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4 steps to handling customer complaints
January 2 2013

Taking the appropriate action can only be done after hearing a customers' problems, understanding their feelings and combining it with a sincere apology.

  • The first step is to listen to the customer, hear them out and don’t interrupt.
  • By naming the emotion, expressing understanding and placing yourself in the customer’s place, you begin the process of diffusing the situation.
  • Taking the appropriate action can only be done after hearing the problem, understanding the customer’s feelings and combining it with a sincere apology.
By Jim Hartigan
HNN columnist

As a lifetime manager and service industry professional, I have a confession to make. I really like the latest wave of reality TV shows that track the fixing of a hotel or restaurant. Of course, as a hotelier, my favorite is “Hotel Impossible” on the Travel Channel.

The premise focuses on a struggling hotel owner/operator who brings in Anthony Melchiorri, a hotel "fixer" who can turn any establishment around in just weeks. Each episode features a hotel that is not living up to its potential, and Melchiorri secretly scouts the property, identifying its biggest problems. He then meets with the staff and the owners to determine how best to solve the key operation issues. Within the hour he has the place turned around.

My other favorite is “Restaurant Stakeout” on the Food Network. In the show, Willie Degel—who runs a tight ship at his own restaurants—deploys hidden cameras to keep a close eye on the staff and patrons in the troubled establishment. Degel then uses tough love to help the restaurateurs save their businesses.

As I watch these shows, I’ve noticed that beyond the basics of cleanliness and keeping your establishment in good condition, a pervasive theme throughout seems to be poor customer service. Specifically, team members in these troubled hotels and restaurants don’t seem to know how to deal with customer complaints. This takes me back to my roots when we used the acronym HEAT to help team members remember the four steps to follow when a customer complains. It’s easy to remember, because it’s likely you will take some HEAT until you turn things around. What is HEAT? I’m glad you asked.

Hear: The first step is to listen to the customer. Hear them out. Don’t interrupt. Sometimes a customer just wants to vent. Of course, other times they have a real problem that needs solving. Try to listen for cues about what’s really bugging them. Is it the problem with their meal or their room? Or is it that they are now running late? If the real problem is time, then that takes a different twist to your solution; you have to solve the problem fast.

Empathize: Empathy is defined as the ability to imagine oneself in another's place and understand the other's feelings, desires, ideas and actions. Over the years, I have found the best way to do this (and teach team members how to do it) is by naming the emotion. You have to articulate to the customer what they are feeling and validate it. “I understand how you feel, I’d be frustrated too.” Or, “I completely understand and if that happened to me, it would make me very upset.” By naming the emotion, expressing understanding and placing yourself in the customer’s place, you begin the process of diffusing the situation.

Apologize:  This is a big one, and easy. It goes like this: “I’m sorry.” It can be that easy. Unfortunately, many line-level team members tend to take this sort of thing personally and feel apologizing for something they may not have had any control over to be uncomfortable. My advice: Get over it. Nobody said it was your fault. We aren’t blaming you, so apologize already. To be more powerful, add a little of empathy. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience this has caused you. I’m really very sorry this happened.”

Take action:  Going from apology to taking action should be seamless. The very next sentence out of your mouth should be what you’re going to do about the customer’s complaint. The customer deserves to know what is going to happen next and what they can expect. The foundation to most customer complaints is the disconnect from what was expected and what actually happened. This is your chance to reestablish an expectation and deliver on it. Taking the appropriate action can only be done if you really hear the problem, fully understand the customer’s feelings and combine it with a sincere apology.

So, before you call on my friends at the Food Network or the Travel Channel, take some time and share the principles of HEAT with your team. I bet you find fewer customer complaints coming to you and more customer compliments about how team members dealt with unfortunate occurrences. Until next time, remember, take care of your customers, take care of each other and take care of yourself.

Jim Hartigan, chief business development Officer and partner joined OrgWide Services, a learning, communications, surveys and consulting firm in April 2010 after nearly 30 years experience in the hospitality industry, including the last 18 as a senior executive with Hilton Worldwide. Jim brings to OrgWide a reputation for driving change through improved business processes and developing comprehensive strategies that streamline operations, drive brand awareness and preference, and increase customer satisfaction.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its parent company, STR and its affiliated companies. Columnists published on this site are given the freedom to express views that may be controversial, but our goal is to provoke thought and constructive discussion within our reader community. Please feel free to comment or contact an editor with any questions or concerns.

12/9/2015 3:46:00 AM
yeah I know that and I respect what they try to do not trying to be rude or anything
12/9/2015 3:45:00 AM
why can't people accept that everyone does wrong???????
7/20/2015 10:09:00 AM
Nice one
7/12/2015 4:22:00 AM
This is the best ideas about hotel complaints first try to be listen to the guest be clearly then try to understand what types complaints
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