Updated: Dec 7, 2020
IF THERE IS CONFLICT BETWEEN STAFF AND GUESTS,
WE NEED TO BE THE ONES TO FIND COMMON GROUND
In the service industry there is a famous myth we are taught, which we base our philosophy on throughout our careers.
Most days that is what reminds us why we chose the industry and why we are there, but at some point in our paths we all experience situations where we have a hard time holding on to that philosophy. That myth is known as “The guest is alway right”.
This affirmation was originally conceived in the beginning of the 20th century by Harry Gordon Selfridge - the founder of Selfridge's department store in London - who understood early on that the success of his business would depend on the happiness of his customers. Ever since, the slogan is something companies teach their employees to convince them to always give priority to customer’s satisfaction.
I want to believe that when Mr Selfridge came up with this slogan, he did not mean that we should take the guest’s side in every situation, no matter their behavior and approach. As I have witnessed many circumstances where guests tend to take advantage of their position to push for what they want - and they sometimes do so in unacceptable ways - I prefer to read it this way: “We must always do our best to satisfy our customers, with the only condition of courteous manners and mutual respect on both sides of the exchange".
I say this because there is a difference between demanding the service that’s due to you as a guest, and acting unreasonably and abusively. This is what we consider crossing the line.
As situations of this kind unfortunately do occur sometime in our world, I am sure many of you will agree with me and know exactly what I am talking about, so there is really no need for detailed explanations or examples. We all know what I am referring to.
What I want to discuss is what we can do as a united front to handle these scenarios in the most appropriate way for guests and for staff.
When guests abuse their power and cross the line displaying disrespectful and insulting conducts, what is absolutely crucial is that we give support to our staff, lead the conversation with the guest in a polite and compassionate way getting our point across, the point being that this type of behavior is unacceptable in our environment.
In my career I have seen managers make this approach one of the pillars of their leadership, and these are in my experience healthy and considerate work environments.
However I have also seen managers bending to the will of the guest no matter what, perhaps due to lack of experience and inability to handle conflict, but in some cases due to fear of the guest.
I have seen guests being verbally abusive, acting aggressively, threatening the staff, manipulating management, in ways that we should really not allow in our workplace.
The truth is many of us are afraid of guests these days, because we are worried they might damage our reputation if we don't give them what they want, and because tools such as social media and online reviews platforms have given them a dangerous power.
But what's the price if we simply surrender? If we are afraid of what the guest might do, our lack of authority will send the wrong message to both parties: the guest will walk away with the awareness that this is the way to obtain what they want, and the staff will walk away feeling vulnerable, defeated and unprotected. When we allow guests to act this way and we reward this type of behavior, what kind of example are we giving to the people who look up to us?
I am always willing to listen to guests and try to understand them, defend them, and do what I can to make them happy, but I personally refuse to bend to unreasonable conducts. I am completely aware that some battles are not worth the fight and sometimes we just need to let go, but when the exchange is no longer cordial, I always make it my priority to defend my people. I was in their position for many years after all and I know what they are going through, so I want them to know I have their back and I don’t allow any disrespect towards my team. After all, we teach people to be courteous with and considerate of one another in the work environment and in our personal lives, so why would we allow disgraceful attitudes when it comes to guests?
With that in mind, I want to move on to talk about what is happening in the service industry right now, during the pandemic. After being closed for several months, hotels, restaurants and activities have finally reopened, and the sad reality I read and hear everywhere is that what we thought would be finally a good moment, is in fact being a bit of a nightmare.
I am not working at the moment, and therefore I cannot speak for myself, but I often talk to - or read comments of - colleagues who are back to work. I must say on one end I am sensitive to what they are going through and I feel for them, but on the other end I am once again overwhelmed with a feeling of negativity.
It seems that the post-lockdown world of hospitality is filled with guests who are being extremely demanding and abusive, who are inconsiderate of the rules, and who are - with the words of the workers - taking advantage of the situation. The other side of the medal shows a reality where service staff is no longer willing to understand and accept these behaviors, and they feel like they have taken too much in the last few months.
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of talking to fellow hotelier Kyle Allison (co-founder and podcast host for Hospitality MD), who gave me the opportunity to share some thoughts on his podcast. We had a very interesting conversation about this topic, and I am excited to share the interview here. One of the discussions that came up was the controversy described above, in my opinion the result of a social issue which is much bigger than hospitality and that worries me a bit.
So what are hospitality workers saying?
That guests are completely out of control: they create conflict with employees simply for being told to wear a mask or respect the rules; they feel authorized to scream and insult, verbally harass, mentally abuse, even threaten and in some cases unfortunately physically attack staff members.
They say guests are extremely demanding and unreasonable, and that they feel entitled in a way they never have before.
They say guests are walking out on checks; they sign bills with fake names or room numbers or find other ways to avoid paying; they damage hotel property and trash rooms; they steal from the hotel or from other guests.
They say guests are not considerate of what workers are going through during these times, they are critical of limited hours and limited options, they are convinced things should be back to normal by now, and they are very opinionated about how things should be. They don’t understand this is not over, we are still in the very middle of it.
Also they are not afraid to leave bad reviews and destroy reputations. This particularly saddens me… I was hoping we would know better that these are not times to write bad reviews.
What are the consequences of these situations?
That hospitality workers feel like themselves and their teams are taking too much abuse, they want to leave the industry because they have had enough of undesirable behaviors and of the fact that guests don’t seem to understand they are only trying to do their jobs.
What are the possible explanations people are trying to come up with for these conducts?
Some colleagues think that because guests know how deeply the industry is affected and how badly it needs business - any business, they are taking advantage of an already tough situation.
Others seem to be attributing this to age, noting that their guests are younger than 30 and not well travelled or less civil.
Others are associating it with the fact that rates have significantly dropped, and therefore hotels now appeal to guests who come from a lower income bracket. In other words people who typically can’t afford to stay in hotels are now able to do so because the rates are affordable, and affordable rates attract uncivil guests. I would like to discredit this argument right away because I personally don't appreciate this kind of comment. I simply refuse to associate someone's level of wealth with the way people carry themselves. Ignorant and uncivil people are to be found in every part of our society, and stereotypes are only for those who can’t look further.
Thankfully, this mindset is not rooted everywhere. If we look past this negative connotation, it is uplifting to hear positive observations from workers who say their guests are simply amazing, that there are many who are polite and understanding, who thank management for being able to reopen and who appreciate what the workers are doing for them.
It is also encouraging to see that there are people who are trying to look at the issue with a different (and more human) perspective, and to identify the real reason behind these demeanors.
Here are some observations I read that I particularly appreciated:
“Some guests might come from an area where the situation is not so bad, where there are less restrictions, so we can and we should help them understand how it’s not the same everywhere, and why in our location it is important to follow certain regulations”.
“Everyone deals with the stress and frustration of this year differently. Some people are getting aggressive, sarcastic, sad, angry. Others choose to be as positive as possible. This includes our employees and ourselves. This does not excuse poor behaviors, but it may explain some of it, and it helps when we think about it that way.”
“Everyone is on edge, it is a very difficult and uncertain time. It will take patience and a bucket of compassion for ourselves and others to be able to overcome this as a society and as an industry”.
“Many people have expressed having depression and anxiety due to the shutdown. Anger is a secondary emotion. Something is making them angry, it’s not you. I have been trying to give people grace, we all need it and we all should know how to give it."
This is all very inspiring for me.
The truth is that there are a lot of extremes right now in our business, but also in our world. Some people are trying to face the situation with calm and grace, others are having a really hard time doing so and choose rage and blame.
There is conflict and division in the way we handle situations, but also in the way we handle each other and our fears and frustrations as a society.
The “war” that’s happening between staff and guests is very toxic for our industry. There is a major gap which can only get bigger, if we don’t start acknowledging it and talking about it to try and come to a solution together, I am afraid that could damage hospitality more than the pandemic itself.
I do not want to discount anybody’s feelings and I completely understand the situation is tough on my colleagues personally dealing with this.
However I feel that as service people, we should realize that what’s happening is poisonous for hospitality; we must close the gap between us and the guests, and we should be the first ones to take a step towards building a common ground and dismantling our differences.
If we really are the compassionate people we say we are, then we need to make a bigger effort to understand the other side.
And again, it’s very inspiring for me to see some people have seen this and are thinking further.
As far as what is the solution to this, I don’t have the answer, but I simply think we have to start the dialogue, and I hope this will be an input for more people to do so.
We need to bring the industry back to a place where our guests enjoy staying in hotels and appreciate our hard work all the wonderful things we do for them. And of course we need to bring the industry back to a place where our staff enjoys coming to work and serving the guests again, without the fear of conflict.
So here is my final consideration: I believe it’s not about “is the guest always right?” or not, it’s about recognizing that hospitality workers and guests need each other very much in order for the industry to bounce back.
If your property is not faced with the issues described above, and you are one of the lucky ones who have not experienced this, please share your positive story,
I would love to get some pleasant contributions and share the good vibes!