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Op Ed: When guests complain, sincere empathy from staff can make a difference

Doug Kennedy on guest service: "Obsequious service recovery is meaningless, but heartfelt apologies foster forgiveness"

You can learn a lot from random conversations with fellow passengers on airplanes.

Recently while flying out to present a hospitality training class, my seatmate turned out to be a clinical psychologist. She noticed a slide on a presentation deck I was working on that referenced expressing heartfelt empathy before apologizing. “Oh, I totally agree with that!” she said, “I just hate obsequious apologies.”

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As I was a failure at learning a second language, I always strive to at least master English, so I’m always eager to learn a new word. That word is obsequious, or being attentive in a way that is excessive, such as a fawning attentiveness.

What a perfect word for a fake apology! I’m pretty sure readers can recall experiences in which you received a fake apology that lacked sincerity.

Probably the only experience worse than hearing an obsequious apology is receiving a digital one, obviously written by artificial intelligence.

For example, I recently complained to a top-tier rental car company, of which I am a long-term loyalty member, for sending me out in a rental car that had all four tires dangerously low on air. As I shared in a detailed email, I had not noticed the pressure warning light until I had gotten pretty far down a dark, remote stretch of interstate highway, late at night, and that this was scary because I did not know if it was a flat tire or just low. Here is their reply:

“Thank you for taking the time to tell us about your recent experience. We appreciate your feedback since it helps us improve our service and your rental experience.

You indicated in your response that receiving a car with four tires low on air was unsatisfactory. Please accept my sincere apologies for the inconvenience you have experienced. You are a valued customer; everything we do is aimed at providing you with an excellent car rental experience. We would like to regain your trust and hope to serve you again in the future.”

Based on this obviously automated, obsequious reply, I certainly did NOT feel like a valued customer. However, too often even the in-person, spoken apologies of humans feel obsequious and fall flat.

Traditional guest services training teaches a formula for an apology: “I understand how you feel, and I apologize for the situation.” The most important ingredient is to personalize empathy. Otherwise, it will feel fake and therefore worse than no apology at all.

Those who listen attentively will recognize that most guests make it easy for us to personalize empathy when they state their complaints. For example, few if any guests simply voice complaints like “There was an ant on my balcony …” or “There was a hair on the shower curtain …” or “The TV remote is not working!”

It seems every guest gives us a bit of their dramatic version of events, letting us know how horribly this has impacted them and/or completely ruined their entire trip. Here are examples:

“It has been raining all week and this morning we FINALLY got to use our balcony, but as soon as I sat down there was an ant on the armchair! This place is INFESTED with insects!”

“My wife was finally going to get her shower after getting the kids to bed, but when she pulled back the shower curtain, there was a HAIR on it! This whole place is filthy.”

“We’ve driven seven hours today with two little kids, and when we FINALLY get into our room all we wanted to do was find Paw Patrol for them to watch so we could unpack, but this STUPID remote is not working!”

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Now, some service providers simply move right on to the solution. “I’ll send someone from maintenance over with a can of Raid (or batteries).” Or “I’ll have a housekeeper get over there to eliminate that hair.” Well, quite frankly, I would take that over an obsequious, heartless, “formula” apology.

However, the best way to truly resolve guest complaints is to personalise the empathy by simply restating back some of the story they have shared, but of course, a sincere tone of voice is important here.

Some examples:

“I can just imagine how disappointing it has been to have rain every day of your vacation this week, and then when you finally get blue skies today, to discover an ant wanting to share your view. I apologize that this happened.”

“Oh no! Speaking as a mom (or a dad married to a mom), I know that my bath time is my escape, and I am so sorry that we overlooked checking the shower curtain. I apologize for our housekeeper’s oversight, and there’s just no excuse for that.”

“Ah, I remember those days, and I can imagine how stressful it can be with a carload of restless kids for such a long drive. I am so sorry that we somehow overlooked checking the batteries.”

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Now, instead of being obsequious, your staff will sound sincere, forthright, and the message will be perceived as being heartfelt. This is how you completely change the trajectory of the guest interaction. More often than not, the next words out of the guest’s mouth will go something like this:

“Well, I know it’s not your fault, and you are being very nice … .” Followed by:

“… It really was just one small ant, but it’s just that we were finally getting to enjoy the view.”

“… Actually, it was just the one hair, and I realize that blonde hair on a yellow shower curtain might be easy to miss …”

“… In checking, the remote I’m holding actually says Cabana Bay Fan company, so maybe it might be the wrong one.”

In summary, when you train your team to empathize, remind them to think about the situation the guest is in and to listen to the story they are telling. Remind them to personalize the empathy statement, then offer a simple apology, and move on to the resolution. If you follow this approach, you just might turn a potential online complaint into a social media promoter!

As previously published on www.

Doug Kennedy is President of the Kennedy Training Network, Inc. a leading provider of hotel sales, guest service, reservations, and front desk training programs and telephone mystery shopping services for the lodging and hospitality industry. His articles have been published worldwide and he is the author of “So You REALLY Like Working With People? – Five Principles for Hospitality Excellence.” .

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