• Adele Gutman Milne, CHDM

Negative Feedback is a Gift for the Hotelier that Listens

By Adele Gutman Milne

When evaluating online guest feedback, I remind myself of a quote by self-help guru Wayne Dyer, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Working at Library Hotel Collection for 20 years and in charge of sales, marketing, and revenue performance, this simple quote has saved me many times and it is all the more critical in the post-pandemic hospitality landscape.

I get it. Hotel managers hate and dread negative reviews. It’s like someone just told them their baby is ugly. And that’s perfectly natural. After all, when you put your heart and soul into your work, the feedback your customers share can sometimes feel like very personal criticism. Other times it can seem like you’re being blamed for things outside your control.

Without peers, a mentor, or the philosophies of Wayne Dyer to encourage us to check our emotions and reframe our perspective, in their frustration managers often tend to ignore the feedback entirely, undervalue its importance or even assign responsibility to others who lack the authority to take meaningful action. It may seem like a relief to ‘check the box’ by believing that your chain headquarters, your concierge, your publicist, or your social media intern remove this burden from your hands. In reality, dismissing or shifting the follow-up from negative feedback is incompatible with our goal of optimizing performance and revenue.

It is akin to overeating sugary granola bars and frozen yogurt to momentarily feel better about your healthy choices despite no evidence that your fitness is improving. Responsibly setting a goal, implementing a plan, sticking with the plan, and ultimately achieving your goal of a more fit and healthy lifestyle will truly enhance your well-being.

An Open-Minded Outlook

I invite you instead to look at negative reviews as a gift. To recall another popular business management attitude from decades past, you need to apply a ‘Blue Ocean’ strategy to online criticisms where each review is a treasure map to more optimal performance tomorrow.

As outlined in the book, this blue ocean philosophy encourages us to not get stuck in what you always did and what your competitors do, but rather to focus on the details of your business and being receptive to growth opportunities. In our present case, a discipline of being observant of the everchanging needs of the market and embracing customer feedback with an eye to create ongoing incremental ‘value innovations’ has the power to in turn create true loyalty, powerful word of mouth, and new market demand. The book refers to facilitating “public megaphones” what we hoteliers would call, user-generated content and social media, and very importantly, 5-Star guest reviews from enthusiastic customers to promote our brand, optimize our reach and attract new guests.

How to begin? Let go of defensive reflexes and thoughtfully mine these negative reviews for every nugget of gold as you dig your way down to the root cause of your guests’ disappointment, discomfort, or distress. A customer has taken the time to share the gift of their thoughts with you, detailing their hopes along with their frustrations. You don’t need to hire a pricey focus group now. You only need to faithfully collaborate with your team for creative solutions to move you closer to your goal of 100% guest satisfaction every day.

For general managers, underestimating the importance of your brand’s reputation and assigning reputation responsibility is a mindset that is failing you, your team and your guests. It is well worth your time and discipline to change your perspective on embracing feedback. Your support team can help you – and indeed you can’t build an outstanding reputation without the support of your entire team – but you must lead the way.

Specific Leadership Roles

Your first and most important ally and partner is your director of sales and marketing, the natural advocate for the guest's perspective. No one better understands the challenge of selling when the messages from the brand are refuted by reviews. But until you experience it firsthand as I have, you can’t fully appreciate how much easier it will be to generate demand after you’ve proven your commitment to listening to the voice of the customer and taking action on concerns as proven consistently in your online reputation.

Be forewarned, though. Review responses that are purely PR only are easy for a smart consumer to recognize. But when you are serious about mitigating issues and delivering better service each day, your commitment to guest happiness is reflected very publicly with free earned media- a surge in five-star reviews and a diminishment of negatives.

As friction points diminish, your sales team can then focus on revenue growth rather than continually spending energy replacing business lost due to a lack of enthusiasm for the experience. Sales goals are far more efficiently met when you retain valuable return customers and convert more bookings with less need for rate negotiation. Your hotel will attract new inquiries like a magnet when your online and offline reputation consistently affirms and enthusiastically supports your brand promise – and when customers can see that negative reviews are handled with decisive action and compassion.

In hospitality, we are fortunate to have a wealth of passionate GMs, yet many seem to have overlooked reputation, and the essential connections between reviews, branding, culture, and revenue. As a senior executive, you are responsible for optimizing the performance of your team and the long-term financial success of the business. Like ADR, occupancy, and RevPAR, your hotel’s guest satisfaction score is a vital sign of your hotel’s fitness level as negative reviews tarnish your brand’s perceived value. As a key performance indicator, they should be observed daily, posted, and celebrated at every increase.

Understandably, hoteliers often feel that they don’t have time to fully deal with negative reviews, especially in times of stress and chaos. In reality, however, dealing with the issues head-on and fixing the problems right away leads to less stress and fewer problems in the future. You end up giving your whole team more time. Managers who don’t embrace negative feedback as part of a culture of continuous improvement doom themselves, their teams, and their guests to repeat the same mistakes again and again, with a tendency for them to get worse over time.

For the Post-Pandemic Hotel Marketplace

Now let’s put this into the context of COVID-19. Even before this world-changing crisis, hotel teams were often battle fatigued from dealing with customers’ displeasure because many felt that management wasn’t listening so there was nothing that they could do to improve the situation. The virus has only compounded that, which can hinder your culture, your service delivery, and ultimately guest satisfaction.

Many hotel associates feel that they are not empowered by management with the daily inspiration, motivation, tools, training, communication, and support to do what they came to the field of hospitality to do – to help make people happy. Now is the time to change that.

If GMs and other senior executives show a genuine interest, or better yet a commitment to embracing feedback and fixing or diminishing known problems or making modifications for a brighter tomorrow, your team will welcome the opportunity to give their optimum performance if they are given the support to do so. Initiate conversations daily with your associates, encouraging them to open up with making you aware of issues or questions they may have handled.

Let your team know you care about supporting their success wholeheartedly. After all, apathy stemming from the absence of great leadership can be soul-crushing for your team, the guest experience, and damaging for your brand so my wish for you is to start reframing the conversation around negative reviews. They may look nasty at first, but they are in fact a gift to make your hotel an incredible place to work and for guests to stay.

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Consumer trust has never been so important as it is now for hotels, especially with all the new concerns surrounding viral safety and large-scale industry disruptions. No matter what you did before COVID-19 and what your current reputation is, today is always the perfect time to begin to build your future reputation, one guest at a time. Adele Gutman Milne has been honored as one of the Top 25 Outstanding Minds in Hospitality Sales & Marketing for her many award-winning achievements in reputation marketing. Adele was the VP of Sales, Marketing and Revenue at Library Hotel Collection for two decades before continuing on as a Strategic Advisor. She is also the founder of Aspire Reputation Marketing, LLC, devoted to helping hoteliers achieve their personal best reputation goals.

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