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The fine art of saying 'no'

The fine art of saying 'no'

Managing Director, Steven Pike, offers his insight into tackling tough guest interactions. 

Despite the fact that in hospitality, most staff strive to meet the guest’s needs and accommodate demands wherever possible, there are still times when it’s necessary to say ‘No.’ To do this well, striking the right note: unequivocal but empathetic, is tough. It can be a challenge to contain your own anger, defensiveness or frustration if things get heated, particularly if a guest is being offensive, unreasonable or unfair.

The same principles that apply to routine positive, interactions between staff and guests also apply to the trickier conversations. Responses that are authentic, organic and tailored to the individual customer score far more highly than anything that feels automated. Referring an upset customer to a ‘policy’, or saying: “I’m afraid we just don’t do that,” feels impersonal and inflexible. It’s robotic and shows lack of care and assertiveness.  

Empathy is key to pulling off an artful ‘No.’ Encourage staff to step outside of the situation itself and look at the consequences of their reaction in the round. Before they offer a reaction, or an answer, they can disarm the customer by expressing empathy, and make sure this feels genuine. Opt for a heartfelt “I do understand,” rather than a raised voice or dominant body language, both of which could be construed as aggressive. Assertive phrases should be delivered in a calm voice.

Unambiguous language is particularly important as clarity of communication is key in difficult situations. When the answer is a clear ‘No,’ and you feel the guest’s demand is unreasonable, you mustn’t be vague in your response. If you leave too much room for interpretation, it keeps the conversation open so the guest may try another tack. Say something along the lines of “I’m afraid we can’t do that on this occasion,” and perhaps follow up with “However, we could…” This shows that you have listened and considered an alternative which may satisfy the guest.

It’s important for team members to remember that they are on display during difficult interactions, particularly if things get heated. Remain mindful of how your behaviour is likely to appear to other guests who are present. The objective is to appear reasonable, empathetic and confident. During staff training, roleplaying similar scenarios can really help staff to develop confidence that springs from a conviction that they have the capability to manage a situation, rather than from a place of ego. It also makes for a more natural response when the situation arises.

Encouraging staff to take a few breaths in the moment before they respond to a difficult demand can be good practice. It’s hard to diffuse a charged situation if you’re reacting impulsively to it. Even when you know a customer is in the wrong, most of the time the best thing to do is to disarm them through showing recognition. It’s a basic human need to feel heard and seen, so even if you can’t always agree to their solution, showing compassion will help.

Say, for example, a customer has sent wine back pronouncing it “Corked.” Even if the server disagrees, he or she should take it back, test it and take the allegation seriously. If it’s tested and found to be fine, staff should explain that it has been checked. Where possible, staff could make it clear that although the wine is fine, they’re happy to change it. In the long run the bottle is likely to cost less than the impact of a guest talking negatively about their experience.

Where a firm and final ‘No,’ is required, eye contact and a calm tone of voice are both key. This shows confidence and respect, and is the best way to put an end to the conversation if that is what’s needed. As a general rule of thumb, staff should think about how they’d like a complaint or query to be handled were they in the customer’s position and then act accordingly. When this is done well, it can actually generate positive word-of-mouth.

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