It's an all-too familiar scenario, 'A local guest complained about service via Twitter when she hadn't yet said anything to staff,' says Donna, a senior communications specialist with five-star hotels.
"Through monitoring we caught it immediately and [offered to] host a beverage for her and her friend. She stayed for a complete meal but didn't think it was enough—she wanted another full meal at a later date. She threatened to slam the restaurant via social media if we didn't abide."
Out of the explosive popularity of social networking a challenging new breed of customer has reared its head. Intoxicated by their social media clout, bristling with indignation and entitlement, and all too aware of how far some businesses will go to avoid negative commentary, they hint at, request or outright demand concessions and special treatment. And if they don't get it, the underlying threat, whether real or imagined, is they'll lash out via social networks.
Dealing with difficult guests is nothing new to the hospitality industry, nor is occasionally buying a guest's silence. But social media has raised the stakes, taking issues previously handled discreetly into the public realm, making word of mouth scalable and pumping it full of grievance-enhancing steroids.
Despite the best efforts of staff, critics can be relentless and unforgiving. And the attacks are taking place on property, from mobile devices in hotel lobbies, at restaurant tables, from rooms and in the business center.
Social media has empowered consumers, forcing companies to be more transparent and responsive. That's a good thing. But hotels have always been responsive, if not transparent. Lodging a complaint is as simple as marching up to the front desk.
So why is it that some guests, upon encountering an issue, log on to Twitter or Facebook and bring it to the attention of their entire social graph instead of to the one person who can fix it the problem: the manager? Do they find it more satisfying to seek sympathy from friends than to seek a resolution from the hotel? Or do they assume complaining would be futile? Granted, in some hotels it would be.
And then there's the guests who smile at checkout and say everything was marvelous, and then turn around and post a scathing review. Are they too shy to complain? Sure, it's their prerogative, but do they realize the damage their words can have on employee morale, on business?
Instances of such behavior abound, and clearly the stress is getting to some. Last month the manager of a restaurant in Houston, Texas kicked a patron out in mid-meal after she tweeted that the bartender was a "twerp" and a "jackoff" (SFGate.com). Even spiritual guru Deepak Chopra cracked recently, responding to a critic by tweeting back "Shut up". He then gushed in another tweet, "felt soooo good : )" (mediabistro.com).
In Blackpool, England last year a hotel manager, suspicious that a couple had posted a negative review on TripAdvisor, allegedly stormed into their room and demanded they leave (The Gazette).
These are actions hoteliers may fantasize about and quietly applaud, but not only do they violate the spirit of hospitality, the consequences can be far graver than a bad review. In the case of the Blackpool hotel, one of the ousted guests turned out to be recovering from chemotherapy, which sent the media into a frenzy of outrage and indignation.
Here are a few suggestions for handling social media ambush with the grace and aplomb of a consummate hotelier.
- Monitor review sites and social networks closely. Even if you aren't active on them many of your guests likely are.
- Respond quickly to all feedback, positive or negative.
- If comments are negative, attempt to take it offline.
- When responding to negative reviews and commentary, always thank, apologize, explain, invite back and follow-up. No excuses, and no bribes.
- If guests are still on property, don't let them leave until you've won them over. Convert twerrorists into twadvocates, so to speak.
- If comments are offensive, abusive or repetitive, you have the option of ignoring them. Tweets have the shelf life of tuna sushi in the desert sun; Facebook wall posts can be deleted. Sanitize, but don't censor.
- A social media policy and guidelines will help minimize risks and prepare you to act swiftly to minimize fallout.
- The more helpful and engaged employees are with guests the more likely guests will be to bring issues to their attention before logging on to Facebook.
- Fight negative with positive by rallying supporters and focusing on generating favorable feedback.
Fortunately, social media subversion is rare; most travelers are constructive with criticism and generous with praise. In any case, in this troubled economy hotels can't afford to treat guests as anything but highly valued. Feedback and suggestions of any kind should be welcome—if not always heeded.
I asked Donna what happened with the tweet-happy guest gunning for another free meal. "We did not provide any future complimentary service," she said. "And she never did post any social media follow-up, bad or good."
Small mercies. In my next post, Social Media Coercion, I'll discuss how to deal with everything from requests for special treatment to threats to write a bad review.
Join my webinar with Revinate, Social Media Ambush: Handling Sensitive Situations, on Tuesday, September 27 at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time. Daniel Edward Craig is a former general manager turned consultant specializing in online marketing, social media strategy and reputation management. He is the author of three novels set in hotels, and his blog is a popular resource for hoteliers and travel marketers around the world. Visit www.danieledwardcraig.com. Copyright © 2011 Daniel Edward Craig. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.