The key is always to help protect staff and diners alike.

Dealing with difficult or unhappy diners has always been a big part of working in the restaurant industry. Recently, though, things have become even worse. Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, aggressive customers have exhibited increased levels of bad behavior. Here are five steps to help you de-escalate a combative situation before it becomes hazardous.

1: Prepare

The first step is to prepare all the staff in your establishment for problems that may arise. Aggressive customers in the restaurant and hospitality industry have become an important safety subject. Even ServSafe, an international program that offers food and alcohol training and certification exams, has acknowledged it is a serious issue. It released COVID-19 training modules on conflict de-escalation in September 2020 for hospitality professionals.

Create a plan of action for dealing with issues that could escalate into dangerous situations. This includes the amount of leeway each team member has for offering things, such as free desserts or discounts, to appease unhappy diners. Also, discuss when to get a manager involved, as some aggressive customers feel they can get away with more if the worker isn’t in a position of authority to do anything about it.

Hold team meetings implementing and tweaking these plans on a frequent basis to ensure safety precautions are working. Keep communication open to address any additional concerns that may arise. Ask employees how they want to see things handled to feel secure in their work environment.

2: Be Proactive

Always choose to err on the side of most patrons having a valid complaint. Be attentive to all of your tables to head off grievances. When short-staffed, it is especially important to adopt a teamwork mentality. Let diners know they can flag any employee down for help. Make an agreement with your coworkers to monitor the whole dining room, not only their personal sections.

Acknowledge and correct any problem immediately with a positive attitude. Show genuine concern for your customers’ experience to turn the situation around. Many diners are frustrated with long wait times and not enough staff to attend to their needs in the way they are accustomed to, especially regular customers. Explain to them you are just as unhappy as they are in not being able to accommodate them as you wish you could. Acknowledgment and appreciation of their understanding and patience can still go a long way.

If possible, allow staff to take a break after dealing with a challenging table to collect themselves. Remind them how bad diners shouldn’t affect how they treat the next table. Customers taking out their bad days on hapless workers can start a snowball effect if it is not properly addressed.

3: Remain Calm

It is a sad truth that there are people whom you will never satisfy, no matter what you attempt to do. Some aggressive customers refuse to see anything but their own troubles. Unfortunately, restaurants struggling with staff and food shortages deal with this type of entitlement on a frequent basis. They see rude behavior from diners, such as refusing to pay for already consumed meals or even throwing away their orders once they are finally ready.

This is where staying calm in the situation becomes very important. Making sure all staff is on the same page as far as discount policies help stop patrons from using the excuse “They did it for me last time,” or other deceitful tactics to get their way. Discuss a strict protocol for if things do escalate and get combative. The safety of employees and other diners is not worth the risk of recouping some losses.

Make sure staff knows to not engage with aggressive customers if they feel they are in danger at all. Tell them to remain calm and seek help, and to never try to physically stop a patron from leaving. Instead, have them be observant of the person’s features and try to get a license plate from a safe distance away. This will help if a police report must be filed and theft charges are pressed against the walkouts to get them to pay what is owed.

4: Set Boundaries

One of the more positive things to come from the pandemic of 2020 is the mindset of the “customer is not always right,” disagreeing with a traditional cliché in the service industry. Workers and owners realize they do not have to take abuse from the public to turn a profit. In fact, many of the typically aggressive customers are learning fast how little power they actually hold when they’re on private property. They are being forced to learn that they need to behave in order to enjoy dining out. These patrons have held the long-standing belief they have a right to act how they want to, just because they are paying for a service.

Install cameras that record video and audio and hang up signs clearly declaring everyone is being recorded. Also, place signs on the front door, host stand, and even on menus stating if a patron yells, threatens, or verbally abuses employees, they will have to leave the premises. Owners in the hospitality industry need to set rules and follow through on consequences with those who break those rules. This includes kicking out and banning unruly guests from coming back until they can act like decent human beings.

Call authorities if dangerous people refuse to leave. Press trespassing charges against anyone who tries to come back and cause problems after they’ve been told to stay away.

5: Protect Staff

For years, many establishments have “secret” buttons employees can press during emergencies. These call on-site managers or security, or even connect directly to the local law enforcement agency. These buttons are usually placed underneath or near cash registers. They help prevent robberies, walkouts, and other thefts. The problem with these traditional security measures is that danger doesn’t always happen near cash registers. Aggressive customers could turn violent before a staff member can reach the buttons to call for help.

Alternative options, such as wireless panic buttons, do not need a direct connection to a phone line or an alarm system. You can mount them anywhere in the building. Bluetooth and backup connectivity offer a reliable connection. This is true even in areas where Wi-Fi and cell phone service are usually weaker. This creates a safer environment because help is always available everywhere inside the premises. It also lets patrons know they will not get away with being combative, even in less-populated areas in the restaurant.

These five steps for dealing with aggressive customers in the restaurant and hospitality industry will help protect staff and diners. Use them to stop a potentially violent situation before it can harm anyone. Hopefully, in time, maintaining strict rules on unruly patrons receiving disciplinary measures will result in workers facing fewer violent situations. Until then, everyone needs to curtail it as much as possible by implementing strong safety procedures.

Yasmine Mustafa is the CEO & Co-Founder of ROAR, a technology company dedicated to cultivating safer workplaces. The company’s patented workplace panic button solution provides employees with one press of a button to protect your people, here and now.

Expert Takes, Feature, Labor & Employees