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To Complain or Not: A Customer's Dilemma

If you find you don't like a business's service as much as you used to, should you try to do something about it or move on to the next place?

In writing this column, I have the opportunity to write reviews about local businesses and restaurants.  I love it, because I get to be supportive of and enthusiastic about our businesses and entrepreneurs.  But, what is the best thing to do when we have a criticism or negative thing to say? 

My folks said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  I have tried to do this (not always successfully) in my adult life.  I guess that they told us kids that so we wouldn’t become complainers. 

This week, it was my intention to write a review of a small restaurant that has been one of my family’s favorites for 30 years.  That is a long time to patronize anywhere.  So many stores and eateries have come and gone in that time.  The fact that the place is still there is a good sign, isn’t it?

I will admit that we haven’t frequented the restaurant as much recently.   I looked forward to returning.  My daughter and I went armed with our appetites and my camera!  I was very disappointed.  The quality of the food wasn’t the same.  Which brings me to this point:  What to do if you can’t say something nice?

This is a particularly hot topic in Altadena lately.  There have been several instances recently where residents have had complaints and NOT taken them up with the businesses they complained about.  Instead the complaints have been made to L.A. County, creating problems for the business owners, a great deal of cost, discord and frustration in the neighborhood. 

Have businesses in general created a defensive attitude?  Do we as consumers feel unheard?  What will happen if we have a concern or complaint? 

I don’t want to list the name of the restaurant that I am writing about today.  Some of you may guess it.  But out of respect for the many happy years we spent there, it will remain nameless.  It was my first introduction to authentic Mexican food.  My Ohio palate was assaulted with the new tastes and heat of Mexican cuisine there.  I was delighted and a lifelong love was born!

The original restaurant was located on the same property of the owner’s house, and was small and charming, and had the best garden to eat on in the summertime.  My friends and I went there through the early 70s and as young marrieds we continued to frequent it. 

It was the first restaurant that I took my now 31-year-old son to as an infant.  We were heartbroken when a fire broke out and shut them down.  We were delighted when we learned that they planned to open a small temporary location in Northern Pasadena until the original location was rebuilt.  We went to the satellite location as soon as they opened to get our fill of their yummy food. 

Years passed, my older daughter was born and I remember  that first my son, then my daughter grew big enough to go up to the counter to pay Jose.  He would reach down and give them a candy – their heads barely coming above the counter.  It was our go-to restaurant.  It was also the first restaurant that my youngest daughter went to, and then my granddaughter, and grandson.  Lots of years, and so many happy memories!

But on my last visit, the magic was gone.  The salsa wasn’t fresh, the chips slightly stale.  My chile relleno tasted like it had been frozen and microwaved!  The batter tasted freezer burned and had hard spots in it the way that bread gets when nuked in a microwave.  I could barely distinguish where the chile was, and the cheese was rubbery.  I also ordered a tamale, and it was unremarkable. I was crestfallen! 

Coincidentally, minutes after my daughter and I left, my son and his family stopped by there to eat, the same night.  They hadn’t been in a long time either, and their report was the same as mine.  My son also commented on how he would like to remain loyal, after all the years…..but that the quality and taste wasn’t good, especially for the price! 

I used to order their chef’s special and it was always a little more costly at $12.95, but now the same dish is $16.95!!!  Inflation is real – but when you can get a meal for two at a couple other local places for the same price – it is time for someone to pay attention!

So what is the best thing to do?  Do we bid “adios” to a place we loved so much?  Is it time to let go, like with a bad relationship?  Or would it be better to contact the management directly?

 I would love to hear from you about your opinions, experiences or ideas.   When is there a time to say something NOT nice?

Revvell May 11, 2011 at 01:15 PM
I would send them a nice letter and explain to them how you're feeling. "The fact that the place is still there is a good sign, isn’t it?" Well, yes and no. "Yes", because they may be willing and have the opportunity to change and do something different/better or "no" because they may just be holding on hoping outside circumstances will change (people often think it's outside circumstances that are the problem, not they themselves and what they are or are not doing) and things will get better. Having watched Kitchen Nightmares, one never knows what's going on behind the scenes yet, maybe a nice letter will spur them to look at what's changed w/in to make it not feel/taste as good as it once did. Recently someone sent me a book to review. I couldn't give a good one so, chose not to do one. The author contacted me about it; I told her I wanted to support her and my book review wouldn't do that. The worse that happened is she "unfriended" me on Facebook. I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd written a bad review... did I do her ~ and potential buyers a disservice by not doing the review? Heck, I dunno yet, it's not something she can undo.... the book is done and out there. With a restaurant, hopefully, there's still something they can do. ~ Revvell ~
Lisa Maiorana May 11, 2011 at 01:29 PM
I've seen this a lot as well in the local area restaurants. I'm a pretty loyeal customer, once I like a place I'm pretty much there 24/7 but if the quality/quantity goes down I mention it. I'm paying a lot of money to sit down and eat there so why wouldn't I? I get to know the manager and the staff quite well by visiting the restaurant several times so I have absolutely NO problem going up to them and telling them that there is the problem. Isn't that what's wrong with society today in general? Nobody wants to say anything if there is a problem. Nobody wants to get anyone in trouble. Nobody wants to complain, nobody, nobody, nobody and then nothing ever changes and nothing ever happens. You have to stand up for yourself in a nice way and simply say I am not satisfied. How can the business change if they do not know there is a problem?
Steve Lamb May 11, 2011 at 01:47 PM
When I did the restaurant reviews for the old local Word of Mouth Magazine I actually did complain about the food at a place I had been haunting since it opened. The owner who was a friend was really pissed off at me, BUT he took it as a wake up call, and changed things up, improved the quality and consistency of his food and his waitstaff. The business went from struggling along to thriving.
Lisa Maiorana May 11, 2011 at 01:51 PM
Steve, way to go, that's exactly what I mean. You had a voice and you made it clear! It changed the direction of the restaurant!
Leslie Aitken May 11, 2011 at 02:11 PM
Maybe I will write a letter. My son (who is a chef) did make a call to the management. It was his impression that they think that maybe the decrease in sales at the smaller location was due to operational management. But I am sure that it is that the food isn't as good and that it is too expensive. Thanks for your comment.
Leslie Aitken May 11, 2011 at 02:15 PM
Here is hoping that works! I will give it a try. And Steve.....thanks for the heads up about Fair Oaks Burger.......I plan to review them soon.
Alexander May 11, 2011 at 03:15 PM
The problem is that you just don't know how people will react to criticism. The proliferation of stories online of waiters/cooks messing with people's food has perhaps made me too paranoid. I just vote with my money.
Dottie Burns May 11, 2011 at 03:28 PM
Are you talking about the small one or the original one? I have been going to the original since I was a teenager and I live just north of the small one. We, as in me, my children and grand children, spend most of our time at the original one. I don't think I have been to the small one in about a year and a half but I really think they should be told. If they don't know what is wrong, they can't fix it. A letter to the owners always helps.
Leslie Aitken May 11, 2011 at 03:34 PM
The small one. At one time the food there was even better than the original location! It has really slipped recently. I guess a letter is in order!
True Freedom May 11, 2011 at 05:16 PM
I agree 100%!! I was having similar conversation with a co-worker yesterday; however the context here was that I reprimanded a guy for littering. Society's aversion to "saying something" is to the detriment of us all. Of course, there has to be balance (like complain about things that matter) and you have to pick your battles... And in this specific instance, I think a letter (even anonymous) would be a good thing.. because we all want businesses to survive, and businesses need feedback to know how they are doing. Sometimes cash register receipts send a clear enough message, but hearing directly from the customer is priceless.
True Freedom May 11, 2011 at 05:18 PM
drop an anonymous note after the fact... and ask someone you don't really like to drop it off :)
Lisa Maiorana May 11, 2011 at 05:28 PM
@ True Freedom: We need more people to stand up for themselves and to not be afraid to do this. If my client comes up to me and says, hey, this isn't working out for me, I'm not losing any weight so far, then for sure I'm going to re-evaulate her Nutritional Program and get her on the correct course! How would I know if she didn't keep me informed and kept me in the loop. I do have to point out that it also helps when you as the business owner check in with clients/customers from time-to-time and ask them, Is everything ok? How are you doing? Many of them have taken their business for granted and have slipped in that department.
khadija May 11, 2011 at 05:50 PM
If I am disappointed I always complain, after all if I have paid for goods or services I expect to get what I paid for! As a business owner myself I always appreciate critique and honesty from my clients. I use Yelp to leave positive and negative reviews for places and I usually call and ask for the manager and explain how I feel.
mister altadena May 11, 2011 at 06:25 PM
Sounds like the bigger picture is "what type of complainer am I?" and "What will the reaction be of the place I'm complaining about?" Send an email, mail a letter, discuss in person, make a phone call. There's many ways to register a complaining anonomously if desired. Certainly our local sign complainers have dialed into a non confrontational manner of complaining. 2nd - the reaction of the business you're complaining about. Again, do it anonomously if you think it might hurt their feelings, damage a relationship etc. Don't shy away b/c of these reasons, just find a method of complaining that works for you. As someone who's been on the receiving end of complaints, constructive criticism is much better received than nasty comments. To each his own but I'm more likely to consider a nasty complainer as a "kook" vs one who sprinkles a bit of sugar on the complaint.
Ross S. Heckmann May 11, 2011 at 06:42 PM
I agree with those who said that it is generally better to complain than to move silently on. I particularly agree with Ms. Maiorana where she states: "Isn't that what's wrong with society today in general? Nobody wants to say anything if there is a problem. Nobody wants to get anyone in trouble. Nobody wants to complain, nobody, nobody, nobody and then nothing ever changes and nothing ever happens. You have to stand up for yourself in a nice way and simply say I am not satisfied. How can the business change if they do not know there is a problem?" Personally I would extend this further and apply it to other relationships as well. I am not talking about being a selfish, non-stop, nit-picking complainer, but rather one who generally tries to salvage relationships instead of silently junking them.
Angela Odom May 11, 2011 at 06:58 PM
My rule of thumb is, if you know the owner, let him/her know. Many times the owners don't know what's happening at other locations because they've been led to believe all is well until it's too late. Good business people appreciate the knowledge. However, if you are reviewing a location for the first time (i.e. mystery shopper), I would review them honestly. Good, bad, ugly, it is what it is and that's business. Where it gets bad is when a business owner discounts what you're telling them by "pooh poohing" the complaint. Unfortunately, that's when personal vendettas happen and folks set out to destroy a business every which way they can while others will say nothing and just stop patronizing the business. Business is a tough world but if you have frequented the business for 30 years, let 'em know and review them later. If they don't hear you, give them an honest review to let others know you might get some bad or substandard food at this location.
Lisa Maiorana May 11, 2011 at 09:52 PM
Thanks for feeling my vibes Ross! ;)

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