So you think you know how to complain

THE customer deserves to be treated well, but, when it comes to complaining, he isn't always right,'' insists Richard Feldman. ''Just because some people think they're a good home cook or throw terrific dinner parties doesn't mean they can run a restaurant.'' When it comes to complaining in order to effect change, the Canadian-born restaurant consultant believes Hong Kong people will complain to their friends instead of the individual who can do something about lousy service, a skimpy cocktail or a cold steak.

''People will bad-mouth a restaurant at a friend's party, but not to the chef or general manager. In Hong Kong, time is money. They don't want to spend the five or 10 minutes to get involved. This is a small town and people are into smoothing feathers, not ruffling them. Money motivates the society, not principle.'' But change won't happen unless people open up. ''If you don't want to do it immediately and face-to-face, you can always mail or fax,'' explains Mr Feldman. ''Successful businesses respond to market demand.'' Often, people who complain just want to vent or want a freebie. ''After you've eaten 80 per cent of the meal and you say you don't like the food, who is to be believed. You question the sincerity. Complain immediately. Don't wait.'' Mr Feldman points a finger at restaurants. ''Management often is at fault. It's the job of the front of the house to initiate a dialogue with the customers. A manager should walk around and check on customers. It doesn't mean interrupting a meal. It can be done with a glance, a look that says, 'is everything alright?'.'' He says those guest questionnaires planted on the tables are usually just a marketing ploy that says ''we care''. More often than not, restaurants don't do anything with them. ''Managers ignore them. The customer who took the time to fill one out gets no acknowledgement.'' Complaints do stimulate change and often, reap benefits. When Mr Feldman was general manager of Graffiti in Lan Kwai Fong, a customer's insistence for a cheese-less pizza became a bestseller. ''Many Chinese kept asking for a pizza without cheese. We worked on it. And four years later, that item is still a bestseller.'' What is universal among customers is their reticence to alert someone that the toilets are out of paper. ''They're too embarrassed.'' Service tops the complaint list. Mr Feldman says that service is just getting worse in Hong Kong due to competition for labour from other fields. ''If the 10 per cent service charge was abolished, it would reward the good waiters and promote the entrepreneurial spirit. There would be a natural attrition and the bad waiters would fall off.'' Does Mr Feldman complain? ''Sure. But it's difficult because I've been on both sides of the table.

''When I do, I smooth feathers first. Then I start with something positive, followed by my suggestion or recommendation.

''Restaurateurs have egos and their business is their baby. How you complain is important. If you package it as a suggestion, no one feels threatened.

''But ultimately, the consumer holds the power. You protest by never going back.'' We asked the following restaurants to give us one complaint that made a difference.

Clayton Parker, director of operations, American Pie and Indochine: ''Seldom are there any surprises in complaints. If you're on top of the game, you know your troublespots. At American Pie, we were considering a new computer but were hesitating due to cost. We were making so many mistakes on the guest checks, mostly shorting ourselves. But the few mistakes in our favour were brought to our attention by one guest. That complaint was constructive and appreciated, but not enjoyed. It was just the push we needed [to invest in the computer].'' Grant Baird, general manager of Landau's: ''Some hardcore vegetarians complained constantly about the lettuce. They said it was horrible. When we changed to mixed salad greens, using 10 varieties of imported lettuce, it made a difference. We absorbed the 40 per cent cost increase. The salad problem woke me up. Sometimes, managers are so busy looking at the big picture, we don't see the little things.'' Andrea Stedman-Chan, Continental Cafe, Quarry Bay: ''Several customers complained about the chickpea salad. 'It had pebbles in it', they said. It did. Now we buy imported chickpeas, instead of those from the local market. It cost us a few more dollars but no more complaints. Quality, I hope, keeps customers coming back.'' Daniel Wettling, chef and patron of Joyce Cafe: ''A customer bit down on a wonton and there was a sliver of wood inside. He hurt his teeth. We apologised, calmed him down and took care of his dental bills. He's still a good customer. You've got to take complaints seriously. Sometimes, you can't always change things but you must listen and take notice.'' Rupert Chevenix-Trench, general manager of Bentley's: ''During private parties, getting 40 people to sit down for dinner is hard. One customer suggested trying what theatres in London do. They have a 10-minute warning bell, a five-minute bell. We use a blackboard. Someone walks around with it, alerting people to 10 minutes, five minutes to go before dinner. We don't have to scream anymore. It's a great touch.'' Stefan Herzog, chef and patron of Stanley's French: ''One customer loved our garlic bread. He and his friends ordered lots of it. It's free. After the third order, the waiter got rude and the customer complained about that waiter. I apologised to the customer then corrected the waiter in private. The customer liked the personal touch. He comes back now as a regular guest. The whole staff learned a lesson.'' Gerard Dubois of La Rose Noire: ''One customer at our Pacific Place cafe suggested we sell wine. My partner [Michel Emeric] and I thought it would be too expensive. But we checked it out. We ended up buying in large quantities and sell around cost. We don't make money on wine, but in the past six months, our evening business is up by 30 to 35 per cent.'' Russ Frederickson, Uncle Russ Coffee: ''Several customers suggested we sell sandwiches. They wanted to pick one up for lunch when they bought their morning coffee. I didn't think it would work because of lack of space. But we tried it. The sandwiches are very popular and don't detract from the sales of our muffins and cookies.''