No matter how amazing your hostel, there will come a day when some lowly guest finds it unworthy of his standards. You could give everyone a 6 week old puppy to cuddle with when they check in, and this guy will complain that it's a black lab. (He prefers a golden retriever, obviously, how could you not know?) You know that expression "you can't please everyone"? Yea. That guy.
Oh my god, I would extend for infinity if a receptionist handed me this little guy.
This example may be a bit extreme, but everyone gets complaints whether warranted or not. How you deal with these complaints is what can set you apart. While staying at Backpackers by the Bay in Airlie Beach, I spoke with the owner Peter about guest relations. With their friendly and personal approach, it was easy to see why their guests liked them so much. However, knowing even the best of hostels get complaints, I asked his thoughts on the matter.
His opinion was that dealing with complaints comes down to basic common courtesy: treat others as you want to be treated. He then elaborated with an interesting point about being assertive verse being aggressive. Assertiveness means feeling comfortable being honest with someone because you have confidence in that person that he or she can help fix the issue. For example, "Unfortunately my steak was cold in the middle, and I really didn't like it." Being aggressive is often simply attacking. "My steak was cold, I'm not going to bloody pay for that!" Unfortunately, many people mix these two up.
However, just because a guest may be choosing the wrong approach to complain doesn't mean you have to in response. It is equally as important to be able to openly and calmly receive a complaint as it is to fix the problem. Being defensive may only exacerbate a small problem into something worse. Conflict resolution should involve, and suit, both parties.
The hostel motto at Pacific Tradewinds: "Be Excellent To One Another"
Most people just want to be heard, and more importantly feel like they are being heard. Acknowledging a guest and his or her inconvenience from the moment the complaint is first received can be the difference between a small annoyance and a full blown 'I want my money back, I'm gong to slam you in an online review' problem.
For example: A guest walks up to reception and says, "The girls bathroom didn't have any toilet paper last night". Responding with "Oh, yea, it was a busy night. Sorry" probably isn't going to win you hostel of the year. Yes, you said sorry and attempted to give a reason, but this type of response almost discounts the guest's feelings. It's as if she shouldn't have been that annoyed.
Consider a response like this instead: "Oh, I'm very sorry to hear that happened. We do our best to check up regularly on our bathrooms, but we must not have done it frequently enough. I apologize that you were inconvenienced, I will have this fixed immediately. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. Is there anything else I can help you with?
Is it a bit long winded for a small complaint? Yes. Is it absolutely necessary to respond like this? Maybe not. But one thing I've noticed about places whose customer service blows me away- hostels, restaurants, businesses- is that they do treat small problems as just as big of a priority as something worse. After all, who's to say what constitutes a big or small problem? I remember a guest who wanted a bottom bunk when none were available, and I was first thinking 'Suck it up, chick'. She then nearly started tearing up, saying she'd have to switch hostels. Only then did I find out she had a serious fear of heights. Beds were quickly switched around, and I felt bad for (internally) discounting her problem.
I also have a distinct memory of a day in Thailand where only finding two tiny squares of TP was more than a minor inconvenience. I give you permission to think about that fateful day of mine the next time someone complains about something you find insignificant.
Another mistake people often make is hearing but not truly listening. In the case of hostels,
this may mean you are missing a complaint without even realizing it. For example, a guest at a party hostel is chatting to reception and says "It was really loud last night, this place is crazy! You can hardly sleep here…" Responding with "Yea, we have a crazy party place for sure. Fun eh!", is simply hearing the words the guest spoke, but possibly missing the reason they were spoken.
A better example of active listening: "Yea, we have a pretty crazy party place, but we understand sometimes it's not for everyone. I see you get up quite early, are you concerned about your rest? We do offer free ear plugs. I can also see if we have a dorm available further from the bar area."
The difference in these two is taking the time to find out the real problem with the guest. Are they just whinging and whining, or are they actually upset? Some people just like to complain, but really don't care about a solution. Others may have a problem but feel a bit too shy to say something directly. The second response above offers a better chance of figuring this out. If they are just whinging, they may say 'Oh, no, it's alright, it wasn't that bad….'. On the other hand, if it really did bother them, you can now find this out while offering them a mutually agreeable solution.
Oh, I'm sure she'll think of something.
One last tip on dealing with conflict resolution comes from "Getting to Yes", a great book on the motivation behind conflict. It talks about focusing on the "why" behind the issue, rather than the problem at face value. One example from the book talks about two people in a room arguing over having a window open or closed. When asked why each wants their desired ways, the answers are simple. One wants to shut it because the draft is making him cold. The other wants it open because the room is stuffy. The solution: shut that window, and open a different one. The draft will not be directly on the first person, while the second will still get fresh air in the room.
Another example from the book is about two chefs who are both making recipes that require an orange. Unfortunately, there is only one orange left. If they split it, neither recipe will come out properly. After arguing over who gets the orange, they are asked why they need it. One chef says he needs the peel to grate into his recipe. The other needs the pulp. Win-win.
Now those are obviously simple stories, whereas reality may differ. For instance, you may have a guest complaining about a certain dorm when a switch is simply not possible. There are a myriad of other cases where you'll have to delve further into conflict resolution. However, simply working to understand the motivation of your guests' complaints, worries, or negative comments can help bring about a mutually agreeable solution that may not have been apparent at first glance.
It's also important to remember that a guest's initial complaint will often not come directly to you. Be sure your staff are trained well in handling these complaints. Besides the obvious benefit of quickly calming upset nerves, a well-trained staff may be able to diffuse small complaints enough that they don't even need to reach you. Thus leaving you with more time for that incredibly short to do list, that surely will be finished before lunch.
Working to acknowledge your guests' inconveniences, making them feel truly listened to, and finding the motivation behind their complaints isn't always easy. It takes time, effort, and patience, but think of the pay off when you have happier guests and a lack of negative reviews. The customer may not always be right, but they are still deserving of our respect. One of the best set of customer service rules I've read was actually from the manager's manual at Pacific Tradewinds (the San Francisco hostel I manage). I found them to be short and perfect: 1) Be kind and considerate whenever possible and 2) It's always possible. I can't really sum it up better than that.
How do you deal with complaints? Any tips for keeping the peace and keeping guests happy? Sign in and comment below! Then be sure to read Part 3 on responding to negative reviews.
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