Monday, April 17, 2017

How far should hotels go to please and appease dissatisfied or unhappy guests?

I've seen very well-run hotels - ranging from economy to full service - draw a high number of guest complaints. I've seen some very sloppily run hotels - properties with obvious housekeeping, maintenance, or service problems - that drew almost none at all. Some of my colleagues have also noticed the phenomenon, so we sat down one time, asked why, and actually drew a graph. (X axis=frequency and occurrence of guest complaints on a scale of 1 to 10, Y axis=condition of property and quality of staff, service, etc. - 'is this a good hotel?' - on a scale of 1 to 10) and included every property in which any of us had ever worked.

What set the 'high-guest-complaint' hotels apart from where the guests were more content? Managers and staff buy into the complaints when they occur. Yes, you want to keep the guests happy; yes, you don't argue with an unhappy guest and yes, of course, you want to be sensitive to their needs and fix the problem. But the flipside of that is, you don't swing the other way. You don't get emotionally invested in the guest or the complaint, you don't over-respond... effectively, you don't "reward" the guest for having a complaint. You apologize, fix the complaint - and stop when the problem's been solved and the guest is happy and willing to come back, and leave it at that. Added 'delight' on the part of the guest following a problem or complaint gives you a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but over time it works against you.

Image result for guest complaint

(Yes, I want the guest to be 'delighted' too, to experience a higher level of satisfaction than he or she expected. But I want it to happen in response to what we do well, 99.5% of the time, not as a result of a one-out-of-two-hundred complaint. Doing good is the norm for what we do. Problems are the exception.)

If you do get invested in your problems and complaints, you'll get more complaints, no matter how well you run the hotel. If you don't, most guests keep their demands and expectations within what you can reasonably provide for what they're paying, so long as you're indeed delivering value. The relation between your hotel, your staff, and your guests needs to be kept cooperative, interdependent, and mutually supportive - and if something goes wrong, it needs to be restored to that state. It must never be allowed - and certainly not encouraged - to be counterdependent and adversarial. This is completely unacceptable. Let it get to be counterdependent and adversarial, and it can be difficult, if not impossible, to bring it back to a cooperative, interdependent, and mutually supportive state.

Getting invested in complaints actually happens. I've even heard people talk to guests and 'fish' for complaints. You can use them - if you want to drop sandbags on the head of a co-worker you dislike, if a manager wants to get rid of someone and replace him or her with 'their own' people, if a small group owner wants to get rid of a manager... Everyone's human and will draw a complaint from time to time, and 'one is too many'. The hotels we graphed had one common thread that ran through most of the 'high-complaint' properties: a management or ownership change, a period of high turnover, something else that generated a high 'political' environment... They don't care about the guests. The guest is only the guy caught in the middle, used as a 'heavy'

Guests themselves, often well-trained by hotel chains offering '100% satisfaction guarantees', get invested in complaints. Recently, a night auditor here got one: the lady in one room called to complain that her air conditioner wasn't working - after already having once been moved because of a complaint about the TV set. The night auditor offered to move her to yet another room. But she didn't want another room, she told him, she just wanted a discount on her next stay. He told her she'd have to check with a manager in the morning. I got the note, but never heard from her again after that stay. She lived here in town and, after the TV and air conditioner were checked and worked fine; her indignation, disappointment and dissatisfaction with our property's maintenance and physical condition was rewarded, not with a comp or discounted room on a future stay, but with a spot on our 'Do not rent' naughty list. Not the most desirable of guests to begin with, but what made her typical was that sometimes, even not-so-undesirable (maybe) guests show up with a complaint . . . but don't want the problem solved so much (or nearly as much) as they want to leverage it.

When such an situation is not in place, there is usually an identifiable reason for the high-complaint phenomenon in an individual hotel . . . bad communication within the hotel, salespeople who promise more than the hotel or its staff can deliver, an inexperienced manager who buys into the complaints as I've noted.

Something I won't put up with in any hotel that I run is any marketing or customer relations approach that plays the guest against the hotel, that plays the guest against the staff, that plays the guest against any member of the staff, that plays the staff against one another, or that plays the staff against management or management against staff. I'm not a nice guy about such behavior: indeed, I can be viciously, inhumanly intolerant of it. I'm a little touchy about it, and freely admit that, with no apologies and no regrets. It's a personal pet peeve of mine, but it's one well grounded in observation and experience. I have seen the working environment, the ambiance, and the guest environment that needs to be in place and maintained in any good hotel absolutely trashed by such behavior on the part of one or two individuals (usually ambitious salespeople or wanna-be middle management). I've seen it happen in hotels that had previously had a uniquely, remarkably positive guest ambiance and working environment by contrast to any nearby hotel - all completely destroyed in a matter of weeks.

It's been a learning experience over the times I've seen it occur. If you work for me, and you tear up one of my computers or vacuum cleaners, or lose some cash; you'll irritate me, and I'll growl at you and maybe write you up; but I'll rent a few more rooms to make up the money, or I'll get onto Amazon or head over to Costco and replace the equipment. After a relatively short time I'll get over it; and with any extenuating circumstances at all (if you stayed out of my way for a few days until I calm down), you'll probably even still have a job.

My hotel's guest ambiance? That's my stock in trade: the hotel is just a building. My working environment in which my staff has to show up and perform well? That will directly affect the guest ambiance. Either way, it's just as much an asset as material property and cash - but in either case, you cannot easily put a price on it, and it's not so easily repaired or replaced if it becomes damaged or goes missing.

I don't like firing people. I will if I have to; but I've always found to be more respectable, and prided myself upon being (or at least aspired for myself to be), the kind of manager that could give an errant employee a little extra attention and coaching and straighten him or her out; and on the flipside, I regard 'fire-crazy' managers (and even worse, wannabe managers) as particularly contemptible. But I will quickly and mercilessly fire any salesperson who messes with my guest ambiance or working environment through such behavior no matter how much revenue they're bringing in, and I will fire any customer service person who does that no matter what kind of glowing reviews he or she's generating from whoever or wherever; and if I'm not careful to watch myself (Michael Forrest Jones' answer to What's the best way to fire an employee? ), I'll even enjoy doing it. The momentarily increased revenue, or improvement in the reviews, that come back as a result of such tactics - if it occurs at all - is irrelevant because it's unsustainable; over time, the cost to your hotel will be greater than this month's increase or improvement. Playing guests against the hotel, or the staff against each other, etc., is very bad behavior, and is to be taken and dealt with every bit as seriously as dishonesty, on-the-job alcohol or drug use, harassment or workplace violence: anyone who does it is unfit and unworthy to have a job (well, at least they're easy for me to hate :-) ). It is not possible to achieve teamwork by playing staff or management against each other, and it is not possible to achieve customer loyalty (or even the loaded carnival game of 'customer satisfaction') by playing guests against staff, or customers against the hotel.

Needless to say, I'm no fan of Hampton Inn and its "100% Satisfaction Guarantee". It puts pressure on competing, mid-market and even economy hotels: if the clerk was 'not exactly rude, but I don't feel I was greeted quite like I should have been', (and yes, I actually did get a complaint like that about a clerk, years ago . . .) then the guest feels that he or she rates a comp room by way of expiation. It effectively rewards the guest for complaining, while giving managers and salespeople a 'problem to solve' and a chance to make themselves look good. But it doesn't benefit Hampton Inn. You'd think that with a guarantee like that, Hampton Inn would rate the highest of all mid-market hotels in customer satisfaction. They don't. Holiday Inn Express does. It amounts to nothing but destructive competition, achieved by playing guests against the hotel (indeed the very Hampton Inn for which it's supposed to work so well) or its staff.

When you have that kind of situation in place, yes, you're going to have unhappy guests. Indeed, unhappy guests are necessary for the functioning of such a hotel, with this caliber of management or staff. That management style depends upon having the relationship between the hotel and the guest be counterdependent and adversarial.

Even the best of us will make a mistake from time to time and make a guest unhappy. But even when someone on the staff makes just such a mistake, we should put it right - but in a way that supports reconciliation and the restoration of the cooperative, interdependent and mutually supportive relationship. It is of the utmost importance that the relationship between the hotel and the guests, and that between each person on the staff and any guest, at all times be cooperative, interdependent, and mutually supportive - never adversarial.

Originally appeared on Quora

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