• Mark Topley

A masterclass in complaint management

There can be few places where complaint management is more commercially important, and potentially tricky than in a 5-star hotel. Much like a dental practice where people are paying significant sums of money for the very best, any perceived breakdown in service standards brings the prospect of an irate customer.

Last year I visited the Andaz Hotel in London, near Liverpool Street Station for a coffee with a potential client. I arrived early with time to spare and so set myself up to answer a few emails in their impressive lobby (see above).


Before long a guest arrived at the desk looking none too pleased. Something was clearly not right and he was angry, and becoming more frustrated with the staff as the minutes ticked by.


The system at the Andaz has clearly been honed carefully because it didn't take long for a manager to arrive. She approached the man from behind, worked her way to the side of him, greeted him with an empathic look on her face, and gently led him away from the counter.


The Masterclass


She invited him to sit on a couch (the turquoise one wrapped around the pillar in the picture below). She sat down next to him, angled herself at 45 degrees, leant forward and began listening. I was fascinated because it took only a few minutes for the man to calm down. After some supplemental questions, the manager left for a matter of seconds before she returned, clearly having solved the issue or made a plan to do so. There followed a warm handshake from the man, and then what looked like an apology for his irate behaviour. Only at that point did the manager smile, which she did so warmly before dispatching her happy guest.



There are a few takeaways from that day which I've often reflected on. I wasn't aware of what was said, but I could see clearly how a master in complaint management went about her business. Here are the key principles from that event and my own experience to help you as you deal with irate patients.


Key Principles for handling difficult patients or customers

  1. Build rapport - sitting next to the guest established rapport, showing empathy facially (rather than starting off with a big smile) helps to form a vital initial connection too. Taking him to one side breaks the intensity.

  2. Listen - and by that I mean real, deep listening. Not just nodding while thinking of something to say next. Don't say 'I understand' before you've said 'tell me more' a few times.

  3. Stay calm - the body's natural physiological reaction in these situations is to breathe shallow, get hot and increase the heart rate. This makes it more difficult to think rationally and respond appropriately so take slow and deep breaths. Try and remember it’s not about you - don’t feel like you have to defend yourself.

  4. Don’t demand compliance, but set boundaries - telling someone that they 'need to calm down' may backfire, but it's absolutely fine to say that you will not be spoken to aggressively or sworn at. There's a subtle difference, but it makes a big impact.

  5. Choose empathy - although many people in these situations appear angry, what is causing that reaction may be something deeper. What you see on the surface may be caused by something deeper, so try to work out what's really going on.

  6. Don't argue or try to convince - getting into an argument is unlikely to be successful. We tend to dig in when we're in a heightened state.

  7. Do say 'I’m sorry, I’m going to fix it'.

  8. Be ready to exit - in a very small number of cases, the person you are dealing with might become unreasonable. It's always worth having an exit plan for when a patient becomes unmanageable. Protect your personal safety by planning ahead.

  9. Debrief & discharge - dealing with complaints can be stressful. Once you've recorded the conversation and taken the action necessary, make sure you talk to someone, and give yourself credit for having dealt with it.

Finally, on the technical side for a formal complaint, you have to get acknowledgement that it’s resolved 100%. Whilst you may not want to revisit the issue, always follow up a few days later to check the customer is happy. Ask for feedback on how the complaint was handled. Getting confirmation of resolution is important to avoid the complaint being resurrected.


In a continuing climate of uncertainty, difficult customers and patients will be an ongoing issue. I hope that my observations and reflections will set you up for success as you navigate the coming months.


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