Customer Service Negotiation Tips

By: John Szymankiewicz, Beer Law Center

Over a career as an engineer, project manager, lawyer and business owner, I’ve learned how to deal with customers, especially upset and ill-tempered customers. I think negotiation is a key factor in dealing with customers. I’d try and share my thoughts on the topic of negotiation, and maybe you can co-op some of them for your own use or situation.

Interest-Based Negotiation

When negotiating, it’s important to try and take the discussion from “what can I get,” to “what do I really want.” That is, what are the interests of the people negotiating? For example, every customer who had a bad experience thinks that their food or beer should be free. But is that what they really want? I suggest no. Generally, even in bad situations, the customer probably wants:

  • to be heard and appreciated
  • to be fairly compensated for their experience
  • ensured that it won’t happen again

Also, understand that this process is built on a personal relationship, and the outcome may involve personal aspects (for example: an apology or a personal follow-up).

They’re Mad, Now What?

Let’s assume that something has already gone bad and the customer is upset. In fact, let’s pick an example: let’s say the service was terrible (took 45 minutes to get a beer, 30 more to order, food showed up cold, check was wrong the first time, etc.). Let’s also assume that you actually want this customer’s business now and in the future. What do we do?

1. The introduction and business card

You should make sure they know that you are interested and want to take responsibility. When you walked up to the customer you probably introduced yourself. Do you realize that within, (probably) 15 seconds, they’ve already forgotten your name—they probably just see you as a manager.

My suggestion: business cards. They cost about $10 online for some pretty basic ones. But, it’s incredibly helpful (and establishes some trust) if you say something like: “Hi, I’m Bob Smith. I’m the evening shift manager. Here’s my business card with all my information on it, so you don’t have to write it down or worry about remembering it. A big part of my job is making sure that customers are treated right.”

The business card also gives them something to hold on to (physically) as they’re talking, this can give them the feeling of being more in control—especially as you hover over the table while they’re sitting (looking up at you). In fact, if you can get on the same level with them that would be great (sitting down might be a little weird), maybe try squatting next to the table.

2. Acknowledge the customers feelings and problem

Recognize that the customer is upset and that there is/was a problem by saying something like: “I understand you’re not happy with your [meal/experience/whatever] tonight. Can you tell me about what’s going on?”

Ensuring that the customer feels that they’ve been heard is hugely important in establishing a personal relationship. It makes the customer feel that they’re talking to a person, not “the manager.”

Be sure to summarize back to them what you understood: “So, if I understand you right, it took way too long to get your drinks and you felt that the server was ignoring you. Is that right?” OR “Ok, so what I heard was that you had to wait for your food for almost an hour and no one checked in on you at all during that time. Did I get that right?”

Be ready for them to correct you. They may add additional details, or change the situation: “Well, no. What I’m really mad about is the way the waiter talked to us when he told us the food would take a while.”

Take the feedback and make sure to clarify if you need to. It doesn’t hurt if you’re taking notes—it helps them feel that you feel what they’re saying is important.

3. Set some boundaries

In order to establish some boundaries, try something like: “I understand you’re upset and it’s important to me that we get to the bottom of this, but I’m super busy right now, can you give me a couple minutes and I’ll be right back?” OR “Wow, that sounds rough, but I just manage the bar, not the wait staff let me get someone else for you.”

4. Find out what they want

Notice that we haven’t yet asked them what they want. We’ve spent this whole time just establishing with them that we’re on the same side.

Try putting yourself in their shoes: “If I were you, I’d want an apology.” OR “If it were me, I’d want to make sure that this didn’t happen to anyone else.” OR “When I go out with my [family/spouse/date] I wouldn’t appreciate this either. I’d want to know what the company was going to do about this.”

Be ready for them to tell you what they want at this time, though it may not happen. Do not ask them “What would it take to make you happy?”

Instead, offer a solution: “What I’d like to do is to make this a learning experience for the server. Would you mind if I called them back over?” OR “I’d like to buy you dessert or a couple of drinks, as a thank you for sharing the feedback. The last thing we want is for someone to have a bad experience and never come back. We want a chance to make it right.”

A word about solutions. Very often I see folks get stuck into: “Well, I have to do A or B. That’s it.” This limits their options. Some of the best solutions are out of the box ideas.

Some “out of the box” ideas might be:

  • “Tell you what, I’m gonna buy half of your meal tonight. And I want you (or you two, or the family or whatever) to come back next week. When you come back, if you’re not happy with the improvement—the whole meal is on me.”
  • “I want to get your information, and I’m going to have the owner call you so you can let them know whether you were satisfied with the way we handled this.”
  • “Here’s a card that says “I didn’t have a great experience the last time I was here.” Give this to your server when you come in again, maybe next week? Or tomorrow? When you do, we’ll make sure that everyone goes out of their way to try and make up for our mistakes today.” Maybe they get priority seating on a busy night.
  • “I understand you’re just traveling through and may not be back here to give us a chance to do better. But, we don’t want your one experience here to be a bad one. Can I give you a t-shirt/pint glass/hat, or a growler to take with you?”

The idea behind all of these is that you want to take the focus off the incident right now. You want to focus on the repeat business, getting them to come back or getting them to tell their friends what a great place it is.

Whatever solution you propose, make sure you ask if that’s ok with the customer. You’re still in the business of making them feel like they’re important and in control.

If they offer something else or ask for more, bring the conversation back to the issue or interests: “I want to make sure that we correct the issue. We started with [insert summary from earlier]. You’re asking me to [insert their offer/demand]. Is that right?”

Maybe the question is rhetorical. Or, maybe you start to tweak the solution that you started with. And that, in itself, helps you keep this on a positive note.

Going Above and Beyond

Now, if you want the Gold-Star, World Class Customer Service award, make sure you get their contact information before they leave. Then, in a couple of days—a week at most—call them and check in and be sure to invite them back for a night or day when you’ll be there.

Don’t be Afraid to Cut Your Losses

Now, do be prepared for that one in 100 customer is just not going to be happy. They will reject every idea you have, and may become belligerent. You’ve got two choices at this point: 1) try to change their mind or 2) give them what they want and get them out of the place.

If you want to try and change their mind, focus on the consequences: “Well, if I give you your meal for free, that comes out of the server’s paycheck. Do you really want to punish them?” OR “Ok, let me get the chef and let you tell him how you feel about his work.”

It may get you some traction or get someone who’s being particularly mean to calm down a little, but I don’t recommend it.

If someone is truly bent on getting their meal for free—it is very unlikely that you’ll be able to do anything that will satisfy them or turn them into a repeat customer. Your best bet at that point is to discount to whatever amount you’re comfortable with and get them out! By that time, their attitude and behavior is probably already poisoning the atmosphere.


John Szymankiewicz is a homebrewer and attorney based in Raleigh, North Carolina. John’s practice, Beer Law Center, focuses on helping breweries, bars, restaurants, wineries and distilleries with their legal needs. Becoming an attorney was a second career for John after spending 15+ years as an engineer and project manager in the pharmaceutical and specialty chemicals industries. Working in beer and alcohol law pulls together two of John’s passions craft (beer and the law), with the added bonus that he gets to work with great people all over the craft beverage industry.