Never try to prove guests wrong, even when they are

Coming up through the ranks in the hotel industry, I remember well hearing my managers use the old adage “The customer is always right.”

At one hotel they even put a sign up that said: “Rule number one: the customer is always right.

Rule number two: when the customer is wrong, see rule number one.” In recent years I have learned that the original phrase dates back to 1909 and is now credited to Harry Gordon Selfridge, who was the founder of Selfridge’s department stores in London. Of course in the hotel business we refer to our customers as guests, but the idea is the same.

As my frontline career progressed from being a bellman into hotel management and for many years now into the field of hotel training, I have long since realized that often customers are flat out wrong. Sometimes, the customers themselves are the cause of problems that occur. Yet one thing I have learned for sure is that any effort to prove guests wrong will surely fail. At most, it will result in having them simply fail to return next time, thus resulting in a loss opportunity for repeat business. At worst, it can result in us trampling on their emotions and causing them to blast a hotel’s reputation via social media and online guest reviews.

When it comes to our most fundamental needs as human beings and as hotel guests, food, clothing and shelter are certainly at the top of the list. Well at least food and shelter; there are some resorts I’ve done training for over the years where clothing is an option! (Readers – please be advised that the hotel staff at these resorts – AND their hotel trainers – are always fully clothed!) Right behind those basic physical needs comes our human need for validation. When something goes wrong, what we need most is to hear someone say “I understand how you feel” and “I apologize that this occurred.” Nothing good will result from a service provider’s effort to place blame on the guest.

Recently I experienced firsthand what it feels like as a guest to be blamed for a deficiency in service, and in this case it truly was not my fault. While staying at an upscale hotel in New York City I found myself working late in my room as usual, so I decided to order dinner from room service. I still remember what a superstar of hospitality the in-room dining operator was, as she patiently helped me with questions on healthy choices on the menu and took time to empathize with how tragic it was that I was stuck working instead of enjoying my visit to The City. When I called back for desert I was even more impressed, as she asked if I wanted to pre-order my breakfast! What’s more, when I ordered my coffee she specifically asked if I preferred cream or milk, which I certainly noted as being above and beyond.

Next morning right on time came the knock on the door, and a friendly smile was on the other side as my room service waiter enthusiastically greeted me, taking time to review my order to make sure it was correct. “Wow,” I thought, “He sure seemed awfully happy to be working at such an early hour.” When I sat down to eat the first thing I noticed was that there was no milk nor even cream. I actually felt bad about it, knowing the waiter had confirmed that everything looked perfect just moments before and that he would have to make a special trip back.

With high expectations based on the great service so far, I called in-room dining once again to request the milk. This time I got a different operator, and when I explained that there was no milk or cream on the tray her response was “Well, you have to ask for it when you order.”

Now normally I might have had some self-doubt as to whether I did in fact request it, but in this case I recalled all too well how the operator before had pro-actively offered me the choice. Being in the hospitality business, I managed to restrain my reaction to the human emotions I felt when I was blamed for this error. Sure enough the smiling waiter promptly brought the missing item. However, for most guests, comments such as these trigger a negative, emotionally based reaction (or over-reaction) that can ruin an otherwise positive service experience.

If you have not done so recently, perhaps now is a great time to remind your hospitality team of the proper way to handle guest complaints. First, train them to listen attentively without interrupting as the guest shares their story.

Often the guest will have a tale to tell about how the seemingly little thing that went wrong was really a big deal for them. Show that you are listening by maintaining eye contact and using appropriate (serous yet attentive) facial expressions. Next, express empathy and understanding by saying something such as “I understand how you might feel” or “I can imagine feeling the same way.”

Now the most important part – apologize – even if it is not your fault nor even the hotel’s fault. Sometimes we in the hospitality industry have to apologize for things well outside of our sphere of influence such as the rain that spoiled their vacation or the late flight that ruined their business plans. Then it is time to resolve the problem, offering alternatives if possible. Giving the guest a choice leads them back to a rational line of thinking.

Finally, the main lesson I wanted to share as a reminder in this writing, never try to prove the guest wrong, even if they are!

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