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Why validation matters when guests complain

When apologising for a mishap during a guest’s stay, it’s important to be sincere and provide validation.

As a frequent business traveller, I encounter my share of gaps in service that I need to bring to the attention of the staff of hotels, airlines and rental car providers. On top of that, my ears are always open to listen in on what the frontline service providers say to my fellow travellers.

In just about all of these conversations, I hear the service provider offering to ‘fix’ the problem or resolve the issue. Most of the time they also throw in an apology, and sometimes it even sounds sincere.

Yet what I very rarely hear being said, which is actually the most important component of service recovery, is a statement that provides validation for the guest’s emotional distress that was caused by the shortcoming.

Here are some typical examples:

A guest approaches the desk, and their facial expression is showing they are irritated.

  • Guest: “I just walked all the way to my room and when I got there my key didn’t work!”
  • Front desk: “Sorry about that. Let me get you another one. By the way, don’t put it by your cell phone next time.”

As the hotel shuttle van pulls up, an arriving guest looks visibly irritated staring at a watch.

  • Guest: “They said you would be here in 10 minutes! I’ve been waiting half an hour now.”
  • Driver: “Sorry, they forgot to tell me you were here. I’ll take you right now.”

From what I observe, most staff these days are well trained on the need to apologise and to resolve the problem, although there is a tendency to remind guests that they themselves caused the problem. 

What’s usually missing is the most important component of service recovery, which is to provide validation for the guest’s emotional distress.

For years now, ‘how to handle guest complaints’ training models have mentioned empathy, which is represented by the ‘E’ in the acronyms for HEAT and LEARN; two of the most common models. However, I rarely hear statements of empathy actually being used with guests.

Perhaps this is because we have not trained the staff on the reason why we need to show empathy, which is to satisfy the distinctly human need for emotional ‘validation’. Dogs don’t need it, cats don’t need it; horses, cows and reptiles don’t need validation, but us humans? We have a deeply rooted need for emotional validation. Anyone who has ever read articles on interpersonal relationships, attended marriage counselling, or read a book on the parenting of teenagers has heard this term before.

In this context, validation is best defined as: “The affirmation or recognition that a person’s feelings and behaviours are understandable or worthwhile.”

In the hotel business, as in our everyday lives, we can provide validation simply by saying, “I understand how you feel, and I can imagine how frustrating (or disappointing or challenging) that would be.” 
When said with sincerity to a hotel guest, most will respond by saying something such as, “well, I know it’s not your fault, and you’re being very kind actually, but…”

This validating statement can be said when guests experience a problem caused by the hotel, but it also works really well when they are frustrated by something completely out of our control such as weather, traffic or flight delays.

After using this statement of empathy, it’s of course still important to continue to apologize and offer a choice of resolutions to the extent possible.

By providing validation we are able to relate to the guest on a humanistic level and provide for their emotional wellbeing. It has been said that when it comes to our emotional needs, we are all just a 4-year-old child trapped in a 24-, 40- or 64-year-old body!

Statements of validation can diffuse angry guests, but they can also be used to make an emotional connection with guests during all types of conversations throughout their stay.

For example, when guests share that their reason for travelling to your town might be more sombre than celebratory.

So when it’s time for your next monthly meeting or pre-shift line-up, add a discussion on the concept of adding statements of validation to those apologies that are already being routinely offered.

Originally published at HotelNewsNow

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Doug Kennedy

Doug Kennedy is president of the Kennedy Training Network.

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One Comment

  1. How do you suppose you can train someone to make an emotionally validating statement “with sincerity” ? It seems to me that you’re trying to brainwash staff into adopting a slavish attitude towards guests, which robs them of their dignity at work. Hospitality staff does not equal hospital staff. When we accept a hotel job in Australia , we have to be curteous and professional, it does not mean we have to”marry” our guests and adopt your ” marriage counselling” techniques, sorry. I have read some of your other contributions and I’ve found them valuable, but not this one.

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