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Customer reviews: F&B operators welcome constructive feedback, but wary of 'unfair' malicious comments

SINGAPORE — When a customer left a negative one-star review on his food and beverage page on Google last year, Jekyll and Hyde bar owner Chua Ee Chien felt indignant and decided to hit back by responding to the review.

Customer reviews: F&B operators welcome constructive feedback, but wary of 'unfair' malicious comments
A cafe in Orchard Road, Grain Alley, was caught in a controversy last week for "bullying" customers who leave bad Google reviews, and rewarding those who gave positive ones. 
  • Owners of food and beverage establishments said unfair online criticism can affect staff morale, damage businesses
  • Even then, they have to strive to take the high road in such situations
  • They were reacting to the controversy surrounding a Orchard Road cafe that had reportedly bullied customers who leave bad Google reviews
  • While the customer is mostly right, the line is crossed when abusive actions or words are used 
  • The best way to resolve a conflict is to reach out to the customer privately, said those in the industry

SINGAPORE — When a customer left a negative one-star review on his food and beverage page on Google last year, Jekyll and Hyde bar owner Chua Ee Chien felt indignant and decided to hit back by responding to the review.

After all, the customer was being unreasonable, Mr Chua recalled to TODAY.

The customer had placed an order for his food to be delivered, but the delivery rider could not locate the bar and left the order unfulfilled. Instead of giving his feedback to the delivery service, the frustrated customer lashed out at the bar with a scathing online review that brought down its average star rating. 

In a time when customer reviews can make a big difference to the fortunes of food and beverage businesses, Mr Chua said he "went crazy" in defending his establishment against the unjustified criticism.

But it was only later, after having calmed down, that he realised he should not engage with customers in such a manner again. He also apologised to the customer.

"At the end of the day, we're still a service business, and everything is online and public, so people are going to take sides one way or the other," Mr Chua said.

"You want to come out the better person and not... attacking the other person."

Other food and beverage operators that TODAY spoke to said responding harshly to online criticism is akin to "fighting fire with fire". Ultimately, the party that usually loses out is the restaurant, they added. 

Their comments came days after a cafe in Orchard Road was caught in a controversy for "bullying" customers who leave bad Google reviews, and rewarding those who gave positive ones. 

In one such response last year, the cafe — Grain Alley at Orchard Central mall — told a reviewer to "take a shower, you smell" after receiving a one-star review regarding the restaurant's policy of not allowing customers to work on their laptops or digital tablets.

The cafe hit back at public criticism last week, saying that it was responding to reviewers who acted badly towards their employees.

While there may be bad customers as well as unfairly harsh critics who leave reviews, restaurateurs and food sellers said they always have to take the high road in such situations.

Mr Aston Soon, founder and chief executive officer of Western food chain Aston's Group, said it is up to the restaurant to "be rational and treat (the feedback) properly".

"I don’t believe that the exchange of harsh words will solve the situation... when you touch on emotions, it's dangerous, as your words and actions can be very impulsive," said Mr Soon, who owns over 40 food and beverage outlets islandwide.

"(Food and beverage establishments) should take it in a more professional way, take a step back and try to be graceful and try to be rational in solving the problem," he said. 

BAD REVIEWS CAN IMPACT A BUSINESS, STAFF MORALE

Several operators say they are not offended by bad reviews if the criticism is constructive, but more often than not, negative reviews are posted with the apparent aim of tarnishing the business' name. 

Cafe owner Colin Chen said that his team takes valid negative reviews seriously. 

"If it's a bad review with good justification, we really take it to heart... we just accept it, and say thanks for the feedback," said Mr Chen, who owns The Refinery, a cafe at Jalan Besar, and cafe chain Hello Arigato. 

However, there are also bad reviews that do not give the restaurants any clue as to how to improve, or simply tell people to steer clear of the establishment. 

"The worst kind are one star reviews with no comments... and the timeframe (of their visit) is never mentioned," said Mr Chen. "We do not know the context of the review, and there is no suggestion that we can think about and respond to." 

Mr Samuel Yik, managing director of Chinese restaurant chain Dian Xiao Er said that while most customers are gracious and kind, he believes there is a small proportion that are "out to harm the business".

"They're not graceful enough, once there is a little lapse, they jump the gun to say that this company is bad... they blow up and magnify the little things," he said. 

But such unwarranted negative reviews do not bother him, Mr Yik added.

"We don’t think we should argue or fight back, we don’t waste time in doing that, it’s just a small percentage (of reviews) ... customers will still exercise their judgment (on whether to eat here)," he said. 

Nevertheless, bad reviews could still hurt a restaurant's business in terms of its popularity and hence earnings. Such reviews could also drag down staff morale.  

"(There are) people who go online and leave hateful speech. They're finding a way to be heard, but the person managing the social media accounts for the restaurant is also a person, and it's not a nice feeling," said Mr Chen.

"I wish that everyone would just be kinder... if a message is properly conveyed, a restaurant would know how to improve." 

THE CUSTOMER IS MOSTLY RIGHT

In Grain Alley's response to accusations of customer bullying, the cafe claimed that some of its customers feel "that misplaced sense of power over service staff and this has led to frequent abuse, ranging from oral to the physical."

Speaking to TODAY, food and beverage operators said while the customer's preferences and opinions should be respected in most instances, the line is crossed when abusive behaviour or language is used.

While Mr Chen wished not to comment on the case of Grain Alley, he said that for most customer disputes, he would urge his staff members to "suck it up" and remind them that "the customer is mostly right".

"But when the customer gets abusive or rude, I find a need to stand up for my staff," said Mr Chen. "It’s a human at the receiving end, after all." 

Recalling one incident at his restaurant, Mr Chen said a customer once used a slur against one of his newer staff members during an argument. Mr Chen was furious when he heard of this, but was not in the cafe at that time to intervene. 

"(If I was,) I would have stepped in and asked him to tone down, and be clear-headed. (Calling people names or slurs) is where I draw that line." 

Some restaurants have even considered legal action when their customers are out of line. 

Mr Yik from Dian Xiao Er said that last year, a customer wrote an email to him claiming that they had gotten food poisoning after eating food delivered from his restaurant and asked for S$20,000 in compensation. 

Mr Yik was puzzled as he had not received similar complaints from any other customers during that period.

"They said that if we didn't (pay them), that they will write a negative review," said Mr Yik. "So, we responded saying that if you dare do that, we will seek legal help." 

WAYS TO DEAL WITH BAD REVIEWS

Restaurant operators said that the best way to deal with bad reviews is to settle any differences privately, and not publicly on the review platform. 

Mr Yik said that the best way to communicate with a dissatisfied customer is actually over the phone. 

"There are cases we try to ask (the customer) to call in to discuss for certain cases, to find out more, and we eventually found it was a misunderstanding," said Mr Yik. "Most of them will talk nicely to you, and 99 per cent of cases can be settled in an amicable way." 

Some customers may also demand for compensation for their experience. But in Mr Yik's experience, customers usually stop asking for any compensation when they cool down.

Jekyll and Hyde's Mr Chua added that he also appreciates customers who prefer to email their feedback to him, rather than post it on a public forum. 

"I always reply and say thank you... I'm so much more appreciative as the person has taken the time to tell me how to improve my business," he said. 

When words are exchanged publicly online and in the heat of the moment, the outcome is rarely amicable. 

"Harsh words will only encourage more harsh words and actions," said Mr Soon from Aston's. "You don’t see a fight where both persons suddenly (become) nice to each other." 

"Even if the guest replies in a nasty way, we should not provoke them but continue to be genuine and sincere. I always believe that the other party will come to realise that at the end of the day, it is just a small issue." 

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F&B food review orchard road grain alley

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