Conquering Complaints: Part 1 - A Complaint Is Like a Carrot

Recently I was asked by a long-term client to offer a training module specifically geared toward handling guest complaints. I’ve always covered service recovery as part of my existing hospitality excellence training, focusing on using proactive hospitality and anticipating guests’ needs in order to avoid complaints before they occur. However, this mixed-use resort’s staff had already been through that training many times and wanted me to specifically address the topic of complaints. Their leaders realize that with the proliferation of online guest reviews and social media postings, service levels are more transparent than ever before. In other words, the guest services staff is now officially part of the marketing team.

Needing to create some new and original content, I decided to do research upfront on what else was out there on the subject of guest complaints. To my surprise, what I mostly found was that the same old concepts are still being recycled from way back in the time when I started my career as a bellman. For example, there were countless variations of the acronym for L-E-A-R-N, most starting with “listen, empathize, apologize” and then substituting slightly different words for R and N; I saw numerous references to “stay calm and take notes,” all of which is certainly still important. 

Other posts still referenced some version of, “An unhappy customer tells nine to 10 others...” Some of those posts I read attributed studies done as late as 1999, although the studies were actually first published by the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs – Technical Assistance Research Project (TARP) in 1986. 

These days we need to add a few zeros to how many people an unhappy customer can reach — a simple online guest review easily attracts 900 views in its first week alone. If a customer rant goes viral on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, it can quickly reach millions of views.

I feel like it’s time for some new content on this subject, so I hope readers will find value in my new article series that I call “Conquering Complaints™.” 

The first step in conquering complaints is to understand a complaint’s root causes. It occurred to me that a familiar root vegetable was a perfect physical representation of these root causes, so I call it the “Carrot Model™.”

Why a carrot? If you’ve ever planted one in a backyard vegetable garden, you know that the only part visible while growing is the leafy greens sprouting out of the top. This represents the part of the complaint that frontline associates see being presented to them by the guest, whether in person or on the phone, as the issue to be resolved.  

Just below the surface lies the cause of the problem — represented by the orange, edible part of the carrot. The top of this part represents what employees often think of as being the cause of the guest’s verbal complaint, which is typically about a long wait time, an error, a physical shortcoming in a guest’s accommodation or a process issue.  
 
However, it’s the “tip” of the carrot that is representative of the actual root cause of the complaint. The reaction of the guest is displayed on the surface — the raw human emotion that we all sometimes feel as customers and guests.  

Based on my experiences as both a lodging industry trainer and previously working behind the counter of my parent’s small business and at hotels, I truly think that addressing the emotional component of a guest’s complaints is the foundation of any solution.

I believe that guests are even more in need of validation than they are of a resolution to their issue. How many times have you heard a guest start their complaint with some version of, “Now I know there’s nothing you can do about it now, but…”

Certainly, there is a small percentage of guests of whom I call “Free Stuff Seekers,” basically just looking for something to complain about in order to get a concession or comp; Those customers will be addressed later in this series. It’s also true that many guest complaint scenarios do present opportunities to satisfactorily resolve the issue or shortcoming before it’s too late.

Yet, I would argue that because of the root cause being the need for validation, one is better off in a situation where you successfully validate the guest’s emotional needs while not being able to repair or resolve, than one is when you resolve the issue but fail to validate them. You see this concept being well documented frequently in guest surveys and reviews that say: “It was bad that X happened, but what really made me mad was that no one seemed to care and no one apologized.”

In summary, step one in training your staff to conquer complaints is to make sure they fully understand the root causes run deeper than what is being presented to them in person or on the phone. In order to have compassion for the complainer, they need to realize there is probably a story behind the guest’s frustration, which on the surface might otherwise seem to them as being a bit overblown. Stay tuned to this publication for future articles in this series. 

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Conquering Complaints: Part 1 - A Complaint Is Like a Carrot