More than damage limitation: How to deal with guest conflict


People old enough to remember the TV series Fawlty Towers – or with access to the DVD box set – will know just how not to deal with customer complaints. The increasingly manic and blundering failures of Basil Fawlty and his staff in dealing with what should be resolvable problems made the show a classic of its time. The series was actually based on a real hotel and Fawlty’s character on a real hotelier, although whether the original proprietor could perform the Nazi goose step with such aplomb is not known. Nonetheless, the fact that this is so should not come as such a surprise.

The pages of hotel review sites will contain some remarkable comments and while there will be occasions when the gripes are unjustified or exaggerated, there will be enough truth in them to show that there are many hotels that fail dismally to deal with customer complaints. Quite a few hotels will have their own equivalents of the incident where a lady complains about a lack of a sea view, only to be told brusquely by Basil: “Madam, you can see the sea – it’s over there between the land and the sky.” These will be picked up by readers of reviews – who will respond by deciding to book somewhere else.

Throw away the spade

The problem so hilariously highlighted in Fawlty Towers was the tendency to do the exact opposite of the saying “when you are in a hole, stop digging”. For managers who want to prevent a problem escalating into a major complaint and a subsequently turning into a damaging online review, the right approach is essential.

Manage expectations

Before a guest even passes through the doors, of course, expectations have to be managed. Obviously if your hotel is not a five-star establishment they cannot reasonably expect the ultimate in luxury. However, there does need to be a good understanding of what can be expected – and you must deliver that. For this reason, it is important when advertising your hotel not to exaggerate what you offer. Otherwise, if you claim to be offering the ultimate in luxury, don’t be surprised when someone is unhappy with something less.

Respond well

Often a bad review highlights not just the initial issue, but the response that comes from staff. If the body language suggests they do not care, the words used in response appear uncaring or the tone is loud, tense or aggressive, that can make things much worse. Whenever Basil Fawlty was faced with such situations, he always became cranky. His arms were often folded, creating negative body language. And the customer invariably got angrier. If this was exaggerated for effect, it is nonetheless the case that a positive tone, a clear interest in solving the issue and an evident willingness to help can de-escalate the situation quickly. It is by doing this that the guest is likely to calm down and be more willing to listen as you explain what you are going to do. And that means not getting wound up yourself, even if the customer has said something offensive or unjustified.

Be understanding

The key to solving a complaint is to understand what customers want. They have paid for a certain level of service and want an enjoyable stay. They also want to know that the staff are doing their jobs by endeavouring to provide that. To begin with, a good attitude should be displayed by apologising to the customer, even if it is not clear that anyone at the hotel is at fault. Having done this, show lots of empathy and be willing to listen. By clearly putting yourself in the customer’s shoes, you can create an atmosphere in which the problems can be solved practically.

Move fast

One thing Basil Fawlty never managed to do was get a problem sorted swiftly. This may have had a lot to do with the blunderings of Manuel and the unpredictable attitude of his wife. Needless to say, this always made matters worse. By contrast, nothing can do more to help get a customer onside again than resolving the problem with speed or efficiency. Whether that means changing a piece of unclean bedding, moving them to another room or fixing a damaged or broken appliance, doing so rapidly can not only calm the customer down, but may even lead to them offering a positive review afterwards praising the staff. To really show you care, follow up with the customer afterwards to check that the problem has definitely been solved.

It’s a team effort

Finally, make sure your hotel staff are well trained and equipped to deal with situations. Naturally, this was not the case in Mr Fawlty’s establishment as Manuel added his own brand of calamity to every situation. Once again, the exaggeration was for comedy effect, but staff competence matters. So too, however, does enabling them to exercise responsibility and initiative, rather than having to refer every detail to superiors.

By doing so, they can take swifter and more decisive steps to help resolve problems, and give a more positive impression of themselves to guests.