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What happens when a service establishment fails miserably at customer service, especially because of systems and procedure failures? What can an establishment do to recover from such failures?

I have been in customer service training and consulting since the late 1980s, and have written extensively on the subject, with field-tested training programs and a published book. Customer service to me, is not just a matter of good human relations, but depends heavily on having efficient and trouble-free systems and procedures as well. In many frontline service scenarios, I have seen the best of human etiquette and courtesy extended to customers, and yet the frontline employees are hampered by systems and procedures somehow.

I was at a newly opened resort hotel for the first time. The hotel has some raving reviews during its launch, and I figured I was in for a nice experience to take some stress off work.

Hospitality establishments are important in our business, especially when clients are always demanding for new, thematic and unique MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions) venues, and depend on us to recommend what kind of service establishments to engage for specific marketing campaigns and events.

The establishment has a very unique and artistic feel to its architecture and design. When we checked in, the process was not particularly fast, and we attributed it to being a newly opened establishment. We completed the procedure and were given keys to a room. We took the elevator and went to the door.

When we opened the door, there was something amiss that was not immediately obvious to us. There was a Macbook on the desk, and we thought it was a complimentary “for-use” laptop for guests. Then we realized something really strange. There was a pair of used shorts on the chair, and a half-consumed sports drink. We immediately realized we were assigned a room that has a CURRENT guest. What’s worse, there is a bright red stain on the edge of the bed (I could not discern if it was food or something else – and I didn’t want to guess further). We dashed out of the room and grabbed the floor butler and showed her what happened. The butler and her colleague panicked when they saw the stain on the bed. The butler quickly asked us to wait by the elevator while she scurried to the front desk downstairs to change a new room for us.

After what seemed like a long time, she came back up and apologized profusely and gave us keys to a new room on another floor. Her apology was genuine and we appreciate her prompt action and her apology.

However, that was an epic customer service failure, NOT on the part of the butler, but of the establishment. Why? The system must have some discrepancies that could not detect if a room is vacated or not. Most hospitality establishments today have sophisticated check-in/out systems that would never assign an occupied room – it is a simple application of business rules management systems (BRMS).

When we got in the room, another weird surprised awaited us. There was a bowl of cut strawberries there. I presumed (foolishly) that it was perhaps an apology gift for us. But we soon realized, there was a written card that showed the strawberries were meant for some other people. Someone came to collect them with no real apology whatsoever.

Then we realized, another surprise. Not quite devastating, but really a letdown. The expensive sound system in the main room was not working, and the audio for the TV channels could only be heard from the bathroom. Not really winning any points here.

During the evening, we saw a letter stuck to our door. It was a strange letter from the management. It stated that due to an anticipated full house next day, we were advised to check out an hour earlier than usual (11 am instead of 12 pm). It was the first time I have ever seen such a letter from a hospitality establishment, large or small, local or foreign (I have traveled from the Americas, to Europe, to Australasia, and Asia).

So, despite a nice ambience of the establishment, I can only rate the establishment as an “epic fail” in customer service.

What could an establishment of any size, with a commitment to customer service, have done despite system and procedure shortcomings?

1) When something similar happens, immediately change a room for the guest, preferably a room that has better amenities, with some reparative measures such as promptly prepared fresh fruits, snacks, a bottle of champagne, and maybe a dinner in the restaurant.

2) Have the day manager or the general manager personally approach the guest at an appropriate time and invite the guest to the lounge for a drink on the house, and make some personal conversation to placate and soothe the frayed nerves of the guest. This would show that the establishment is truly a service establishment with a personal touch and management attention.

3) When the guest leaves, have some formal apology mailed to the guest a couple of days later, and have a genuine expression to the guest that despite the mistakes, the establishment has looked into the system failures and will try its best to do better. And do invite the guest back again.

4) Ensure that an entry of the service failure incident is noted in the hotel system so that any attending staff will be extra attentive to prevent any margin of error in the future.

5) Immediately look into the system and procedure shortcomings, and patch such failures from potentially happening again in the future. Such failures are easily fixed, with a proper business rules management system (BRMS) to input business and operational logic into processes, such as scheduling will have very little room for error as they are system-managed with little human intervention needed, and can have specific human intervention should needs arise for out-of-norm circumstances.

6) Ensure that the facilities and products meant for a guest actually works before allowing them to use them. That is the bare minimum of any service delivery process.

7) And, NEVER rescind a contract with a guest. If a guest paid for a service that says “check-out is 12pm”, then the check-out is 12pm, and not unilaterally changed by the establishment as if the current guest is less important than the next guest. This is simply a taboo in any customer service scenario.

Customer service is not a walk in the park. For that matter, the hospitality business is ruthlessly competitive and any chance of keeping a customer is an advance against the competition. It is never going to be easy, and humans and systems can all yield errors and mistakes. It is acceptable and understandable that people will make mistakes. The crux is whether the leadership can take bold moves to retain customers and make mission-critical changes to their system (even if it seems to have worked before, or elsewhere).