I’ve had a theory for a while about how many companies handle customer complaints. I call it the “do only as much as you think you have to” theory of customer service. The way it works is simple. When a customer has a complaint, listen and then offer the absolute minimum amount of response. If they are not satisfied, do a little more. If they still don’t smile and act happy, then offer a little more. But don’t offer the customer too much at any given step of the exchange. Make them push you so they “earn” the next level of service.
At first I thought this was just the result of front line employees not having the authority to do any more than offer a weak apology (some don’t even do that). Well, I have now seen enough instances where this same step by step plan is used that I can only conclude it’s a strategy devised by execs who spend too much time counting their nickels and dimes and not enough time calculating the cost of customer attrition.
Either way, it’s alive and well. Our latest example was in a small town in Iowa over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. We drove almost 400 miles to go to a friend’s wedding and then enjoy some of the historic cities along the upper Mississippi River Valley. (It’s a beautiful part of the country.)
Saturday afternoon we pulled into our hotel. This was referred to us by our friend as the “best hotel in town”. It was a major chain we liked so it was an easy decision. Walking in the lobby the place was clean, cool, well decorated, roomy and comfortable looking. We knew we made the right choice.
When we got to the desk and gave the clerk our name he said the worst words you can hear in that situation. “We don’t have your reservation” he told us. After some research, it turned out they did have our reservation but it had been set for June rather than July.
One of their employees had made the reservation a month early and then had canceled it.
I certainly understand that people make mistakes. But this was a big one. Mistakes like this are fatal for a hotel. This is why they have systems and procedures that track everything. Their entire livelihood is dependent on NOT making mistakes like this when they reserve rooms.
So, here we are at the tail end of a 400-mile drive, our friend’s wedding starts in less than two hours and this hotel, “the best in town” has messed up our reservation. The hotel manager has just told us they have no room available for us. In my mind, this is a perfect opportunity for a customer service miracle, for them to show us how good they really are, for them to make us customers for life.
Instead, all he said was “I’m sorry.”
And, he didn’t really look or sound sorry. He looked and sounded like he wanted us to take our problem, pack it in a suitcase and leave so he could get on with his busy day.
When I said that was not good enough his response was they could call their “sister” property in the next city up river (about 20 miles away). He thought they might have a room open.
Again, I told him that was not good enough. Our friend’s wedding was in THIS town. If we wanted to be 20 miles away, we would have reserved a room there in the first place. We needed a room in town. He assured us there would be nothing available in town on this busy weekend. (Of course, that’s why we make reservations several months in advance, isn’t it?)
After more discussion the manager offered to call some of the other local hotels and motels for us. When he found one he reserved a room for us and gave us directions to get there.
To his credit, the manager offered to pay for the room without any prompting from us. (The phrase “a day late and a dollar short comes to mind here…”)
The replacement room was in an old motel on a busy highway. Remember the old “motor inns”, where you drive right up to your room? That’s where we stayed. On the plus side, it was neat and clean and well maintained. And the people were friendly. But, it didn’t come close to a new hotel with all the amenities we were looking forward to.
Some people would be thrilled to get a free night’s stay. Not me. I’d rather pay and get the comfort I expect. Not that we throw money around. But, I like my creature comforts and I’ll gladly pay a little more for a clean room in a newer, quiet hotel.
And the fact that we had to fight every step of the way just to get a room in town did not make me feel like a valued customer. We had to push and prod them every step of the way until they finally gave in and did the right thing.
The sad thing is they could have made the situation entirely different. They could have made us raving fans of their brand. Instead we see them as greedy, uncaring and self-focused.
If they wanted to make us loyal customers for life, here’s how they should have handled this mess:
1. Apologize and mean it.
2. Find us another room in town immediately without any discussion.
3. Insist on paying for the replacement room.
4. Buy us dinner at a local restaurant.
5. Ask us if there is anything else they can do to make our stay more comfortable while we’re in their town.
6. Send us a written apology with a certificate for a free night’s stay the next time we travel.
I’ve never met a customer who expected perfection. People understand that we all make mistakes. It’s how you respond to a mistake that tells your customers how much you value their business.
If you want to turn a complaint into a customer for life you need to apologize and fix the problem as completely as possible and without hesitation. Don’t skimp on your service recovery.
Do you agree or I am being too demanding?