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Destination "Damage Control" starts with that single visitor complaint
By John R. Hendrie CEO, Hospitality Performance, Inc.
Hospitality Destinations are beset with situations beyond their control and many within. Whether it be man-made or natural, the effect of an unfortunate event does impact your Destination’s livelihood and reputation. How you respond to these situations will dictate your credibility in the eyes of the Consumer, provide confidence and reliability for their visit to your Destination, and enhance your distinction – or not.
In the last several years we have experienced a number of such events: product related, disasters, crime and disease. The hurricanes of last year and this, Legionnaires Disease, a sad murder in the Caribbean, and the finger in the chili, are just a few examples. The response to these has been varied, which unsettled the public, who wants timely and accurate information, a verifiable plan of action, and, especially, someone in charge. The media reports this, broadcasting every “bubbling” angle to keep their loyal readers and watchers intact. Destinations scramble to recover, and most do, in time. Call it what you may, Damage Control, Emergency Preparedness, Chain of Command – every Destination area and business establishment should, by now, have a Program in place to address these eventful situations.
But, what exists to address that simple complaint about a Visitor experience to your Destination? Where is it directed, who is to respond, who follows-up, who polices the offenders, and who presents these concerns to the greater Destination Hospitality Business community and directs change. One complaint is powerful. Nothing travels faster than “Bad News”, the “rumor mill” percolates, and the impact goes beyond the alleged offender and “colors” the entire Destination area. And, a complaint mishandled merely doubles the trouble to come. It is all about the Visitor Experience – what we frame and how we deliver. If we were oysters, this grain of Truth might translate into a pearl. But, most of the time it irritates and festers and becomes our Achilles’ Heel, for even with the swiftest, most conscientious and bounteous response, the damage is done, for the complaint action was initiated to begin with, and no amount of remedy will assuage an irritated consumer. We lose, because we did not deliver. Right or wrong, that is the fact.
Our job in Hospitality and the Destination Market is to minimize complaints through good management and complaint handling. If, indeed, we operated in an optimized environment, complaints would not arise.
Most establishments handle the immediate complaint sufficiently, perhaps not always to the Customer’s advantage, but the issue is addressed in a face to face manner and usually the situation is diffused and settled. The more nettlesome complaint is the one levied after the fact, when the Visitor has departed. Most of the time they address the specific establishment or business. But, frequently, they will write to a department or organization in the Destination area, such as the Chamber, The Board of Health, the Mayor’s Office, the CVB, Visitor’s Bureau – whomever they think has a say over whatever situation “ruined” their visit. This is where our reputation as Hospitality Professionals begins to unravel. Now, several people and levels are involved. The letter or call gets forwarded to the alleged perpetrator for action. But, where is the follow-up to insure that the complaint has been addressed? Who follows compliance, as most organizations have some type of membership language regarding Customer complaints? Who polices the miscreants and throws them out of the organization, if too many complaints are directed to them? Who brings to the attention of the broader community that problems may exist, such as across the board service concerns, price gauging, lack of quality standards, focusing upon cleanliness and housekeeping, etc. In many cases, no one, so everyone is under the impression that all is well, not recognizing that the Destination business or area is being trashed, certainly verbally, and now more than ever on bulletin boards on the Internet. Cocoons are nice – safe and settled. Many Organizations are aware of the problem, yet claim that resources and time do not allow them to better manage the process. Plus, there is a tendency to “sluff” this responsibility off – “not my job” is the refrain. This is real and also nonsense, for everyone’s success rests upon a reputation. You may be promoting like gangbusters on one hand, yet your back door is exposed, and complaints slowly eat away your essence!
Proactively, many Destination areas and certainly many lodgings do try to capture information and data about the Visitor experience, share this with the Destination area leadership, resulting in strategies to improve the product and service and further differentiate the area in a positive fashion. But, follow the trail and earlier example of a complaint letter sent to the amorphous “city official”, and you would be surprised.
Many of us are quite myopic and insular when it comes to evaluating our own particular operation in our broader Destination Market spectrum. We tend to forget, especially the larger Hotel properties, that although our particular performance might be superb, our Guests do leave the hotel to dine, frolic and shop elsewhere. A bad experience at Giuseppe’s Bistro and Laundromat, an over-priced taxi ride, rude behavior by a parking attendant, a sloppy bathroom at the arena all color the experience. The Visitor will remember Giuseppe’s, will not remember the fine hotel stay, and will, quite loudly, proclaim that no one should ever visit city X. We are not our Brother’s Keeper, but we can make sure that he is cleaned up and lookin’ good, or censure him. We create that “Hospitality Performance Bar”, the standards of our businesses and the picture of our Destination area. The “old bad apple” can spoil it for everyone. The Sum of the Experience is based upon the performance of the components!
Complaints and how we manage them are a good indicator of our commitment to sustainable Hospitality. We all have the responsibility to run the best business we can, understanding that we exist in a broader Hospitality community where lack of performance by others severely impacts our success and reputation as a Destination of Distinction. Complaints, what they attest, the trends they indicate, and the actions we take to manage them really become our report card. How are you doing?
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