Guest Column - July/August 2003
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When to Fire Your Customers

The art of handling difficult guests

By Allen F. Weitzel

Throughout our careers, we've been pounded with the philosophy about providing excellent customer service. The customer is always right. Superb guest services are the key to profitability and growth. Certainly a stalwart goal. But wait a minute—some guests push the customer service envelope and our hospitality buttons just a little too far. Should we always acquiesce to the patron's wishes? Maybe not. Join me in a roundtable about this perception.

How far to go

The morning began with the intention to provide great customer service, but the day has not gone right. You're confronted with a guest who has a gripe about how your employees treated him or his expectations were way too high. You must always approach a complaining customer with an open mind and ear. Listen to his entire explanation. Know your operation well enough to recognize if the guest's story is true. All aggrieved patrons will embellish their narrative to some degree. Look through that ruse and get to the heart of the concern. Put your ego aside.

Even if you decide to discount your customer's claim still give him a fair chance to offer his description of the event. When gathering incident data from more than one patron, divide and conquer; do not listen to the whole group's story together. Avoid allowing one person to influence another. Plus, they will gang up on you.

The aggrieved, the shyster or the drunk

During your guest meeting and evaluation, you need to form some private opinions, unbeknownst to the guest. Are you dealing with a genuinely ill-treated patron, a deceitful person who is trying to get something for nothing, or a person under some mental or chemical influence?

You need to discern the telltale signs and differences. Psychologists, industry experts, consultants and your legal counsel can teach you these skills. We won't cover them here. Master this identification art before you assume the primary problem-solver role.

Buy yourself some time

In some cases, the guest's excessive demands may be something you want to think about or you may need to investigate to determine which facts are correct. Maybe your staff did foul up, but you need to sort it out. If a simple fix will please the guest, regardless who is right or wrong, make the adjustment. Sometimes a free meal or extra golf passes will solve a situation that is on the verge of turning sour. Forget your pride; fix it and move on. Your time is too valuable to waste, fretting over minor issues.

If the guest wants a major concession, tell the him that you need time to consider the options. Buy yourself some time. Do not promise or offer anything. Find out how you can contact the guest. Whether good or bad news, respond to the patron promptly, once you have made your decision, earlier than you promised, if you can.

A measuring stick

One guest service philosophy I prefer is: Unless I am 100-percent sure I'm 100-percent right, I will give some concession to a patron.

What I offer may vary by degree, but I lean toward good customer service. Remember the standard guest service axiom: It's 10 times harder to find a new customer than it is to keep an existing one.

Never confuse a "high-maintenance" customer with a one who needs to be "fired." Serving the occasional high-maintenance patron is your job. Their wallet is just as fat as that of the quiet customer. When you encounter that tough customer, let them know that you are trying to help them, but in the process, they need to help you help them.

Pick your battles

If you have reached the conclusion that the guest's claim is not acceptable, and your proposed compromise will never please the guest, then you have a decision to make. One final time, ask the guest what he or she needs to resolve the situation.

If it is not what you can do to resolve the matter, decide how far you want to "dig in your heels;" be sure to pick your battles. You could be inciting a legal contest when you finally stand toe-to-toe with your customer.

Always consult a mentor on difficult guest service scenarios. Take a minute to discuss the situation with a trusted colleague, who can confirm your "gut feeling" about this concern, where it's going and your proposed solution. Keep in mind, doctor's offices fire customers quite often for the most basic reason of all, refusal to pay for services. So don't worry if this seems like a new concept to you.

When to say good-bye

How do you know when it's time to stand firm when that patron screams those famous last words, "I'll never come to this place again!"

Test of yourself:

  1. Are you emotionally sucked into an escalating guest services scenario?
  2. Is your dignity damaged? It's becoming a "me" vs. "them" struggle?
  3. Does the guest keep upping the ante? Everything you offer, they want more?
  4. Is your staff wasting increasingly more time and energy on this problem than it deserves?
  5. When guests make a commitment to you, do they continue to change their mind?
  6. Do they constantly switch the family spokesperson on you?
  7. Worst of all, are they obnoxious, threatening or abusive to you, your employees or your other customers?

You do have a responsibility to protect your workers and other patrons if this guest is truly out of control. Any or all of these examples could be signals that you've probably lost a customer.

When they threaten the use of a lawyer, tell the patron, "Feel free to do so, if you wish. I can turn this over to our legal team as well, but I thought maybe you and I could reach a solution."

Such a statement may smoke out the fabricators.

When to be careful

Children are the customers of the future. Be careful in what you say and how you say it when they are watching. Parents want to be heroes in the eyes of their child. If you are professional, even while the parents are out of control, you may still keep that child as a customer when they grow up.

Sayonara Steps

Here are your "Bon Voyage" steps to be used with the appropriate guest and in relation the patron's demeanor. Match the solution (or combination of actions) to the incident severity.

  1. First, never take it personally. Never use foul language or threats, even if the patron is throwing such language at to you. Be sure you can identify the "high-maintenance" customer from the "impossible" customer.
  2. Offer an alternate service or product.
  3. Provide a full refund for the product, service or activity. Encourage them to patronize another facility.
  4. Ask for their membership cards or unused tickets to be returned. Deactivate their magnetic cards if they have one.
  5. Ask your security staff to escort them from the facility, depending upon the seriousness of the disagreement and their emotional state.
  6. Call a neutral third party to moderate, like the local police department, if things are out of control.
  7. You or your legal counsel should send a letter to the patron, by registered mail, advising that you no longer would like them as a client. Document, in your files, the incident, who was involved and what steps were taken. Do NOT put any reason in your letter for your dismissal of them as a patron. That letter will be public record should legal action occur. The letter should merely state that you will no longer welcome them as a customer, nothing more.
  8. In some jurisdictions, a restraining order or a trespass warning might be issued for this individual, to prevent them from coming back. The disagreement would need to be a significant one for you to resort to this tactic.
  9. Finally, do not back down from their demands, let them file their legal action and have your day in court.

Remember to keep everything professional on your side of the fence.

How to say good-bye

First, be polite and professional, even with the whirlwind howling around you. Next, be succinct and precise; tell the guest what you will and will not do. Propose the maximum compromise you can honestly offer.

If the patron continues to state that your offer is not sufficient, you then can begin your good-bye. Here's how: Let the guest know that your facility cannot provide the level of service the client expects. You suggest that they can contact your competition across town, maybe another facility can satisfy his wishes. Instead of giving a refund to your miniature golf wonderland, you might want to provide them with two tickets to another nearby family entertainment center. This is a great tactic. Keep a supply of competitors' tickets on hand for these special circumstances.

During one unique customer service situation, a guest wanted us to extend some complimentary passes she had received, for three consecutive years, because she kept forgetting to use the passes before they expired. Each time, she had a convincing excuse. We finally ceased to extend her tickets and provided her with passes for a competing amusement park some 40 miles away. We never saw her again. We were able to return to our mission of pleasing our new, repeat and happy customers.

Sometimes, you just have to move on.

Allen F. Weitzel is a 37-year amusement industry veteran, who has toiled in or managed almost every department or operation known to exist in a conventional amusement park. He can be reached at