07/01/2013 10:41 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

5 Ways to Drive a D.C. Customer Crazy

District residents may not have a vote in Congress yet, but that doesn't mean they don't have opinions -- especially when it comes to the area's restaurants and hotels. Our local, vocal population flocks to social media to discuss everything from location to décor to service with a smile, and they aren't afraid to say it when their experience isn't up to snuff. Data scientists examined social media reviews for more than 4,700 businesses in the D.C. metro area from the past 12 months and identified the top five things -- or lack of them -- that are driving DMV (a.k.a. District, Maryland and Virginia) customers nuts.

5. Ambience

Dirty lipstick stains on glasses, loud AC units, boiling hot dining rooms and noisy neighborhood construction projects can cast a dark cloud over a romantic date or birthday brunch. D.C. patrons hate when establishments neglect the details that can disrupt an otherwise good experience, or hint that there may be other issues behind the scenes. After all, as Anthony Bourdain famously said, "If the restaurant can't be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like."

The lesson? Managers and staff should be on high alert for potential problems around the establishment so that they can be addressed before becoming fodder for bad reviews. Interestingly, guests at downtown D.C. locations complained more frequently about loud noise, while reviewers in the suburbs had more issues with lack of parking -- knowing what pushes customer hot buttons can be helpful for mitigating the issues, be it hiring a string quartet to drown out noise pollution or setting up a valet service that can melt away the stress of searching for a parking meter.

4. Variety

D.C. reviewers want options, and they get cranky if what they've shown up expecting isn't available. If the hotel brochure advertises HBO but it's not working properly, if the wine that's identified as a 'must-try' on Yelp is out, or if there aren't enough choices for children or vegetarians, rest assured that put-out D.C.ers will be voicing their frustration online. They also don't like being pushed into anything else once they've decided what they want -- it feels like a bait-and-switch.

The best way for restaurants and hotels to avoid this type of issue is to listen, keep customers informed and set expectations. Update online menus and website offers if something changes, and don't get beat by competitors that are more in tune with what customers want (perhaps more cocktail choices, local produce sources or gluten-free options). Then be sure to deliver what has been promised.

3. Quality

"Get it right and keep it working" pretty much sums up the third most common complaint in D.C.: quality. When customers dine out or stay overnight, they expect everything to meet their high expectations. So whether it's a leaking ice machine or a latte milk steamer nozzle on the fritz, businesses need to find and fix broken equipment right away.

And although businesses love repeat visitors, once those customers have been wowed, they'll now have a set expectation of what they'll experience on a second visit. So if there's way more salt in the chocolate torte or the kitchen is putting fewer shrimp in the salad this time around, D.C. guests are going to notice -- and say something about it online.

2. Price

Unexpected upcharges are sure to land a business in hot water with District customers. They don't want to be nickel-and-dimed for items they think should already be included, such as drink refills, parking garage fees, additional toppings or an extra plate. Like most guests, they want to feel like they got good value for spending their hard-earned cash in a D.C. establishment.

What may be surprising is that the perception of price versus value usually stems from quantity, not quality. Many reviews in this vein complain about things like small pours at happy hour or stingy portion sizes. So if you're trying to keep District residents happy, don't skimp on the servings.

1. Speed of Service

The most common complaint from DMV reviewers is about how long they have to wait for anything -- and that means anything. Whether it's a long line at the front desk, a slow WiFi connection, or a back-up in the kitchen, the number one way to irritate D.C. customers is to keep them waiting. And we don't see this timing trend dissipating anytime soon with on-demand everything and 5G mobile technology setting everyone's speed expectations on overdrive.

To avoid issues in this area, businesses should make sure their staff is trained to deliver expedient service, and stay vigilant about identifying equipment or supply chain problems that could cause delays. Then, once again, it all comes down to delivering what's expected.

Another observation out of the 18,000+ social media insights generated by District residents over the past year: Most D.C. reviewers speak in absolutes for effect -- using words like "always," "completely," and "definitely" -- much more than they use expletives in online feedback. When engaging with reviewers, it's common for managers to try to reason with reviewers, and it's tempting to get defensive. But what's much more effective in the long run is engaging with the reviewer, listening, sympathizing, and then seeing past the initial compliant to the heart of the issue. That way, businesses can pinpoint the actual breakdowns that caused the initial negative experience and identify opportunities to help avoid those issues in the future. The guest feels heard, the business thrives and D.C. residents have one less reason to complain.