Why Guest Complaints Can Be a Good Thing

Two of the most feared words in our industry: guest complaints. Did you shiver a bit when you read that? You’re not alone.

Guest complaints are a reality for every single FEC (and business) in the world. No matter how hard you strive for perfection, there will always be customers who have an unfavorable experience.

There’s a reason you probably started sweating when you read the first sentence: guest complaints have an extremely negative connotation. The basis of a guest complaint is definitely not fun: a customer is simply unhappy. But today, we want to put a positive spin on guest complaints. There are many ways you can use guest complaints to learn, teach, correct wrongs, satisfy the unhappy customer, and ultimately improve your business.

In this blog, we’re going to explore why in-person guest complaints can be a good thing and then look at how to properly address them. We also brought in an expert on the topic, Guest Experience Evangelist with ROLLER Software, Josh Liebman, to get his perspective. Make sure to scroll through the whole article to see a personal guest complaint story from Liebman at the end.

Guest Management Expert Josh Liebman

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The Positive Side of Guest Complaints

So, you get a guest complaint at your facility. Your immediate reaction is probably disappointment, frustration, etc. But, how can you turn this into a positive for yourself, your team, and your business? Let’s look at some ways.

Improvement To Your Business

First, we must change our mindset to actually embrace guest complaints. “Complaints are a gift!” says Liebman. “Every guest that complains is speaking for the greater population of guests who had the same poor experience and did not complain.”

It’s true. Very few of your unhappy guests will actually complain. According to this article shared with us by Liebman, only 1 out of 26 unhappy customers complain. The rest churn in frustration. This means that 25 out of 26 customers won’t complain about a poor experience; instead, they simply will not return to your facility. According to Liebman, you should not only embrace guest complaints, but you should actively seek them out.

This leads to ways that guest complaints can improve your business. None of our businesses are perfect. There are always aspects of your operation that can be improved. Guest complaints help bring these improvements to light.

“That means that you now have the intelligence to fix an issue that you wouldn’t have otherwise had if that guest did not complain,” explains Liebman.

Turning Detractors Into Promoters

In addition to righting wrongs in your business, a guest complaint gives you a unique opportunity to turn an unhappy guest into an advocate for your business, if you’re able to fix the situation in a way that satisfies the guest.

“Because they complained, they are giving you the chance to repair the damage and turn a detractor into a promoter. Through effective service recovery, you can restore the guest’s satisfaction and encourage them to visit again – and rave about how well you handled the situation.”

Lessons and Improvement For Your Employees

Realistically, most guest complaints will be directed towards your staff, not you. This is why you must empower your staff (using the method below) to handle guest complaints. Yes, this can be terrifying. For example, it’s not a comfortable feeling watching guests tee off on your teenage employee about an issue they’re having.

But think about the alternative: if you don’t train your employees on how to handle these complaints using the method below, the situation might become worse. Your employees will grow and learn as they face these situations more often.

It’s also important to have conversations with your employees about these situations. Think about this as sort of a “debrief” where you discuss what the employee did when they faced a complaint, what went well, and how they could have handled it better.

How To Properly Handle Guest Complaints

So, how do you handle these complaints? First, it’s extremely important to not become defensive when listening and reacting to the complaint. This is especially true if the complaint is an in-person interaction.

“I like to say that you should ‘let the guest be right, even if they’re wrong.’ Our gut reaction is to go on the defense and tell the guest why they might be wrong, but disproving a guest’s complaint never solves the issue, because you are turning the conversation into an argument. Instead, use phrases such as ‘I completely understand,’ or ‘I would be frustrated too if that happened to me.’ Those responses are OKAY to give, because they demonstrate empathy. It’s great to have passion and pride for your business, but don’t let it get in the way of your service recovery.”

Liebman says that there is a 4 step process (LAST) to overcoming complaints: listen, apologize, solve, and thank. This full 4 step process is broken down on a ROLLER blog that can be found here, but we’ve summarized below.

  • Listen: Instead of shaking off a guest’s complaint, you must listen carefully to fully understand it. By listening, you show compassion and understanding, instead of being dismissive.
  • Apologize: Apologizing is more than saying “I’m sorry.” When it comes to the apology, it’s all about the tone that you emit towards the guest. You want to come off as understanding and empathetic. Making a specific and direct apology is much more impactful than just saying the phrase repeatedly.
  • Solve: There are 3 guidelines to the solve step: always give them something, the recovery should fit the failure directly, and require the guest to return in the future.
  • Thank: This final step cannot be overlooked. You want the guest to walk away feeling optimistic about their next visit.

“Also, thank your guests at the beginning of the process, not just at the end of it. Expressing appreciation for the feedback shows the guest that you are committed to solving their problem, rather than argue with them.”

The Recovery Paradox

We’ve covered the potential benefits of guest complaints and looked at how to best address them, but you might still be asking yourself, “Is it worth it to go through all this trouble for one customer?” This is where the Service Recovery Paradox (SRP) comes into play.

Liebman explains this paradox: “The data shows that customers across multiple industries who had a poor experience, complained, and had their issues resolved, ultimately ended up displaying higher levels of satisfaction than those who did not encounter an issue.

This is not to say that you should intentionally trip your guests so you can swoop in and catch them as they fall, but a guest complaint is genuinely an opportunity to exceed expectations and create an even stronger relationship with that guest that can lead to lifelong loyalty.”

In today’s world where customers are hesitant and cautious coming out of the pandemic, how you approach guest complaints is more important now than ever. By following the guidelines above, you will ensure you and your team are ready to resolve any guest complaint and improve your business along the way.

BONUS: A Real Life Example of Correctly Handling a Complaint

We asked Liebman if he could come up with a specific example of a time when a business impressed him with how they handled his complaint. He shared with us an excellent story of a personal experience he had.

“I was once at a restaurant I had never been to before but was excited to try it. During dinner, I became so frustrated during the experience that I pulled out my phone, pulled up the restaurant’s website, and sent somewhat of an angry email through their feedback link, right there from the table. The next morning, I got a call from the General Manager who said that he read my email, thanked me for sending it, and apologized that the experience I described was below the standard that I expected. He assured me that what I experienced was not typical, and invited me to return for a better experience, and that he would replace my meal with a gift certificate. He took down my details so he could send it in the mail, and thanked me again for working with him to come to a resolution.

I went back a few months later to try it again. When I was greeted, I informed the server of the issue I had on my last visit, how great the GM was by calling me so quickly, and presented her with the gift certificate so she knew that the meal would be on the house that night. The server took the certificate, looked at it briefly to verify that it was valid, and said that she would absolutely apply it to my meal. She then asked me what the issue was that I had on my last visit so she could ensure it wouldn’t happen again, and I couldn’t even remember what it was. I told her that I knew I was upset, but what I remembered most was getting the call the next morning and having such a great conversation with the GM that my overall takeaway was very positive.”