yesGuest complaints can range from the legitimate to absurd. A recent Skyscanner survey reported complaints that included:

  • The sea was too blue.
  • The ice cream was too cold.
  • A central London hotel had no ocean view.

Fortunately, the majority of guest complaints are based on grievances that are fixable, thereby giving the hotel a chance to prove it cares. A common barrier when trying to solve a guest problem is attitude. Both the guest and hotel staff typically approach the issue in terms of a win/lose negotiation when it should be done on the basis of a win/win outcome.

Overcoming this tendency was the focus of the book ‘Getting to Yes, Negotiating an agreement without giving in’ by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Although written over 30 years ago, the book is still a best seller. To enable negotiators to reach an acceptable outcome, the authors suggest four basic principles that are as valuable when handling complaints as they are to negotiating a complex sales contract.

1. The guest is not the problem

The first recommendation is to separate the person from the problem. In other words, the guest’s feelings shouldn’t dictate the outcome. A complaining guest is often emotionally charged, a situation that can quickly affect both parties. Faced with recriminations and aggressive language, it can be hard for staff to remain professional and objective.

As with any negotiation, it is important to get the facts or, more importantly, the guest’s perception of them. The guest should be allowed to voice their complaint without interruption or pre-judgement. By giving them complete attention while they are speaking, hotel staff convey interest and sympathy. If the guest believes that their complaint is being taken seriously they will normally calm down, even if initially irate.

Hotel staff should be prepared to apologize but without necessarily accepting blame. Something has made the guest unhappy which is a reason to be genuinely sorry.

2. What do they really want?

The second principle in the book is to focus on the real issue and not the guest’s demands. Although communication is an essential part of negotiation, a common obstacle when dealing with complaints is that guests are not adept at complaining and hotel staff are often no better at listening. Both may start with preconceived ideas and from a position they want to defend. The guest may demand a refund when the hotel has a policy of no refunds. On the face of it, this is a no-win situation with a bad review just waiting to be posted.

Listening is an art. It is easy to hear the words but not everyone is willing or able to discern the underlying message. Some grievances are obvious, such as dirty sheets or excessive
noise, but others may hide an unspoken issue. The guest may gripe about weak Wi-Fi when the real pain is being unable to Skype a loved one.

A skilled listener will ask questions to make sure they fully understand what’s at the heart of the complaint and then restate it to check they have grasped the situation correctly.

3. Creative outcomes

The third principle in the book concerns finding inventive options for mutual gain. An acceptable solution can only be found when the true reason for the complaint has been established. Without this knowledge the hotel risks relying on a standard but unproductive response.

When the background is understood, staff can put themselves in the guest’s shoes to consider what they would expect to happen if the roles were reversed. Displaying empathy shows a willingness to look for a solution which addresses that particular guest’s needs. This can increase the guest’s readiness to accept an alternative to the one they had originally wanted.

In the hospitality industry there are many options available that do not require financial compensation. Upgrading a guest to an otherwise empty superior room or providing an extended checkout time may be all that is required. Small gestures can be remarkably effective.

Some guests may start by demanding the earth but most will know there is a limit to what compensation can be offered and are realistic in their expectations. They may even just be satisfied their voice has been heard. Through sensible compromise an outcome can be found that is agreeable to both parties.

Once a solution has been agreed, it needs to be restated to make sure the guest accepts and understands it. Whatever action has been decided, someone at the hotel must ensure it is carried out and in the expected time frame.

4. Acceptable costs

The fourth principle in the book revolves around using objective criteria. The ultimate goal is to have a satisfied guest. However, hotel management will have benchmarks about what is an acceptable cost and how far they are prepared to go to achieve that goal. Staff should be empowered by knowing what they can and cannot do when confronted by a guest with a complaint. This will reduce the chances of a subjective response.

There are certain complaints that are common to hotels around the world. Noise, unpleasant carpet smells and Wi-Fi charges are among those most frequently mentioned in surveys. A bland statement such as “this is hotel policy” about Wi-Fi charges will only antagonize an unhappy guest. Why is it hotel policy? More importantly, when, where and by how much can it be bent? Objective criteria are often a balance between flexibility and business realities.

It is equally important to know how to handle the rare cases where no mutually acceptable solution can be found. This is called BATNA in the book – the ‘best alternative to a negotiated agreement’.

Getting to yes

Customer service is the foundation of the hospitality industry. Courtesy, cleanliness and providing value for money are among the cornerstones of success. But things can go wrong and complaints are inevitable.

By incorporating the principled negotiation techniques described above into a hotel’s complaint handling process, it is likely that a win/win outcome can be achieved. There is little doubt that getting an upset guest to ‘yes’ requires skill and patience but with online reviews driving booking decisions as never before, having a satisfied guest makes the journey worthwhile.

About the author

Arianna O'Dell

Arianna O’Dell is the founder of Airlink Marketing, a digital agency that helps hotels, restaurants and travel destinations attract and retain clientele.