January 25, 2023

5 Steps to Effectively Win Back Unhappy Customers at Your Restaurants

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Key Takeaways

  1. If you deal with a customer complaint quickly, they’re 75% more likely to come back.
  2. Set up a conditional, automatic follow-up emails so that no customer complaints fall through the cracks.
  3. Spot dissatisfaction patterns early and take preemptive measures.
  4. Uncover top improvement opportunities to build a consistently great customer experience in the long run.
  5. Add rewards or gift cards to be sent out automatically with the follow-up messages.

It costs on average 5 times more to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one. Therefore, it’s incredibly important for restaurants not to lose customers — therefore revenue — due to occasional slips in service or food quality.

Even the best restaurant experiences have unhappy customers. Therefore, guest recovery is just going to be a part of your standard operations. There is a science behind restaurant recovery, but more importantly an art. It’s a science in that it requires the use of statistics and data. The art comes from humanizing your customer experience through empathy and understanding. There is no one-size-fits-all approach — instead, there is a dynamic formula that must be constantly optimized and refined through trial and error.

But first of all, let’s understand why guest recovery needs to be an essential part of your daily restaurant operations.

Why Guest Recovery Matters

Unhappy customers threaten your business in several ways. They leave bad reviews; they tell their families and friends about their unsatisfying experience; they share it on social media; and they become a strong voice in the industry against your brand’s reputation. And to top it all off, unhappy customers can affect your ability to convert new potential customers as they form a negative impression of your restaurants before even paying a visit.

In addition, guest recovery is a much more cost-effective way to generate revenue. On average, new customer acquisition cost can be 5 times higher than retaining an existing customer. One of the best ways for restaurants to generate revenue would be to extend your customers’ lifetime value through repeat visits. If you can successfully convince a one-time dissatisfied customer to come back, and redeem yourself with a better guest experience, congratulations — you just turned an unfavorable situation into lifelong loyalty.

“If a customer complains and you deal with it quickly, they are 75% more likely to return than if the complaint never happened. Complaints are opportunities to make people your ambassador,” said Cliff Fillier, GM at Down to Earth, a Tattle user.

And we couldn’t agree more. Now let’s take a look at the various ways you can effectively recover guests at scale across all your restaurant units.

1. Automatically trigger “sorry” or “recovery” emails

Timeliness and personalization go a long way when it comes to treating customer complaints. But first of all, you need to know — privately and directly from your customers — if they had a bad experience at your restaurant.

If you’re using a CX platform for collecting feedback from customers, you’d be the first to hear from your customers, rather than reactively defending yourself against negative online reviews. Through automated survey emails to your customers post transaction, Tattle can collect your direct customer feedback and categorize them by level of satisfaction.

From there, Tattle can automatically send different email templates based on each customer’s satisfaction level to apologize, and maybe offer a free reward the next time they visit.

If you have high traffic volume across your restaurant units, it’s not as feasible to manually send apology emails, since it’s unlikely that you could ensure a timely response every time, or make sure not to miss out on any guest response. By using a tool like Tattle, you can set your guest recovery efforts on auto-pilot and track key metrics, such as number of guests recovered, response rate and incident rate all in one dashboard. Each incident handling also comes with a transparent timeline so you know exactly how each guest is treated by different team members.

“Tattle has given us the real-time data and insights we need in order to transform the way in which we listen to and respond to our guest’s feedback,” said Geoff Goodman, CEO of Fresh Brothers.

2. Spot dissatisfaction patterns in real time — and prevent them

If you’re losing guests due to one or two occasional mishaps, sometimes a prompt apology email follow-up is enough. However, if your guests are complaining about common issues or if there’s a pattern of the type of complaints you’re getting, it’s important that your team can quickly catch the ongoing root cause of issues and take preventative action.

For example, Dave’s Hot Chicken was able to uncover a bag of faulty chicken when Jim Bitticks, the Chief Operating Officer, noticed several consecutive Tattle survey submissions regarding salty chicken within a short period of time. 

As a result, he was able to send a franchise consultant to the location experiencing these issues, and identify the bag of faulty products. By tracing back to the source, the brand was able to remove the same line of products from a new location that was just about to open, intercepting them before they could reach any new customers.

That’s why it’s absolutely essential to have a CX platform that can collect and alert your teams about real-time customer feedback, so that you can take prompt actions immediately.

3. Uncover top improvement opportunities and root causes of issues

It’s not the occasional slips in service or food quality that you need to worry about — it’s consistently improving on your top opportunities and building a better customer experience. Because at the end of the day, as long as you provide a great customer experience that’s consistent across the board, you have very little to worry about. Customers will come back over and over again.

So here comes the real challenge: how do you precisely identify top improvement opportunities at each of your units, and have location-level teams that know exactly what to do to improve on those?

That’s where you need technology and data using tools like Tattle. Tattle can automatically collect guest feedback surveys 90 minutes after each transaction, and synthesize the survey submissions into improvement opportunities using a proprietary algorithm.

Since each Tattle survey can collect up to 55 feedback data points, Tattle can be very granular and precise with the recommendations and action items. For example, Tattle doesn’t just tell you that “speed of service” is your lowest-hanging fruit to improve on. Instead, it goes one step deeper and tells you that it’s the “payment process”, “ordering process” or “waiting for food” that’s been taking too long.

Equipped with such data-driven insight, your units can each focus on the one key objective every month, and make real, steady and perceptible progress towards building a better customer experience in the long term. In fact, locations that hit the Tattle-recommended objectives have an 84% likelihood of increasing their overall guest satisfaction scores within 30 days, and a 97% likelihood of increasing their revenue in the subsequent 60-90 days!

4. Give rewards or gift cards to people who report bad experiences

Knowing about a customer’s disappointing experience means you now have the chance to one, win them back and two, diffuse the situation before the person writes an angry review online.

Sometimes a personalized apology note would do the trick, but other times you might need to show a bigger gesture. Many restaurants opt for a free item for the next visit, or loyalty points, or sometimes even a full refund depending on the situation.

But how do you personalize rewards for every complaint at scale? 

This is when having the right tool can save the day. Managers often set conditional follow-up rewards based on a customer’s satisfaction score, and attach it to the automatic apology email. If you use a loyalty rewards provider, Tattle can integrate with your loyalty program and automatically pull the rewards code from your loyalty provider and send it to your customers. Even if you don’t have a loyalty program, you can still create rewards within Tattle to be sent out with different follow-up emails.

Of course, if you want to add more personalization or manually handle certain cases, Tattle provides all the survey responses within the dashboard, as well as an incident timeline for each complaint, so that you know exactly how, when and by whom every customer is responded to.

5. Respond quickly always and have multiple alerts set up (email, phone etc.)

If you have a guest experience team or someone dedicated to customer support, it can be very helpful to set up real-time notifications to relevant personnel so that they can respond manually if necessary.

Depending on how involved the person is in handling each case or incident, they can receive real-time notifications, or a summary alert on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. This way, your daily operations team such as general managers and customer support representatives can address any issues immediately, while your regional managers or executives can be kept in the loop on a regular basis.

Sometimes, being able to jump on an incident can make a huge difference between diffusing the situation and having a customer complain about your restaurants online. It can also make a huge difference between retaining a long-term customer, and losing that repeat revenue from the customer forever (and potentially even other new customers if the customer talks about their disappointing experience to friends and family).


Having customer complaints is an inevitable part of running a business. Actually, you should celebrate the fact that a customer complains privately and directly to your restaurant (via a feedback tool like Tattle) before posting about it online, and the fact that they actually chose to speak up about their experience — which means now you have the opportunity to make amends and recover the guest.

As long as you have a good system in place and treat each incident with sincerity and professionalism, guest recovery isn’t as daunting as it sounds. But most importantly, what will minimize unhappy customers and ensure loyalty in the long run is your restaurants’ ability to create a consistently great customer experience over time.

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