Sticks and Stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me – unless the words hurt my experience and make me mad. The first part of this classic phrase, usually introduced to young children, teaches us to be tough and not easily offended by what others say. However, using or choosing the wrong words or even a single word in communicating with any guest, customer or client can disrupt service delivery, even though the intentions may be good.
What are the words that make guests mad instead of glad? How can one little word or phrase lead to a big mistake? Understand how certain words and phrases upset guests and learn how to avoid them.
Recently, after a skiing trip in Utah, my resort services bill had a mistake for which I had documentation. I presented the sequence of events that led to the billing error, including dates, names and communications of all those involved. It was quite a thorough base of information and presented a clear picture of how the mistake had happened. It seemed fairly obvious and easy to fix. The supervisor I was speaking to listened and responded with the words, “I will have to research this and look into what you ‘claim’ happened.” Her words turned my wonderful week long experience upside down and made me MAD. By using the word ‘claim’ she had thrown down the gauntlet and communicated that she did not believe me, that I may have been fibbing, that the customer was wrong. I had been so proud of my information. I was so confident that the mistake would be immediately corrected based on my thorough assembly of the facts. I was so pleased with my calm and pleasant demeanor in getting it resolved. And yet, when she said the word ‘claim’, my temples started throbbing and my blood began to boil. At that moment, we became adversaries. After spending a lot of money at this venue and enjoying a wonderful week long experience, this one person and her one word turned everything around. I would now leave this resort with a brand new negative impression. I left feeling she was not on my side and that my patronage was not appreciated. I doubt that is what this resorts management and marketing dollars intended. And, it was just one word.
Being insensitive to words and phrases that make guests sensitive can really mess things up for everyone involved. Think about some of the messes and emotions that happened from one frequent traveler’s experience with words:
“I will look into it and if it just so happens you were right, I will address it internally.”
Here, the tiny word “if” could send someone into orbit. In this particular guest’s case – it did! This comment actually came from a manager in response to this guest’s distress over someone banging on his hotel room door, even though he had a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door. The banging was from another employee and a guest stating that this was now their room and that the room was supposed to be unoccupied and clean. Since the current guest was still occupying the room and he was not checking out yet due to his wife, also in the room, recovering from surgery, this was an obvious mistake. And, yet, the manager had to determine “IF” the guest was right. Sounds like a very ‘iffy’ situation indeed After further research, this is what the manager discovered and shared back with the guest:
“The room showed clean and available in our system, so what we did was appropriate.”
Without skipping a beat, this manager’s words threw oil onto the fire and challenged the facts even more. He actually ruled in favor of the system and ruled against the live human being. When he used the word ‘so’, he judged the system to be justified in making the intrusion on behalf of the new guest and did not consider how this interruption impacted the current guest and his recuperating wife, and the hundreds of dollars they were spending at this property. And to top it off, this guest is one of this chain’s most frequent and loyal guests. So, saying ‘so’, followed by an opinion leading to even greater displeasure for this now tortured guest, was worse than a so-so result.
After all this and several other service mishaps, it took the property’s general manager (a major luxury resort which included hundreds of rooms, time-share/hotel villas complex and 27 PGA-rated holes of golf) several phone calls, apologies, and actions to remedy the situation to reassure this guest that his business still mattered. With that size property, this GM probably had quite a few other things to do before this extensive service recovery job was added to his plate. If the initial manager had not used those two small irritating little words, ‘so’ and ‘if’, the initial mistake could have been easily addressed and this guest would have felt even better about his continued patronage and loyalty. Two little words triggered many GIANT mistakes.
According to Wikipedia, “A word is the smallest free form in a language.” Words may be small but they are also mighty. Since they are free form, hoteliers need to better understand how to guide their employees in making good linguistic choices. Management and the front-line will be on their way to exceptional service delivery when they better recognize words to use and words to lose.
Sometimes, one simple word can greatly set or alter expectations. A guest favorite which has multiple definitions is the word ‘shortly’. When calling on the phone and an automated voice answers, “we will be with you ‘shortly’, the caller usually goes into instant cringe mode. Shortly is that expression and expectation of time that has no definition. It’s almost like saying ‘tomorrow never comes’ Neither does shortly. Most guests would much rather have a response that states, “Your wait time will be 10 minutes” versus the dreaded ‘shortly’. It’s better to know the devil you know than the one you don’t. Someone with devilish qualities may have created the word ‘shortly’.
‘Shortly’ is also often used when requesting a service while in the hotel such as housekeeping, engineering or room service. “We will send someone up to your room shortly” Many guests have waited a LONG time in their rooms for ‘shortly’ to arrive. ‘Shortly’ should be added to each employee manual and orientation as a word NOT to use with guests. Giving more precise estimates that will set realistic expectations provides guests with more freedom of choice in whether they should wait or not and allows them to feel more in control of their vacation or business experience.
Words like Please, Thank you, My pleasure are the obvious words that guests love to hear and most employees know to use. However, linguistic love can come from choosing some of the less obvious words to use as well. Words and phrases that calm soothe and diffuse guests can be powerful tools in any employee’s service toolbox. When a guest hears ‘definitely’, ‘Certainly’, ‘absolutely’ and surely’ from any employee in response to their request, exceptional service delivery is underway and the guest responds immediately with positive vibes. Employees go from zero to hero when they utter these can-do words and inspire a feeling of empowerment for both the guest and the employee.
Hoteliers and their teams may want to add wordsmith as a job responsibility for all personnel and provide guidelines and training sessions on the words and phrases that will lead to exceptional service experiences and those that will not. Consider the following to achieve a more positive effect or reaction from guests:
- Slang, jargon, company terms and technical language are on the “do not use” list.”
- Speak words in the best ways that guests will understand. Common, generic words that are clearly spoken and simple in meaning lead to a more professional and positive outcome.
- Use words that reflect a can–do attitude versus a cannot–do action. Examples of Cannot-do words: but, whatever and even however. Examples of can-do words: Yes, Surely, We will…
- Be wary of words that imply objections or disbelief of the guest.
- Set expectations properly with words that are realistic for the situation at hand. Be specific whenever possible (stay away from ‘shortly’.
- Reflect professionalism in all language used and don’t risk sending the wrong message.
- Avoid overused words and make sure all communications are sincere and unique to the situation at hand.
Words can help communication or they can start an argument. Be sensitive to the words that will enhance your guests’ senses and stay away from those that don’t. Language leads to human thought and humans think of the best language to communicate with each other. Make sure your hospitality humans speak the language of service and use their words wisely.