It’s a timeless saying. ‘The customer is always right.’ When in doubt, give the customer what they want, because they’re the ones that support your business and allow you to keep going. You certainly want to keep your customers happy—change your service, prices or anything else in a way that upsets a large group of people, and you risk the market shifting toward a business that better caters to their needs. 

But there’s another side to the story: a much lesser talked-about area (publicly, at least), where the customer isn’t right, and where restaurants (and most businesses, frankly) would be better off standing up for themselves and refusing the business. As a business owner (and as a decision-maker in general) you’re never going to make everyone happy, and trying to cater to the outliers may negatively impact the rest of your clientele.

I was dining at a fast-casual spot when a customer near me pulled the manager aside to say she found a hair in her food. The manager was understandably concerned, but after looking at the plate, knew that something was awry. The hair in question was long and straight, while literally everyone on staff had short, curly hair. The customer, however, was an exact match. It was quite apparent that the customer had pulled out one of her own hairs in an attempt to get a free meal.

So, do you go along with the hoax and give the customer a refund in order to maintain a low profile, or call them out on it and risk escalating the issue?

In this case, the manager called out the customer. She said, politely, that the hair couldn’t belong to anyone on her staff. While she couldn’t offer the customer a refund, she would be happy to get her a free drink. The customer responded with some aggressive language, then stood up and shouted to the whole restaurant that there was a hair in her food and she was leaving.

As soon as the customer left, the manager was showered in support from the remaining customers, who stated that they loved the food. It all came down to how each person handled the situation. The manager remained calm and did her best to be upbeat. The customer took an aggressive route and immediately cast herself as the villain.

Other situations may not be as concrete, but equally tricky. Numerous stories have cropped up with non-family restaurants refusing service to families with loud babies or children. The acting establishments may have risked negative PR by refusing service in these situations, but the sentiment of most of these articles is overwhelmingly in support of the restaurants. 

Then there are scenarios that are a bit easier to handle. If a customer walks in shortly after closing hours, it’s perfectly suitable to turn them away even if others are still finishing up their meals. If a group shows up with a larger number of people than was called for on their reservation, or if they show up late, then you may not be able to provide them with a table. If a customer appears intoxicated, it’s not only acceptable to stop serving them, but legally required.

Equally important, though, is to recognize a situation where you can’t prove the customer wrong. Even in a scenario where you have a sneaking suspicion that the customer is pulling one over on you, the tie should go to the customer. 

Let’s say a customer at a fast-casual restaurant comes to you with a half-eaten meal, saying that he received the wrong order and would like a new plate of food. The first thought might be, “Well, how did you get halfway through your food before realizing this?” or perhaps, “The food served matches what we have on your receipt.” 

This is a case of the customer’s word against that of the restaurant staff. The customer’s defense is likely ‘they heard me wrong’ or ‘they wrote down the wrong order.’ Sadly, that’s all they really need. Unless some third-party witness can argue on your side, it’s probably best to suck it up and bring out that new plate of food, and communicate with your staff in private that you truly agreed with them. 

At the end of the day, it’s the tone and poise with which you handle these situations that makes all the difference. Keep yourself composed and rational, and in all likelihood you’ll be able to stand up to difficult customers while maintaining your brand’s integrity.