TRAIN: The gentle art of handling complaints

The unhappy guest and the hotel staff meet at a border — always a place of uncertainty. How will the border be crossed? Is there a way back? This month, the Luxury Academy offers a brief tutorial on how to make wrong into right

An unhappy guest does not want to be interrupted. There is a story to be told, and they want to tell it. There may be several explanations for what has gone wrong with their experience of the hotel, many of which may be perfectly sound and eminently reasonable. Those explanations will have to wait. The first step towards resolving a complaint is to listen and hear it in full.

Listening is not a passive activity. We are all attuned to nuance and inflection, and to small signifiers that show us we are being listened to. We call it empathy, which has a deeply eloquent verbal and non-verbal vocabulary. Empathy is unspoken: non-threatening eye contact, arms at the side rather than folded, an open stance, a small inclination of the head at appropriate intervals. Empathy is spoken: secure a beat of time to say, I understand this is frustrating for you. Empathy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to defuse a difficult situation.

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‘Yes’ is stronger than ‘no’. It’s among the words the guest most wants to hear. Avoid negatives — saying ‘I don’t understand how this could have happened’ has the ring of sympathy, but it opens up a world of unhelpful possibilities. Avoid suggesting that the guest’s experience is entirely anomalous (even if it is); this avoids making the guest feel isolated or suggesting that they may be mistaken (even if they are).

Once you’ve created a climate of trust and sincerity through listening, empathising and acknowledging, your unhappy guest will almost certainly be prepared to hear what you have to say. They’re ready for the hotel to react. Use a calm tone to explain what will happen next. Keep it simple: say what you’re going to do, how long it will take and what the result will be.

Whatever the nature of the complaint, it is no longer the guest’s problem. By now, they should be feeling disburdened of negative feelings and disappointment. It is now the hotel’s challenge to overcome. Make sure all other departments who need to be aware of the situation and how it arose are fully apprised. If the complaint has left your sphere of responsibility, there’s still work to be done. Whatever unfortunate chain of events prompted the complaint simply cannot happen again.

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