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Handling Customer Complaints Means Taking the H.E.A.T.!

By Jim Hartigan
November 13, 2012

As a lifetime manager and service industry professional, I have a confession to make.  I really like the latest wave of reality TV shows that track the “fixing” of a hotel or restaurant.  Of course, as a hotelier, my favorite is the Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible.  This is where a struggling hotel owner/operator brings in Anthony Melchiorri, a hotel "fixer," who can turn any establishment around in just weeks.  Each episode features a hotel that is having problems or is not living up to its potential and Melchiorri secretly scouts the property and identifies its biggest problems. He then meets with the staff and the owners to determine how best to solve the key operation issues.  Within the hour he has the place turned around!  My other favorite is the Food Network’s Restaurant Stakeout.  In it, Willie Degel (who runs a tight ship at his own restaurants) deploys hidden cameras to keep a close eye on the staff and patrons in the troubled establishment. Willie then uses tough love to help the restaurateurs save their businesses.

As I watch these shows, I’ve noticed that beyond the basics of cleanliness, keeping your establishment in good condition, and serving fresh, tasty food, a consistent theme seems to be poor customer service.  Specifically, team members in these troubled hotels and restaurants don’t seem to know how to deal with customer complaints.  This takes me back to my roots, where we used the acronym H.E.A.T. to help team members remember the four steps to follow when presented with the gift of a customer complaint.  It’s easy to remember, especially because when handling a customer complaint it’s important to remember you will likely be taking some HEAT until you turn things around!  What is H.E.A.T.?  I’m glad you asked.

HEAR – The first step is to actually listen to the customer.  Hear them out.  Don’t interrupt.  Sometimes a customer just wants to vent.  Of course, other times they have a real problem that needs solving.  Try to listen for cues about what’s really bugging them.  Is it the problem with their meal or their room – or is it that they are now running late.  If the real problem is time – that takes a different twist to your solution (you gotta solve this thing fast!).

EMPATHIZE – Empathy is defined as the ability to imagine oneself in another's place and understand the other's feelings, desires, ideas, and actions.  Over the years, I have found the best way to do this (and teach team members how to do it) is by “naming the emotion”.  By that I mean to articulate to the customer what they are feeling and validate it.  “I understand how you feel, I’d be frustrated too.”  Or “I completely understand and if that happened to me, it would make me very upset.”  By naming the emotion, expressing understanding, and placing yourself in the customer’s place – you begin the process of diffusing the situation.

APOLOGIZE – This is a big one, and easy too.  It goes like this:  “I’m sorry.”  It can be that easy.  Unfortunately, many line level team members tend to take this sort of thing personally and feel apologizing for something they may not have personally had any control over to be uncomfortable.  My advice: Get over it.  Nobody said it was your fault; we aren’t blaming you, so apologize already.  To be more powerful, add a little of what we learned in the previous stage, “I’m sorry for the inconvenience this has caused you.  I’m really very sorry this happened.”

TAKE ACTION – The segue from Apologize to Take Action should be seamless.  The very next sentence out of your mouth should be what you’re going to do about the customer’s complaint.  The customer deserves to know what is going to happen next and what they can expect.  The foundation to most customer complaints is the disconnect from what was expected and what actually happened.  This is your chance to reestablish an expectation and deliver on it.  Taking the appropriate action can only be done if you really hear the problem, fully understand the customer’s feelings, and combine it with a sincere apology.

So, before you call on my friends at the Food Network or the Travel Channel, take some time and share the principles of H.E.A.T. with your team.  I bet you find less customer complaints coming to you and more customer compliments about how team members dealt with unfortunate occurrences.  If you’d like to learn more about how Orgwide can help you teach your team members better service skills, give us a call.  Until next time remember, take care of your customers, take care of each other, and take care of yourself!

Jim Hartigan, Chief Business Development Officer and Partner joined OrgWide Services, a Training/e-Learning, Communications, Surveys and Consulting firm in April 2010 after nearly 30 years experience in the hospitality industry, including the last 18 as a senior executive with Hilton Worldwide. Jim’s last position was that of Senior Vice President – Global Brand Services where he provided strategic leadership and business development and support to the $22B enterprise of 10 brands and more than 3,400 hotels in 80 countries around the world. His team was responsible for ensuring excellence in system product quality, customer satisfaction, market research, brand management, media planning, and sustainability.

Jim Hartigan
Chief Business Development Officer & Partner
OrgWide Services
165 N. Main Street, Suite 202
Collierville, TN 38017
office: 901.850.8190  Ext. 230
mobile: 901.628.6586

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