How a hotel satisfaction promise has led to more discontent


Customer satisfaction rates in the hotel industry worldwide has fallen, mainly because of staffing issues. — Unsplash

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the “100% Satisfaction Guarantee” was all the rage among many hotels. The gist was simple: Encounter a problem and receive your money back.

In theory, this approach addressed fairly serious issues such as early-morning pool renovations that made the jackhammer an unwelcome alarm clock. Bed bugs. No hot water.

But some hospitality experts say that promise – a 100% refund if customers weren’t 100% happy – might’ve made things worse for both the customer and the hotel.

“A toddler spilling yogurt may take staff longer to clean up, evolving into a bad review about a dirty lobby and a request for refund,” says Bijoy Shah, a travel advisor based in Indiana, the United States. “The ‘customer-is-always-right’ mindset created these guarantees, but it seems the customer learned to abuse it, as well.”

These days, travellers are unlikely to find such confident promises. Meanwhile, satisfaction rates are lower than ever. But it’s not because the guarantee is gone. It’s because it was there in the first place.

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s Travel Study 2021-2022, which interviewed 6,000 travellers between 2021 and 2022, satisfaction fell 2.7% during that time period. Meanwhile, many hospitality workers say complaints are soaring.

Things got so rough in 2021 that the Rhode Island Hospitality Association launched a “Please Be Kind Toolkit” containing mental health resources and information regarding handling unruly customers. Some attribute this year’s especially high dissatisfaction rates to differences of opinions about whether the pandemic is over.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, guests were sympathetic to frontline workers,” says Andrea Stokes, hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power. “Now, consumers want to get back to normal, but the hotel industry isn’t back to normal – especially in terms of staffing.”

While pandemic-related issues like a pause on breakfast buffets are partially to blame, the ongoing slump has been agitated – not driven – by the pandemic.

In fact, ACSI’s numerical scores have been trending downward over the past decade, from a peak score of 77 in 2012 to just 71 in 2022.

Some hotel experts blame the lingering effects of the 100% Satisfaction Guarantee for low customer satisfaction. Beyond eating into hotel profits (and decreasing money to invest elsewhere), it may have inadvertently adjusted consumer demands.

“Try as hard as you might – and most hotel staff bend over backwards – you can’t manage everyone’s unique and often-unrealistic expectations,” says hospitality consultant Colleen Carswell. “You cannot please everyone.”

Hampton by Hilton is generally credited with creating the first-ever hotel 100% Satisfaction Guarantee (the guarantee was established before its former-parent company, Promus, was acquired by Hilton in 1999).

Shruti Gandhi Buckley, global brand head for Hampton by Hilton, says its introduction “was instrumental in providing guests confidence that they would have a seamless and problem-free stay. If their expectations weren’t met, we would refund their money, no questions asked.”

But some travel experts suspect this trained guests to believe that complaining equals compensation.

“This benefit may have even magnified negative naysayers who are always looking for something bad to point out, often in a very disrespectful manner,” says Carswell.

Gandhi Buckley maintains that abuse wasn’t actually the problem, adding that while “guests would sometimes have unusual rationale against invoking the guarantee”, fewer than 1% of guests actually tried claiming refunds.

Yet Hilton reevaluated the offer after more than a decade. Now, it’s still a “100% Hampton Guarantee”, but the outright refund language is gone.

“We also found the original language signalled to a guest that something could go wrong,” Gandhi Buckley says.

Plus, Gandhi Buckley says that most business travellers didn’t care about refunds anyway (since stays were generally on their employer’s dime), and leisure travellers just wanted problems fixed. Hampton’s new promise shifts away from refunds to empowering employees across all levels and departments to actually execute those fixes.

“It allows team members to be more flexible,” Gandhi Buckley says. – NerdWallet/AP

How to ensure you get what you deserve

Be realistic: Understand that a lower-cost motel likely won’t treat you as generously as a luxury resort.

Read online reviews: A previous traveller might tip you off to the soggy waffles.

Ask nicely: While Hampton still offers a refund when warranted, Gandhi Buckley says it’s common to receive other types of compensation. If your room isn’t ready at check-in, you might receive a free snack.

In situations where staff cannot fix the problem, polite escalation can be necessary. After all, you deserve what you paid for.

Hold Elite status: Stokes says it’s more common to receive money-back guarantees when booking with elite status, as hotels prioritize customers expected to return.

Use trip insurance: In truly untenable situations, trip insurance might help. Coverage varies by policy – and you’re unlikely to find one that covers soggy waffles. But most policies cover situations including the bell desk losing your luggage or severe weather preventing you from arriving. Also, many credit cards offer travel insurance for trips purchased on that card.

First seek compensation from the hotel. If those efforts don’t work, ask your insurer.

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