Reputation management, social media, food poisoning and Sy Oliver

As a lot of people know, I am a great fan of the sentiment of Sy Oliver’s song – “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”  Well, I came across a new variation on the application of this at the weekend – specifically, how firms go about responding to online criticism, how their urgency to defend themselves can create the wrong impression and even damage their reputation.

Back in March 2013, a young woman and her friends attended a themed restaurant in a British seaside resort. They ate the specialist fare and left. A short while later one of them suffered from bad food poisoning, and so they posted a fairly innocuous review on Trip Advisor…

“Everything was average except for the price, very expensive. Unfortunately that night I had a terribly upset tummy which could only have come from the prawn starter or scallops main. Very disappointing. Won’t be returning.”

This prompted the following response from the proprietor;

“We are very sorry to hear you have had food poisoning recently but strongly dispute the allegation it was from our restaurant. We were given no opportunity to disprove your allegation or compensate you if proven. The day of you visit was a particularly busy with many other customers consuming similar menu items and we are not aware of any other customer concerns. You may already be aware that it is a well known fact that in the UK approximately 80% of food poisoning cases are actually a result of food and drink consumed in the home. We take any allegation seriously and have strict food hygiene procedures in place to ensure all the food we serve is safe to eat. We also take seriously any unsubstantiated allegations that may damage our business reputation and we are currently taking advice on this. Had you contacted us immediately we would have been able to implement our allegation of food poisoning procedure, which captures the details of symptoms, onset time, duration time and very importantly, what was eaten and consumed before and after your visit to the restaurant. There are no reasonable grounds for your allegation and by not contacting us directly we are fully justified in challenging the accuracy of your online review.”

No doubt any restaurateur gets peeved when people complain of food poisoning. This one has had three complaints in 300 Trip Advisor reviews, which at 1% doesn’t sound a lot though I wonder what the average is? Nevertheless, the issue is not what he feels but how he responds to the review. Of course, he could have ignored it. That would be one option. However he chose to leave, what I feel was defensive, bullying, and unsubstantiated. I thought I’d draught an alternative to illustrate an approach that might engender greater respect, boost reputation and even add revenue;

“Thank you very much for your review. I was dismayed to hear of your experience and would like to do what I can to restore your faith in our restaurant. Food poisoning is a very serious issue for all restaurants, we have all kinds of measures in place to prevent it ever happening, but sadly it does sometimes. Many people don’t realise but actually most food poisoning originates in the home, takes a long time to have its effect and then the restaurant is thought to be the source, but that doesn’t make the experience any easier. I’m not suggesting that this is what happened here, just trying to explain. I’ve had it myself and know how distressing it is.
Our staff are all carefully trained to international standards in food handling, the food is prepared in a state-of-the-art hygienic kitchen, the food suppliers are carefully vetted, and everything is controlled for quality so that in the very unlikely instance of anything being wrong it can be traced to source.
I am really proud of our kitchens and it is a shame that few customers ever get to see behind the scenes to know exactly what we do to ensure the best possible experience for them. Obviously, you are upset at the experience that you have had and it may take a little while before you are prepared to give us another try but, if you would book at any time in the future, I would love to have the opportunity to give you a private tour, and introduce you to our chefs, so that you can see all that we do. If you would be happy to take up the offer, then I will also discount your bill by 20%. My personal email address is XXX.YYY@ZZZ.CO.UK, if you email me mentioning this message then I will send you a letter confirming my offer.”

If you were in the shoes of that poor young lady, how would you feel about this kind of response? Notice that, not only has the claim not been accepted, but it has more gently been rebuffed. The chance to demonstrate to the wider public how seriously you take your responsiblities has been highlighted, and a unique but zero-cost experience offered (few members of the public ever get to see behind the scenes of a busy restaurant kitchen). In a touch reminiscent of Gerald Ratner, the offer of a discount of 20% is seemingly quite generous, but of course it is not a refund – only a discount on future revenue – and can be considered as spread across two meals so represents only 10%.
This isn’t rocket science, but it highlights that the WAY you respond can make a big difference to the way in which you are likely to be perceived.
Best wishes, Graham.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.