What to Do When A Customer Claims: “Your Food Made Them Sick”


Oregon Health Division figures show that 25 food-borne illness outbreaks—ranging from unpasteurized orange juice to bad burritos—occurred in Oregon restaurants, hotels and households in 1999. And that’s just the reported incidents.
Even the most conscientious food establishment can fall prey to food-borne illness. Accidentally cross-contaminated meat or even a mildly sick employee could put your establishment at risk.

Do your employees know what to do when they are faced with a sick customer? “A negative comment spreads to at least seven people,” cautions Corrine Bush, OREF ServSafe instructor and TGI Fridays international corporate trainer.

Responding improperly to a customer complaint can also invite unwanted media publicity. Teach your staff the following steps for handling a complaint:

1) Call a Manager to the Scene
A customer claims your spaghetti made her sick. You realize that her upset stomach may have been caused by something she ate at home or at another restaurant several days ago. According to the Oregon Health Division’s nurse epidemiologist, Karen Stefonek, “It could be as short as minutes to several days from the time a customer eats contaminated food until he or she feels ill.” But a debate over the cause of illness won’t solve anything. Kindly refer the customer to a manager or supervisor.

2) Fill Out a Customer Complaint Form
Design a customer complaint form and photocopy it on your company letterhead. Include the following key items on your form: date of the incident; customer name, phone number and address; food item(s); symptoms; and the customer’s signature. When a customer has a complaint, ask him or her to complete the form immediately. “By documenting the complaint, you have legal proof of what happened. Otherwise it’s just heresay,” advises Bush.

3) Contact Your Property & Casualty Insurer
Contact your insurer immediately if you have a claim involving bodily injury. And be careful not to promise or declare your guilt to anything.

4) Inform the Health Department
If more than one customer complains of a food-borne illness, contact your local health department. Their epidemiology department will help you determine the cause of illness—which might prove that your food establishment is not at fault.

5) Require Food-Handling Training
Don’t wait to improve your employees’ food-handling skills until the wake of an incident. Take the time now to enroll them in a food-handling course such as ServSafe’s one-day seminar. Contact the Oregon Restaurant Educational Foundation at (800) 462-0619 for details.

Karen Williamson is communications writer for Liberty Northwest Insurance Corp. To find out how Liberty Northwest can help protect your food establishment against food-borne illness exposures, contact their property and casualty sales department at (503) 736-7328.

E-Managing Your Customer Complaints

by Dan Sullivan of the Community Dispute Resolution Program

Complaints take time. Time is money. So what should a business do to reduce the resources it spends on resolving differences with its customers? Try turning to tech-

Now that e-mail and faxes have become a common fixtures in businesses, these tools can be used to deal more effectively with customer complaints. The traditional means for resolving issues has been through phone calls or face to face confrontations. Often these take place at inconvenient times or during unprepared meetings.

When complaints are initially verbalized,misunderstandings or miscommunications result in flared emotions and unfortunate remarks. If parties are upset, they can find it difficult to present themselves clearly. At some point, the parties will most likely need to meet face to face. However, your business can pave the way to better customer relations by setting up a complaint system which utilizes your e-mail or fax capabilities.

Having a means for customers to e-mail or fax concerns gives them the opportunity to clearly outline the issues. This in turn gives the business a chance to carefully review the complaint and prepare a timely response. Verbal communications can become testy because each party feels compelled to provide an instant response. Feedback over the fax lines or Internet allows somewhat of a grace period to reflect on the issues and create a written record of what action is to be taken. This improves relations for both customers and businesses. Of course, if there is a failure to respond, the opposite occurs.

No business is immune from complaints. Using technology to bolster your ability for addressing complaints saves time and money. It may also prevent some negative press. The only drawback here is that concerns voiced by your customers may become just a little less colorful when put into written form. If not, you will at least learn how those intriguing words by an upset customer are actually spelled.

Questions or comments for BUSINESS RESOLVE can be directed to the Community Dispute Resolution Program at 383-0187 (Bend), 325-5506 (Madras) or 416-2055 (Prineville).


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