Complaining about a service failure and getting satisfactory resolution is never easy. It helps if you clearly identify the issue, the cause, and a solution that the business can offer to keep you as a happy customer. And that last part is key. Businesses want to keep happy customers. If you’re going to be an unreasonable jerk and threaten never to patronize them again, well, they’ll probably be glad to see you go. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of this post.
Two recent incidents — one submitted by a reader and another during my honeymoon — made me think that handling these complaints at a hotel can be very different from how they’re handled with an airline.
When something goes wrong on a plane, there’s usually not much that can be done about it. Sure, you can ask for a new meal, or you can ask to be re-seated (assuming there are any spare seats available). But more likely than not the problem occurred after you got locked into a narrow metal tube with 200 other people for the next six hours. The problem doesn’t get addressed until you’re already at your destination, when all the airline can do is offer a few extra miles or a discount on a future trip.
At a hotel, time is on your side. You probably have several hours before you need to go to bed your first night, giving the staff time to find another room or solve any issues with the existing room. There is almost always an even better room, even if you already have a suite. And hotels have other amenities they can offer to smooth over ruffled feathers during your stay.
All this depends on how responsive the hotel is to guests’ complaints, which itself often depends on how the customer handles the situation.
Pick Your Battles Wisely
A reader emailed me about a problem with the bed sheets at a Hyatt hotel. She was already upset because her Diamond upgrade wasn’t properly processed when she requested it, so the hotel had to put her in a standard room. And then in her room she found that the queen-sized bed had a very small mattress cover — something you might find on a rollaway.
No other rooms were available, but what made it worse is that the front desk agent started arguing with her about how it was “impossible” because all mattress covers were the same size. Clearly not, as the other queen bed in the room demonstrated. But that’s beside the point. The front desk shouldn’t be arguing with a customer.
The reader asked me: Is this worth complaining about? I told her the mattress pad wasn’t, but the agent’s behavior was. And I also told her not to bring up the suite upgrade. That’s corporate’s problem — the hotel would have honored the upgrade if it was entered correctly when the reservation was made.
In the morning she was able to speak with a manager, who apologized and sent up some wine and chocolate truffles to make up for the issue. I’m sure housekeeping also got a lecture and made doubly sure a properly sized mattress pad was on her bed that evening.
Remember what I said about time being on your side? It took about 12-18 hours for a satisfactory resolution — by which time a flight would be over — but the reader checked out happy.
But If You Don’t, Stay Calm and Reasonable
When one thing goes wrong, we start looking for other things that are wrong, too. I checked in to a Westin hotel during my honeymoon and received a complimentary upgrade on an award booking. Nice! But then I was told I had to pay for breakfast, and if I didn’t pay right then the price would go up 50%. What the… ?
This particular hotel normally offers complimentary breakfast on all its rates. But award bookings — even cash and points bookings like this one — are not included. If I had realized that, the math of using points would be very different, and I would have booked elsewhere.
Feeling taken advantage of, we went to the room where the situation got worse. While nearly all rooms at this hotel have an ocean view — and the room category I originally booked specifically mentioned one — this “upgrade” had a giant tree in front of the window. The patio was also pretty filthy. It seemed we were in the one neglected part of the hotel that never got maintained.
Then the power went out. And on. And out. Four times.
I tweeted to @SPG about the condition of the room and my dissatisfaction. They replied later saying the hotel was taking care of it, but the only message I got from the front desk was: “Oh, the power does go out now and then. It’s the power plant, not our fault.” I told @SPG again that I was not satisfied since the power was actually the least of my concerns. The next day I found the rooms director running all over the property trying to find me, so +1 to Starwood’s Twitter team.
We sat down for a chat and I explained — very calmly — how this situation escalated. I took the blame for the misunderstanding over breakfast (it was not explicitly included in the confirmation email), but I pointed out that the hotel seemed to be treating its award guests as second class. I said, unequivocally, that the maintenance issue with the room must have been going on for months, which she accepted. And then I said that when the hotel fails to take care of things within its control, it ends up with frustrated customers like me who start to blame it for things outside its control, like the power failures.
She offered an upgrade to a villa, which I refused because I was tired and only had 36 hours left at the property. The solution we settled on was to waive the breakfast charges. I think she got off easy, since I probably would have complained to corporate about that anyway.
Everyone has a different threshold for pain, and a different idea of what they think they’re entitled to. I don’t mean to judge what you think is worth complaining about. Maybe the examples in these two stories were silly, but I know much sillier complaints — believe me. The point is how this reader and I handled them. I think we had reasonable expectations, and we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to consider the situations resolved. We both got what we wanted. The hotels learned why we were upset and hopefully took action to address those issues before another guest encountered them.
I’ll end by saying that it helps to be flexible. On that stay during our honeymoon, Megan and I wondered if we should just leave. The rate wasn’t that expensive, and one benefit of award flights on United is you can always rebook. We could have easily gotten back in the taxi and headed to the airport, picking up the first flight to just about anywhere. And in retrospect, we should have. More problems occurred during — and after — our stay. But I’ll leave that for the trip report.