Dealing with difficult customers at your B&B
When you run a B&B, making sure your guests are safe and happy is your number one priority. This can mean accommodating unusual requests and going out of your way to ensure their expectations are met. But what happens if a guest's behaviour becomes unreasonable?
David Weston, Chairman of the award-winning B&B Association, and Louise Weston, share their advice for dealing with difficult customers.
Working in the service industry
If you haven't sold services to the public before, you are in for a masterclass in human nature. You'll realise that, however much care you take to make everything perfect, there will be times when you get complaints.
The good news is that the vast majority of people (at least in our experience) are polite, understanding, well-behaved and appreciative. The bad news is that a very small minority will give you your fair share of headaches. We're going to share some of the useful lessons we've learnt from our experiences.
1. The Absconder
A call came through one afternoon from the town's most expensive hotel. A Mr Baker* had arrived to stay the night but they were full; did we have a room free? We did. Mr Baker duly arrived by taxi five minutes later, saying that his car had broken down on his way back from Cornwall. He was presentable and polite and grateful to have found a room.
The next morning while we were serving breakfast, we heard a noise which we later realised was our front door closing. Mr Baker had undone two bolts and slipped out. A quick check outside yielded no trace of Mr Baker, who was clearly nimbler than he looked.
His room held various debris, including a bag of assorted hotel soaps and shampoos, and the smell of cigarettes. The smoking in our home felt somehow more personal a violation than his crime, which in effect was theft. We immediately reported Mr Baker to the police, and were surprised when they took DNA samples, and amazed when they found a match. We heard later that he had been arrested, and his crime added to a long and impressive list of charges.
Lesson: Keeping security of payment in mind is vital. Clearly, alarm bells should have rung because of the circumstances: arrival without notice, without a car and with little luggage. We were probably unconsciously reassured by the fact that he was referred by an expensive hotel, but of course the hotel knew no more about Mr Baker than we did. We even failed to ask him for his home address and phone number.
*Name has been changed to protect us from the guilty.
2. The Party Girls
We had a two-night booking for a twin room from Miss d'Arcy**, who casually mentioned that they would be arriving late. David's big mistake was not to query exactly what "late" meant – from her tone he assumed it simply meant the evening rather than the afternoon. Never assume!
When it got to 9:00pm and no-one had arrived or phoned, David called Miss d'Arcy to check whether they needed directions. Miss d'Arcy breezily said that they had been a little held up leaving London, and were just getting onto the M25 at that point. This meant they were at least two and a half hours away. When David said this, our guest asked "is that a problem?". Of course, we said "no". No problem for her – just highly inconvenient and annoying for us!
A Mercedes sports car finally pulled up at about midnight, with much noisy door slamming, and David was greeted by two expensively dressed twenty-something women with the words "I know we are a bit late but I guarantee I have had a much worse day than you have" boomed out loud enough to ensure even our deafest neighbour was woken up.
Our guests talked loudly all the way up two flights of stairs as David took them to their room and carried their bags.
The following night Miss d'Arcy and friend went to a wedding reception, from which they returned at 2.30am, then spent the next hour and a half creeping up and down our (creaky) stairs and sitting in our courtyard smoking and talking with a young man. Our bedroom window is above the courtyard, so this finally put paid to any sleep we had hoped for that night.
**Name changed to avoid embarrassment.
3. Wrong room
We showed a married couple to their room – a double. They mentioned that they had requested our twin room. David apologised – we had missed this mention in their letter – and said that unfortunately it was not possible to move them as the other two rooms were full. He asked if this was OK, and they said yes.
It was not mentioned again during their two-day stay. When they left they thanked us for an enjoyable stay and wrote a positive comment in our visitors' book. A week later, we received an email from the couple asking for a substantial refund because they hadn't received the room they wanted.
We replied explaining that we had apologised if we had missed their room request, and that they had accepted this; at that point they could have left. They had also said their stay was enjoyable – so, we wrote, they had received the service they had booked from us: two day's bed and breakfast accommodation. We did not feel that a refund was justified.
This couple then contacted our local tourist office to ask whether other complaints had been received about our B&B. The tourist office told them that they had only had good reports. After sending another indignant email criticising us for not agreeing to a refund, the couple gave up.
Lesson: Read booking letters carefully and note specific requests. If the request is missed, apologise and ask if it is OK, i.e. does the customer still want to stay. Explain carefully, and stick to your guns, if you genuinely feel a refund is not justified.
4. Missing Fork
Another, long-married, couple seemed clearly not to be enjoying themselves. They were not chatty; they sat in silence, and Mrs made a disparaging comment about the flowers in our drawing room – she said they were "dead, dead, dead – very depressing". As it happens they were a little faded – but it is a subjective judgement as to when fresh flowers no longer look attractive and should be binned. We were a little stung by this comment and immediately replaced all the flowers in our public rooms.
At breakfast, Mr had to ask for a fork as it had been missed from his table setting – the first and only time this has ever happened. They also seemed very surprised that their room had not been "serviced" – i.e. the linen and towels changed – after their first night. We explained that as a B&B rather than a hotel, we did not change linen daily.
When they left, this somewhat sour-faced couple made no comment but, again a week or so later, they wrote us a letter saying that they felt the B&B was run "for your own convenience rather than for your guests".
As we take huge pains to make our guests feel welcome, this comment really hurt. It is very hard not to take these things personally. We gritted our teeth, though, and thought hard. We tried to be self-critical: perhaps we'd had an off-day? Perhaps we should have changed those flowers a day earlier, not slipped up on our table settings, and properly explained our room servicing policy rather than assume that everyone knew what to expect?
We wrote a long and, we think, fair letter back in response, and redoubled our efforts to keep an eye on the smallest detail. We also set out our policy on changes of linen and towels (which are in accordance with the 2006 five-star B&B VisitBritain standards) in our room information sheets.
Lesson: This one shows that the most difficult complaints are not about any one thing but are a litany of minor things. What is the underlying cause? Perhaps the real reason they were unhappy had more to do with the weather, or having had a marital row, than with our B&B keeping. Even so, always try to see things through the customer's eyes and – as in this case – there are usually positive lessons to learn which will help you in future.
How to handle complaints
A combined 30 years or so of experience dealing with difficult customers in the B&B and hotel industry has taught us a few fundamental "rules" it is best to stick by:
- Listen sympathetically
- Don't justify or be defensive
- Buy time; don't commit immediately to specific recompense
- Analyse the complaint carefully and dispassionately, putting yourself in the customer's shoes
- Get back to the customer as soon as you can, and explain your response and your reasoning carefully; rationally argued and quantified explanations carry the most weight
- Don't get angry or emotional
- Try to avoid entering a negotiation
- Be polite and respectful – even if the customer is not
- Try to learn from complaints, and improve your service
David Weston, Chairman of the award-winning Bed & Breakfast Association, has over 30 years' experience in travel and tourism, is a Fellow of the Tourism Society (FTS) and sits on the Government's Tourism Industry Council. David and Louise co-authored the book 'How to Start and Run a B&B'.
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