Margaret went to stay in a hotel that was the venue for a three-day conference at which her husband was a guest speaker.  The hotel was in Bournemouth and, while the conference was in session, Margaret was left to her own devices.

Her first task was her usual one; studying the fire notice in their bedroom and walking the proposed exit route.  She had stayed in many hotels and never yet found a route that was entirely as it should be.  Often she found surplus furniture stored on landings that were supposed to be clear, and sometimes she found fire doors that refused to budge when she pushed against the bar.  On this occasion, she encountered some chairs stacked in the stairwell and immediately reported it to reception, leaving them in no doubt that she’d check that the route had been cleared in precisely one hour.

Her first task accomplished, she spend the day familiarising herself with Bournemouth.  After exploring the shops and the municipal gardens, she walked down one of the zigzag paths that led to the beach.  The weather was uncharacteristically hot for early April and she was horrified by the number of elderly people sunbathing recklessly on small verandas outside their beach huts.   She felt the urge to intervene and warn them of the dangers of exposing so much unprotected flesh, rolls of it – already, she observed, bright red – to the harmful rays of the sun.

Biting her tongue was not something that came easily to Margaret.  Complaining was her default position and she was prone to expressing her displeasure where others would choose to be more circumspect.  Her husband, much more laid-back, and had discovered there were considerable advantages in delegating complaining to his wife!

Back from her walk, Margaret returned to her room to freshen up and discovered that the wash-hand basin emptied very slowly and was clearly partially blocked.  She immediately phoned reception to report the fault.  Whilst waiting for the handyman, she examined the bathroom more closely and made a list of missing items; a flannel; cotton wool pads and buds; body lotion; a dressing gown; a non-slip mat for the shower.   Clutching her list, she went down to reception to demand that the shortfalls be made good without delay.  This took longer than she anticipated because the receptionist insisted on summoning an elusive duty manager so that Margaret could run through her list with him in person.

By the time she returned to her room, the handyman had been, leaving a tell-tail puddle on the bathroom floor!  She tested the basin. The water gurgled happily down the plughole; it had been fixed.  However, when next she passed reception, Margaret complained that no one had thanked her for alerting them to a faulty wash-hand basin.

The next morning, after breakfast, and with her husband participating in the second day of the conference, Margaret went down to reception with another complaint.  The receptionist was a smart young woman she hadn’t seen before, a graduate called Susan.   As soon as Margaret approached, Susan looked up with a cheery smile and asked how she might help.

‘Good morning.  My husband and I are in room 447 and it’s impossible to reach the light switch without getting out of bed’

Susan was training for a career in hotel management and had quickly become fascinated by the behaviour of hotel guests.  She liked to put them into categories; cheerful and undemanding; compliant and deferential; critical and outspoken.   Guests in the first category were the easiest to deal with – they even found major mishaps, such as a hotel evacuation in the early hours, amusing.   Guests in the second category were the most difficult to read.  They appeared to be contented but were often the sort of people to write a letter of complaint once they felt emboldened by the sanctuary of their own homes.

Susan found guests in the third category the most intriguing.  She had learnt on her induction course that delighting customers, as opposed to merely satisfying them, was all about exceeding their expectations.   Customers with problems had lower expectations than those without problems and were therefore easier to delight.  There was an important proviso; if they are handled properly.

Susan had devised a way of handling disgruntled guests.  She had found that if she empathised and then invited the guest to suggest a solution to their problem, it invariably switched them from complaining to suggesting; from being negative to being positive.   It also gave her valuable information about what would satisfy the customer, making it easier for her to do something extra to delight.

So, Susan replied, ‘How very annoying.  How could we resolve the problem?’

Somewhat taken aback, Margaret replied, ‘Well, I suppose the beds could be rearranged so that they were closer to the switch……..however, the simplest solution would be to provide us with lamps for the bedside tables.’

‘Consider it done,’ said Susan and she picked up the phone and asked for table lamps to be taken to room 447. ‘Anything else I can help with?’

‘No, thank you, not for now.’

Margaret retired to the orangery and, gazing out to sea, reflected on her brief exchange with Susan.  She had been impressed by Susan’s attentiveness yet puzzled by her approach.  Margaret was accustomed to her complaints being met with thin excuses or grudging acceptance and, sometimes, with undisguised bolshiness.   Never before could she recall being invited to suggest a solution to her own problem!

She decided to conduct an experiment; she’d switch from complaining to suggesting and see if it increased her impact.

Margaret quickly discovered a dramatic decline in the resistance she encountered.  Her suggestions were usually (alas, not always) well received and swiftly acted upon.  Sometimes her suggestions were altruistic involving improvements that a hotel could not be expected to action while Margaret was in residence. Examples included fitting hand rails, rerouting a path, establishing a library and, in one case, reconfiguring the reception area to make more room for a checkout area and the storage of luggage.

Not only did Margaret’s hit-rate rocket, she often received thanks, gifts and feedback.  Flowers would arrive, or chocolates, with thank you notes.  On one occasion, a large hotel chain gave Margaret and her husband a free weekend in Prague.

A year or so after Margaret’s stay in Bournemouth, Susan was delighted to receive a note from Margaret thanking her for such a powerful lesson; positive suggestions worked so much better than complaints.

With Susan’s help, Margaret had discovered a simple truth; behaviour has the power to help or hinder.  It’s a choice!


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