Renee Rouwhorst, owner of Ryke’s Bakery, discusses how to handle customer complaints during All Things Baking.
The only standard when it comes to customer complaints is that they’re never the same, Renee Rouwhorst, owner of Ryke’s Bakery, said during the “A complaint is a gift” educational session at All Things Baking. Because each customer is an individual, often handling complaints becomes more about fixing the person than the problem itself.
“When people are complaining, they’re emotional. You have to fix the person before before you fix the problem, and that’s difficult. It’s difficult to translate that to your staff, which is your front-line defense.”
The biggest keys, Rouwhorst said, are prevention and empowering employees to handle complaints.
Complaints come in different categories, some easier than others. Real-time complaints are often simpler to handle because the bakery owner can fix them on the spot, by fixing a misspelled name on a cake, for example.
The most difficult complaints are those that occur after the fact. When the customer storms in, huffing and puffing that the bakery has ruined her birthday party by screwing up a cake order, the fight or flight response kicks in.
“When this happens, you need to stay calm. The first thing to do is breathe—your body needs oxygen,” Rouwhorst said. “Then you need to change something, which helps you stay in control.” Whether it’s grabbing a notepad to jot down notes, physically moving so you’re beside the customer instead of facing her or asking her to come to a different part of the bakery, changing something keeps you from losing emotional control, since your defenses are up in response to the high-stress situation at hand.
“The customer’s perception is always right,” she said. “If we argue with what their view is, we get in trouble. We have to be the bigger person and empathize with them. There’s a lot going on in their lives that we’re not privy to so we really need to get information from them to handle the problem.”
To help prevent complaints from happening in the first place, Rouwhorst has created “customer improvement forms,” which employees use to document every single complaint that is raised. The forms contain questions to ask and space for documenting exactly what went wrong.
However, in high-stress or real-time situations when the most important thing is to fix the problem quickly, it’s critical that employees know they are empowered to handle complaints.
“We also use those forms as teaching tools in our weekly employee huddles,” she said. “There are dollar amounts attached to every complaint and employees can see the solutions that were offered, which empowers and teaches them. You need to encourage employees to think.”
Setting clear expectations is another preventive tool. “What the customer wants isn’t always realistic,” Rouwhorst said, adding that it’s important to be firm and give options to the customer. For example, instead of totally refunding the customer for a cake that was filled with the wrong flavor (even though they ate the entire cake at the party), the operator can offer a coupon for other free product or a discount on the decorating labor cost.
It’s also essential to create written contracts and stick to them, which will prevent issues from arising altogether.
“Every time I get a crazy complaint, I add that to the contract. A lot of brides laugh when they read my contract,” Rouwhorst said. However, she added, she’s had almost no complaints from customers since implementing this simple preventive tool.
“Complaints will never get easier. They stink,” she said. “It’s not black and white; it’s only shades of gray. But learn from past experiences and prevent, prevent, prevent!”