In a recent article I wrote about travelers' propensity to complain about their travel providers. In that article I went so far as to say, "I have come to think that America's favorite pastime is complaining about airline service."
In fact, complaining about lousy service from travel providers is often warranted. But what do you do when you make a complaint and later discover that you're the one at fault?
This happened to me during a recent visit to the Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires. I was certain that the housekeeping staff had failed to adequately service my room, and I crossly complained both to the director of rooms and to the general manager.
I was completely self-absorbed. I berated the director of rooms and was not even willing to listen to his side of the story. When I did shut my mouth for a few moments, the director expressed regret and offered me a free stay on my next visit (which I refused). He also inquired as to the times that I entered and exited my room, and asked if it was possible that the housekeeping staff had not yet attended to the evening turndown service. I said, no, that was not possible, and I told him I was thoroughly disappointed with the service. I made it clear I would never return to the hotel.
What really happened?
The trouble began when I went down to the pool to relax in the Argentine sun; I needed some downtime before an afternoon meeting. While I was out of the room, housekeeping did its morning cleanup -- making my bed and cleaning the bathroom - so it was all straightened up when I returned from the pool. So far, so good.
After a short nap, I went to my meeting. When I got back, the bed was made, but the bathroom was a mess. I figured the housekeepers had forgotten the bathroom, so I headed downstairs and made a big fuss -- not only with the housekeepers' boss, but also with the GM.
I didn't realize my mistake until I was sitting on the plane heading home. That's when it hit me: I hadn't taken a nap before my meeting, I'd taken a shower. The bed was made because I hadn't slept in it. The director of rooms had been right all along: The housekeepers hadn't yet come for the evening cleanup.
The most telling sign of this hotel's dedication to service is that the managers took my word and expressed concern over their level of quality even after they had looked into the facts and had determined that housekeeping was not in my room between the morning service and the time I complained. Even though they had a good idea that I was in the wrong, they apologized for inconveniencing me. All in all, they handled my complaint with dignity, giving me the respect of the benefit of the doubt. Which is more than I can say for myself.
Don't let this happen to you
This incident got me thinking about how cavalier we often are with our complaints -- how quick we can be to criticize and how little we think about those we might harm. In my case, I probably caused trouble for a hardworking, fairly low-paid employee because I jumped the gun. My supercilious attitude probably didn't help any, either. I can only imagine the countless times that a customer's word has been taken over an employee's -- when in fact the customer was at fault.
In the spirit of mea culpa, I offer these five tips for more responsible complaints.
1. Look at the big picture. Is it possible that you're overlooking something?
2. Take a timeout. Before dialing for the manager, ask yourself whether there could be a misunderstanding, or whether you are being overly critical.
3. Voice your concern to a neutral party. Talk over the event with a spouse, a friend or a co-worker. If you're traveling alone, call someone you trust and ask his opinion.
4. Speak with the worker directly. Before approaching management, seek out the worker, talk over the problem, and if he is at fault, give him the opportunity to make amends.
5. Say you're sorry. After I realized my mistake, I felt terrible. I e-mailed the general manager and the director of rooms and apologized profusely. I also asked that they express my apologies to the employee who may have been harmed by my insensitivity.
Complaining has become central to modern-day consumer culture. The competitive nature of the marketplace puts a special premium on customer service. "The customer is always right" is the imperative that service providers live by, but consumers should not abuse it. As a consumer, you certainly have a right to voice concern about poor service or poor quality wherever you encounter it. But a travel provider's generosity and willingness to provide good service do not give you permission to make off with free goods; they don't even give you permission to act like a jerk.
Remember, a misplaced complaint could cost somebody his job. In the future, I'll think before I voice my concerns so I don't repeatedly make a fool of myself.

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