Grace Under Fire: the Gentle Art of Handling Complaints

Paul Russell from Luxury Academy presents five principles to take you from complaint to compliment.

The unhappy guest and the hotel staff meet at a border – always a place of uncertainty. How will the border be crossed? Is there a way back?

Somewhere, there’s a hotel that meets every requirement of every guest. It runs flawlessly, as though crafted by an expert watchmaker; each day and every night ticks quietly and soundlessly by in a peaceable haze of happy perfection. It never stops. It never misses the smallest beat. From the guests there’s never a tut, nary a sigh, not so much as a whisper of complaint. You’ll find this hotel just beyond the crock of gold, at the end of the rainbow.

The real world of hospitality is subject to more earthly laws, the first being that things do go wrong, through human error, events outside our control, or an unhappy combination of the two. The second is that we cannot please all of our guests all of the time, however hard we strive to anticipate and meet expectations. Sooner or later, a guest will find fault with the hotel or its service. The skill is to handle the complaint effectively and even, in the best-case scenario, transform a potentially difficult situation into a positive one. There are five simple principles to follow:

Listen. An unhappy guest does not want to be interrupted. There is a story to be told, and they want to tell it. There may be several explanations for what has gone wrong with their experience of the hotel, many of which may be perfectly sound and eminently reasonable. Those explanations will have to wait. The first step towards resolving a complaint is to listen and hear it in full.

Empathise. Listening is not a passive activity. We are all attuned to nuance and inflection, and to small signifiers that show us we are being listened to; we call it empathy, which has a deeply eloquent verbal and non-verbal vocabulary. Empathy is unspoken: non-threatening eye contact, arms at the side rather than folded, an open stance, a small inclination of the head at appropriate intervals. Empathy is spoken: secure a beat of time to say, I understand this is frustrating for you. Empathy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to defuse a difficult situation.

Acknowledge. Yes is stronger than no. It’s among the words the guest most wants to hear, either directly or indirectly. It’s there in the nod of your head as you listen to the story of what’s gone so very wrong; it’s there in the positive language you use to encourage the belief that hotel staff take the complaint seriously and will do everything in their power to resolve it. Avoid negatives in speech – saying, ‘I don’t understand how this can have happened’ has the ring of sympathy, but it opens up a world of unhelpful possibilities. Avoid suggesting that the guest’s experience is entirely anomalous (even if it is); this avoids making the guest feel isolated or suggesting they may be mistaken (even if they are). Focus on acknowledging that something has gone awry and that steps that will be taken to remedy it.

React. Few people can sustain anger in the face of polite and generous attention. Once you have created a climate of trust and sincerity through listening, empathising and acknowledging, your unhappy guest is likely to be somewhat mollified. They are certain they been listened to. They are almost certainly prepared to hear what you have to say. They are ready for the hotel to react. Use a calm, measured tone to explain what will happen next, and don’t over-explain. Your guest does not need or want to know about the hotels’ staff structure. Keep it simple: say what you are going to do, and how long it will take you to do it.

Notify. Whatever the nature of the complaint, it is no longer the guest’s problem. By now, they should be feeling unburdened of negative feelings and disappointment. It is now the hotel’s problem. Make sure everyone who needs to be aware of the situation and how it arose is fully briefed. If the complaint has left your sphere of responsibility, there’s still work to be done. Whatever unfortunate chain of events prompted the complaint simply cannot happen again, and neither can anything else give rise to even momentary displeasure to the guest.

It is worth remembering that, for the most part, people would rather not complain. A hotel is a sanctuary, a haven of orderliness and ease, and guests are usually predisposed to like what they find. They may have as much invested in smoothing away whatever has disrupted their transition from real world to luxury world as you do.

Finally, it’s also worth bearing in mind that our fictional, complaint-free hotel may be at a signal disadvantage. When nothing goes wrong, there are no opportunities to put things right. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when a complaint is handled with grace, diplomacy, and finely honed communications, your guest may feel more positively towards the hotel than they did before. The hotel team has an opportunity to show what it’s made of and build a lasting relationship with the guest. Base metal transmuted into gold? Not quite – but the distance from complaint to compliment is not so great, and is more easily navigated than many suppose.

Paul Russell is co-founder and Director of Luxury Academy, a multi-national private training company with offices in London and New Delhi. Luxury Academy specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across a wide range of sectors.

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