How dare they?

Receiving a guest complaint is never nice and sometimes it can be just the thing to send you over the edge...

I have searched and searched and no-one can give me a straight answer on how best to handle guest complaints and that is because the nature of the complaint, the nature of the complainant and the nature of the respondent all play a part in the final outcome.

Let’s first take a look at you, the respondent. You’re most likely in this industry because you’re passionate about hospitality and an integral part of hospitality is surely being a “people person”. If this is indeed the case, then it is safe to assume that you’re a nice, considerate and generally likeable person who won’t fly off the handle at the drop of a hat. If you’ve been in the industry a while then you’ve also been exposed to the worst kind of demanding guest and you’ve worked under unbearable pressure with far too little rest and relaxation. Why is it then that many establishment owners turn ugly when they receive a guest complaint?

It’s simple really. We’re human. And it hurts! We try so hard to make everyone happy all the time that when a guest decides to complain about the tiniest smudge on the wall we turn the passion we usually use for positive things full force in the opposite direction.

Next up is the complaint itself. Well, um, yes. In my years in the industry I have truly seen it all as, I am sure, have you. Complaints can range from constructive criticism about something that is faulty or impractical to something as ridiculous as bad weather. Some complaints are directed at the people of the establishment – these hurt the most and usually include emotive words like “rude”, “impolite”, “inconsiderate” – most of the time they are complaining about the SERVICE and not the PERSON. Some are directed more at the establishment itself – “the pool is too small”, “the garden is messy”, “the rooms are poky” – most of the time they are complaining about the mismatch of their EXPERIENCE versus their EXPECTATIONS and not really about your establishment per se.

Now let’s consider the complainant. Some are truly good citizens who, in the best interest of improving standards, just want to convey their concerns. The other extreme, and sadly the most prevalent, are those who actually had a great time and just want a refund so they can do the same to the next unsuspecting establishment owner. In between are those who really were disappointed by their experience, either because their expectations weren't met or because maybe, just maybe, one of your team members was having an off day.
I have come to the conclusion that a formula where all three variables are not accurately measurable is a very complicated one to solve. So, what IS the best way to handle complaints? There can only be ONE correct answer: CAREFULLY.


  • Don’t lose your temper. The minute a guest begins to attack you’ll go on the defensive and might say things you regret later. The moment you’re on the defensive you’ve put the power in their hands.
  • Ensure all staff on duty can either handle the complaint themselves or call for a manager on duty. • Listen, empathise, validate – keep quiet and let them talk. Once they have had their say, show them you care by empathising and validating their feelings. Say something like: “Mr Jones, I can see/hear that you are very disappointed/ upset/angered by your experience”. You’re not admitting guilt, you're just saying that you can understand their unhappiness from THEIR point of view. This usually takes the wind right out of their sails and they’ll calm down somewhat.
  • If the guest complains on your premises, handle it then and there by perhaps changing their room, offering a complimentary meal or something to appease them immediately.
  • If you hear about the complaint after the guest has left, ask the guest to put the complaint in writing. Memories fade and stories change over time. This also takes the immediate knee-jerk emotional reactions out of the situation.
  • Deal with it, but not immediately. I don’t mean that you should leave it and hope it goes away. Let the guest know immediately that the complaint has been received and that you’ll investigate and get back to them within a few days. Then do exactly that.
  • Don’t call the guest to resolve the issue. Put it in writing. Make sure you address ONLY the complaints verbalised in the guests’ letter. No naming, blaming or shaming, stick to the facts and be completely professional (in other words, unemotional). Remember "The Guest is always right".

How to handle guests demanding a refund:

It is imperative that you have a cancellation policy in place that you communicate to your guests prior to their arrival. Upon arrival they should also sign an indemnity. If despite all this the guest still demands reimbursement you have to consider the facts. There are various possibilities:

  • They stayed and then asked for a refund after the fact: Watch out, they might just be trying to take you for a ride! In your reply highlight the fact that you were never apprised of their dissatisfaction during their stay and that despite their unhappiness they still made use of the room and that the fee they paid was non-refundable.
  • They didn’t stay and asked for a refund: If they checked in but didn’t stay then you should really take a good look at why and consider giving them the refund even if it’s against policy. Some fights just aren’t worth it and enforcing policy may anger them so much that they tell the world. Be gracious but firm. If you feel strongly that they are being unreasonable then stand your ground, you have policy backing you.
  • They stayed for some of the time and then asked for a refund before leaving: This usually happens when a specific incident occurs that results in the guests leaving earlier than planned. Identify the cause and use your discretion about whether to refund them in part, in full or not at all. If their early departure is due to something like a family emergency, it may stand you in good stead to refund them for the remaining days. They will remember your kindness and may very well return or tell others.

What if they involve third parties?

If the complainant copies in third parties like government bodies, travel agencies and endorsement agencies make sure you copy them into your responses as well. Don’t panic! They have all seen hundreds of complaints and will be impressed if you handle the complaint promptly and in a mature and professional manner.

What to do if things get ugly

Whatever you do, don’t stand for abuse. Whether it’s verbal or physical, it’s NOT okay. If the abuse is physical and occurs on your premises, call security or the police. If the abuse is verbal and the complaint resolution process becomes a horribly drawn out affair consider handing it over to your lawyer to deal with so you can get on with running your business.

As we have already established, complaints are never easy. It helps if you can step back and handle the criticism of yourself, your team and your establishment calmly.