments or interrupt midway through the complaint. Hear them out even if the complaint has been heard before
  • Swear under any circumstances, it is unprofessional and sets a bad example
  • Be dogmatic or dismissive
  • Go overboard with any offer, particularly minor issues where an apology suffices
  • Let the issue drag on once you are sure of the situation and what can be done

Underage customers

Dealing with underage customers is an area of potential arguments in pubs, of course.

Staff have to make judgments every day on whether a customer is old enough to be served alcohol.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the national independent watchdog, suggests the following tips for managers and staff suspecting someone of being underage:

  • Be polite and explain quietly why you can't serve them
  • Make sure your company has a clear policy on age-restricted sales, and make sure this is made visible to customers (for example, via posters in the immediate vicinity of the sales point). For example, the policy may be that if a customer looks under 21 staff must ask for proof of identity. If they can't provide ID, explain that it is policy not to serve them and then people will not expect to get served
  • It is important that staff are supported and know that they can still ask for age ID even if there is a long queue and they are very busy
  • If an individual does not have suitable ID, it may be possible for staff to hand out application forms for national ID schemes, which might reduce the potential for confrontation

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