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Taming The Guest From Hell

Back in 2006, the concept of the Guest from Hell was introduced to the industry in two articles entitled Besting and then Muzzling the Guest from Hell published by several industry organs. The feedback demonstrated strong support for the idea of an international database for the hospitality industry that would put an end to the free run of free service some guests have enjoyed by following the formula of “complain loud enough, be mean enough, and the suckers will comp you.” This strategy echoes Hitler’s “The bigger the lie, the more the people will believe it” — as long as they fail to face up to the unpleasantness and do nothing about it.

Typical of the feedback received was, “Your articles have given us strength to carry on. It seems these people gravitate to new facilities such as ours in the hope less-experienced staff and managers will be easier prey….and they may be right.”
“Please let me know if anything comes of the national database. It is a wonderful idea and will find tremendous support from the hospitality managers if not the entire industry.”

Several readers shared their own experiences with guests from hell, such as the following: “Reading your article about guests from hell has made my day. I had only been in this business for less than a year as the GM of a modestly sized hotel in a small Mid-western town, when I was ready to look for any other work. Why? Because of the stress caused by the few bad guests out of the thousands of good guests we had served. I believe, as you, that these are indeed serial criminals acting the way they do just to get free lodging.

“Take one guest who had reserved a room for one night. The next day, he asked to extend for a day and we granted that. The next day, his wife complained that a housekeeper had stolen make-up from the room.  We checked with the staff, but no one had noticed any make-up in the room. Still, we purchased comparable make-up for her and I offered a discount on the cost of their room (as a result of which my owners now want to pre-approve all purchases). The next day, the couple was supposed to check out and did not do so, although all their possessions had been removed from the room; so we ran their card and checked them out. That night they came back upset that their key would not work. The gentleman ranted about having a five-day reservation and would not listen to anything else, including any apology. We put them back in the same room, rearranging future reservations for other guests in order to do so. I even extended the additional discount to all five days of their stay. When they finally left, it was a distinct relief for everyone involved.

“A few days later, the gentleman called the hotel demanding to know what the additional charge was on his credit card statement. I asked him to send me a copy of his statement so that I could research any unauthorized charges. When I pulled up his folio, the ‘additional charge’ was for the first two days and the other one was for the next three days. I refunded the first two days’ charges and ended my letter to him with, ‘I hope you find future stays in other hotels to be more enjoyable’ …hoping he would take the hint and never return.

“I have also had guests demand the manager come in late at night so they could argue about rates; one of these guests brought my front desk clerk to tears with his abuse, then complained to our HQ when I asked him not to return to our facility.
There are also the saboteurs. We had a couple complain to our headquarters that the toilet constantly flushed all night and they could not sleep. It was not flushing when I was in their room helping them with Internet access, but after they left, it was running constantly because someone had moved the flapper off by 90 degrees. He complained that the AC would not work and he could not get cool all night.  She complained that it was too cold and she could not get the heat to work.  Maintenance found that the PTAC thermocouple had been bent out of shape and was unusable.  It had been working fine while I was up there earlier. They filed an official complaint that counted against us, and yes, they got their comp room.

“I guess that in this business you see the full range of people and the 98% who are pleasant just seem to fade into the background due to the noise of the 2% of guests from hell. Thank you for offering a glimmer of hope for the future.  Maybe with that database of guests from hell we would be better prepared and wouldn’t lose so many good people to less stressful jobs, like bomb squads and hostage negotiations.”

In searching for a partner to create and manage this Guest from Hell database, early advice included: “Your article was quite something. I am told that Talbots has computerized customers who continually create problems, particularly with their gracious return policy. They track these folks and their history and actually get to the point where they inform this type of customer that they are no longer welcome to shop at Talbots. Hospitality and sensibility only go so far when someone has ransacked the relationship. Typically, the guests from hell you are referencing receive free meals, rooms, cocktails, etc, and sometimes they even bring suit—a nuisance and expense. Perhaps consider working with and being sponsored by insurance companies that cover hotels for such suits (presented on the expense side, it would fall under their umbrella, and insurance companies probably already have this info somewhere, as all businesses are subject to ruse), as well as the larger hotel chains and the AH&MA. Good lord, credit card companies have protection built in, too, for any charge, which may be the seamless protector needed and offered as a service or specialty to their market.”

However, the editor of the magazine publishing the articles said in July 2007 that he would like to use his resources to run the database. He put his Sales and Marketing Director onto the project and the Institute provided the initial text for the Web site and overview and policies on how the program should run, as well as a program of steps to take to bring it to fruition. After providing initial feedback on the name of the database (Guest from Hell was fine for editorial, not a serious business), the Sales and Marketing Director ran with the concept, brought in investors and by the beginning of 2008, launched the database as Hotel Safeguard.

Keeping the Database on Target

The danger of keeping a database on guests is that it can set the hospitality industry on a course that belies its true nature: hospitality being, after all, a caring welcome for strangers, no questions asked. We cannot turn into Stasi or FBI agents, suspicious and challenging of our guests, secretly collecting information on them in ever more intrusive ways or using the threat of blacklisting to bulldoze genuine guest complaints, justifying shoddy service. The answer is to define clearly the very few who are to be reported on, and hold vigorously and unfailingly to this definition. Otherwise, like the Federal Income Tax of 1913, or the current Alternative Minimum Tax, both of which targeted a small percentage of the very wealthy and gradually expanded to include everybody (Income tax currently, AMT predictably eventually), all guests may have files kept on them eventually.

This database or directory should not be for guests who occasionally have issues and are either comp’ed by the hotel to redress an imbalance in service or product delivered, or who seek to be comp’ed in proportion to an actual failure to serve or damage done.

Nor is an angry, inconsiderate, rude, and generally highly unpleasant person really the definition of a guest from hell. Yes, there are hellacious guests and we’d prefer not to service them, but in hospitality, one is there to serve graciously. Such unpleasant guests are part of the terrain, they are often not always so, and it is not for hotels to screen guests according to their character.

To illustrate the point, let’s take this story from a hospitality professional: “As I walked into the front desk area of a beautiful property, a woman was going ballistic at the hotel manager, ranting and raving and giving him a mouthful in a very serious manner about how she didn’t need to bring business to his hotel. I couldn’t help but ask the lovely front desk girl what the problem was all about, as I thought something really bad had happened. Can you believe that the woman had asked for a horseback ride to be arranged and, in order to be fitted with the correct horse, had been asked her age, height, and weight! What a very sad person she must have been to make such a commotion over something so trifling.”

What hoteliers do have a right to do is prevent fraud. Anger and antisocial conduct in and of themselves do not show intent to defraud. Consider these two stories.

“In 25 years, the strangest guest(s) was a family staying at large hotel near Disney I managed in the mid 1980’s. The husband reported money had been stolen from their room. The new Manager on Duty reported it to me as I was leaving for the day so I decided to assist. On arriving at the room, we were met by a husband, wife, and two kids. The husband was fuming and beet red, telling us how $10,000 had been stolen from his room while they were at the attractions. I asked to see where the money had last been seen. Yelling and calling us all kinds of names, he showed me a black overnight bag. I asked him if he travels differently when with family versus for business, and could he have put the wallet someplace else. Across the room lunges his 4-foot 2-inch wife, bounding up on the bed in a feeble attempt to go eye to eye with my 6 foot 2 frame while calling us names that must still be hanging in space over Disney.

“I called the law. The law arrives and took their report. Included in the wallet were credit cards and travelers checks. I offered the use of my phone and office so he could place cancellation calls. Again, he continued to call us names when in the office, in front of his kids and others. He placed a call to his boss instructing me to tell him what had happened. Feeling for the kids, we offered to buy them dinner in one of the restaurants. During the meal, he told anybody and everybody his opinion about what had happened to his wallet. He demanded to speak with the housekeeping staff and I told him that would not happen. His response was that he would talk to anybody he wanted on a Sunday morning.

“The next morning, as I entered my unlit office, the phone line lit up. Looking down at it I said to myself  ‘That has got to be Mr. Guest from heck.’ I answered the call. It was his wife. She wanted to tell me that they had found the wallet. She asked me if I could call their credit card and Traveler Check Company to cancel their cancellation. Hours later, the wife appeared in the lobby to checkout while her husband sat in the car…maybe, just maybe, too embarrassed to make eye contact. Method of payment? Credit card or traveler checks….those had been canceled…of course, I helped them out to help the kids.

“The award for second place goes to the case of the Lost-and-Found hand gun. Same hotel, highly populated by families with kids. A guest checks out. Room cleaner calls to report gun found. I approach it with caution, empty it, cover it in a towel and take to my office for inventory and placement in the safe.

“Several days later, the guest calls housekeeping to see if he had left his gun at our hotel. The call is transferred to me. The caller announces ‘I cannot understand why that imbecile transferred me to you. All I want is my gun back.’ I asked the caller to describe the gun, with manufacturers name and serial number. To which he replied, ‘I guess you are the hard ass there.’ My response was that I was just doing my job. After we exchanged stats and pleasantries, I asked when he would be stopping back to pick it up? He said ‘You  ******ing idiot, I live in the Great Lakes area and will not be back there for years. Just mail it to me.’ I had to explain to him that I could not mail it to him as it is against the law and weapons can only be shipped from one dealer to another. At that point he said ‘Just stick it in a box and mail the ******thing, you *****’ To which I said, ‘OK, you can pick it up at the County Police Department,’ giving him the number and address. To this day, I can still here him yelling as we closed our phone conversation. Thanks for listening: better and cheaper than a psychiatrist.”

To make the grade as a Guest from Hell, there really has to be the distinct intention to defraud, and a pattern of doing so or attempting to do so from one hotel to another. In such cases, the game or focus for hoteliers switches from providing hospitality to playing cop.

That is what should have happened at a hotel where I was training the butlers, but did not happen because no mechanism existed for defining and pushing back against guests from hell. It was what gave me the idea for such a database. Picture a hotel opening where the staff had pulled off miracles to open on time (the owner and his family even rolling up their sleeves to sweep floors, organize, push, debug and drive through the myriad projects and sub projects involved in constructing and opening a large, five-star standard hotel). With great anticipation, the opening ceremony goes smoothly. The full house includes one gentleman and his entourage in the Presidential and adjoining suite. We first started to notice trouble when this guest ordered breakfast from the butlers and from room service. He requested different items for different times from each department. When the butlers and room service independently delivered the requested items at the requested time, the guest complained they were early/late and had forgotten items. This upset the employees initially until they compared notes. At checkout, the guest listed these and myriad similar “failings” and demanded the entire week’s stay for himself and entourage be comped.

It was.

Subsequent enquiries with two hotel chains found this individual to be blacklisted within each chain for what essentially is fraud. It is this kind of deliberate effort to steal or defraud, as well as tendency to damage property, which should be the subjects of reports for any Guest from Hell database.

Another way of putting it, is we are not behavior monitors or censors, but hospitality professionals with a duty to employees, corporations, and guests to discourage and eliminate criminality when it raises its ugly head. Every time a Guest from Hell, who may have been written up in another hotel’s database, comes to your hotel(s), you are behind the 8-ball and have to go through grief before becoming the wiser. For the one-time effort of transferring any existing database and ongoing input of information, and a fee per hotel, you can have access to a far more complete database than your hotel alone can create, save on comps and their narrowing of the profit margins, increase employee equanimity for better service, and leave the chore of running the database to another.

So the next time a guest trashes a suite or noisily demands to be comped at the end of a stay for reasons without merit, you don’t have to fawn or smile a smile you do not mean and hope that the steam coming out of your ears isn’t visible. You can do something about it! Skewer away!

This article also published in www.4hoteliers.com, www.hsyndicate.com, www.hotelnewsresource.com and Airline News Resource (www.airlinenewsresource.com)

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Besting The Guest From Hell

«You call this a five star-hotel?» I’ve been in Motel 6’s that provided better service. You people are all the same, slipping service standards and all you are interested in is tips. It’s freezing in here, the A/C doesn’t work, the bed’s too small, the place stinks, I’ve been kept waiting by room service again, although why I bother eating here I don’t know, the food tastes atrocious, everybody says so. Get me the manager!»

Not your favorite type of guest. They come, they complain about everything, and when it comes to checking out, they complain some more and loudly until the alarmed manager perhaps comps their stay. Sometimes they set up the employees to fail, such as happened once when a guest ordered breakfast from the butlers whom I was training at a newly opened hotel, and also from room service. He requested different items for different times. When the butlers and room service independently delivered the requested items at the requested time, the guest complained they were early/late and had forgotten items. This upset the employees initially until they compared notes. At checkout, the guest listed these and myriad similar «failings» and demanded the entire week’s stay for himself and entourage in the Presidential Suite be comped.

Yes, one can blacklist such people, but what about those who then call in under a false name, or have someone else do so? And what about this being the first time such a character and his/her entourage comes to your hotel-as happened with the gentleman mentioned above? Once he had gone, a quick check with two large chains found him blacklisted.

In defense, does one create a national database of blacklisted guests? Butlers in London used to have their little black book with information on «employers to be avoided.» Word of mouth still exists in the butler community along this line. But in the larger hospitality profession, apart from in-house blacklists, any national database would be suicidal in our litigious society.

So what is a hotel to do with the guest from hell, whether they go the whole way and demand to be comp’d, or just create havoc for one and all during their stay? It seems we must suffer them with smiles on our faces and daggers in our hearts. Except that just results in personal anguish for all employees touched by such people, financial loss for employees and the hotel, as well as reduced service for other guests, as employees are sucked into trying to keep the antisocial guests «happy» and mute their disturbances.

After centuries of serving often cantankerous employers, the British butler, working with a modern understanding of the mind, has something to offer in answer to this question, as you will discover in Besting the Guest from Hell.

Besting The Guest From Hell

The basic answer to the guest from hell is to focus on educating employees on this kind of personality and then letting them have fun predicting what the guest will do or say next. When employees recognize the characteristics in a guest, they also know why they behave as they do, see them for what they are, and can predict how they will behave. Employees no longer think «mea culpa» and «mea lose my job» when assailed by such guests. One sees through the intensely mean-spirited and unjust smokescreen and confusion to a miserable individual whose only ability to create an effect has been reduced to upsetting others.

With such an understanding, one can still provide the smiling service expected of one, but without the dagger in one’s heart. For violence, expressed or unexpressed, only exists in the absence of understanding. The analogy I like to draw is the martial art of Aikido. The basic principle is not to resist or try to stop the antagonist’s motion, but to redirect it. In other words, one does not present a target for the opponent to connect with.

By empowering employees, one un-empowers the antisocial guests, for the only power these actually have is that generated by the employee in responding to the unjust and unkind remarks. An individual in a lunatic asylum thinking he is Jesus has no followers outside the asylum. He has no power. But if people outside the asylum give weight to his words and form a cult, then he would have power. It’s the same with the guest from hell. Recognize his or her ravings as those of a lunatic who has yet to be labeled as one (and may never be, because in real life such people can sound very convincing and may even have numerous letters after their name, titles in front of it, and great wealth), and he will have no power. React or give credence to his claims, and one empowers him.

That’s the philosophy part. What about the application?

The inescapable truth is that such people are completely incapable of telling the truth. The angry, noisy type will at best twist the truth to make their point more egregious, or at worst, blatantly lie in a manner that is most destructive to the target of their ire. Those who are too timid to be angry, sometimes known as «passive aggressive» or «covertly hostile,» will be most ingenious in their complete perversions of the truth, covering their tracks with great finesse.

The only thing an employee can do wrong is to believe anything such people say. The only correct way to deal with the information such people give is to start from the premise that whatever they just said is not true. This is particularly important when dealing with irate or covertly hostile guests for managers who might feel inclined to act against employees based on the guest’s utterances.

To be sure, employees can mess up, and some guests, even those who are not normally vicious, can react angrily or repress their anger into covertly hostile statements. The manager’s job is still to discern the truth, and the fact is that any statement expressed in anger or covert hostility by any guest, will find the truth being twisted or completely falsified.

So how does one recognize such guests? The angry ones are not hard to recognize, although they may be unpleasant to confront. It is the ones who smile while stabbing you in the back, either with some statement that makes less of you in some way or talking derogatorily about you behind your back, who are more difficult to nail down. This is the schemer who, if called on his real activities, will insist you are misunderstanding her or being overly sensitive, etc.

Apart from their general attitude affecting their ability to tell the truth, other warning signs include the following:

  • They utter upsets or bad news as generalized statements: «Everybody knows service is poor here,» «They’ve all been saying your housekeepers are illiterate.» If you were to ask who «they» are or «everybody» is, you’d find out it was just one person, probably expressing some similarly vague statement or some issue that applied to a completely different area.
  • They only ever talk about how bad things are, always putting a negative spin on events or communications they are relaying. When another person says, «This steak is a bit overcooked,» the guest from hell can be guaranteed to relay this to other guests, employees, and management as «The chef should be fired, he doesn’t have the first idea how to cook. His meats are all hopelessly dry.»
  • They compulsively criticize and make less of others, their abilities, possessions, activities, looks, etc. With the covertly hostile, this will come across as «My what wonderful furnishings (smiling). Honey, didn’t EconoLodge have the exact same motif?». (Not to insult EconoLodge or Motel 6, which are perfectly good chains catering well to their specific publics, but I think you understand my intent here).
  • If they are upset with someone or something else (such as at their work or in their family), they’ll take it out on housekeeping or the valets or… (wrong target).
  • They do not believe that anyone owns anything, so they’ll be the ones who damage fixtures and take everything not actually nailed down in their suite.
  • They will never admit to any wrong doing, and will poo-poo any harm done to others as their being too fussy, thin-skinned, deserving it, etc. On the other hand, the slightest thing done wrong to the guest from hell will be made into an unforgivable wrong that can never be righted. *

Ever met anyone like this? They are hard to spot because they are hard to face up to, and the way they behave is designed to throw people off. There are other ways to recognize such people, but the above noticed early in a guest’s stay will be good clues that trouble is a-brewing.

That’s the time to a) alert all employees dealing with them that a guest has dropped in from hell, and b) have each, while still providing superlative service, note in writing each and every instance of chicanery. There are all sorts of language and communication skills that can be employed to handle even these guests smoothly, based on techniques and attitudes developed in part over the centuries by butlers.

Most importantly, being forewarned and on the lookout for nefarious behavior will put the employees in the driver’s seat in handling the situation, rather than just becoming upset over the guest’s actions. Secondly, if they hand these reports in to supervisors or the Rooms Manager (who can do additional research with other hotel chains), he or she can prepare a report in time for that guest’s checkout. Then if the guest demands to be comp’d or partially comp’d, you are ready for them. And if they come back later with trouble, such as legal suits, demands for redress, complaints to Head Office, then you just yawn, dig out and send off the report with a cover note.

Had the GM of the hotel that comped the Presidential Suite for a week, confronted the gentleman (security in attendance) with the documentation of his exact actions (which in his case included smoking persistently in the no-smoking suite despite repeated requests not to, necessitating a hefty cleaning bill for the hotel), and his history of criminal actions at other hotels, the guest would have backed down, said it was all a misunderstanding, and never had the gall to show his face at that hotel again. Or he might have blustered with legal threats and in all probability taken it no further.

Which brings us to one last point of philosophy: what drives these people? Without becoming too technical, they have no self respect, they do not feel they can produce decent and admired effects (what most of us are happy to and strive to do), or indeed produce anything at all. In other words, they are parasites. They consider their positions in society weak as a result, and so their constant effort is to weaken and undermine others, in the expectation that their own position will be less weak as a result. They are actually criminals, whether the law has caught up with them or not.

So, don’t let them intimidate or frighten you into cooperating in their criminal ways. Doing so will only compromise and degrade your view of mankind, from which the majority of your well meaning guests hail (come).

Nothing I am proposing is meant to imply that one does not seek in every way to provide superlative service to every guest. Just do it with your eyes open, paperwork in place, and a healthy dose of ethics and probity (moral correctness) if a guest from hell tries his or her ways on you or your fellow employees!

If any of this is not clear or needs amplification, feel free to write.

This article also appeared in the June 21 – 2006 issue of HotelExecutive.com, Airline News Resource July 2006, and Hotel Industry News, November 2006

*) Based on the works of Mr Hubbard, with further information on the characteristics available here