Chocolate Pillow | The Service Recovery Paradox – can you avoid it?
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The Service Recovery Paradox – can you avoid it?

14 Dec The Service Recovery Paradox – can you avoid it?

Those of you who have done a hospitality degree of some kind, will know what this theory is; but does it really exist and can you stop this from occurring anyway?

The theory of the service recovery paradox goes something like this: The guest who does not have a service failure, is less likely to return than the guest who had a service failure and was successfully recovered. There have been a number of studies with mixed results on this – some support the theory, and some oppose it. But what about the actuality of delivering an unbeatable service in the first place?

I am not going to go in to the studies in too much depth, but some say it exists and some say it doesn’t; some say it depends on the recovery methods and certain conditions being met…. for those of you who want to read more, read here and here for the studies.  Basically the industry is indoctrinated generally to believe that exceptional service recovery leads to higher loyalty, but this is (as most who work in the industry will advocate) a rarity.  Often the aim of a business is to return the guest experience to the same level that they would be at, if the issue had not happened in the first place, but can this really happen if something has gone wrong?

To be objective on this – there are two ways you could look at the same subject of customer complaints and service recovery.

1 – You have the field that believe that providing exceptional service recovery demonstrates your business and staff ability to resolve issues quickly and without fuss, which shows that if the guest has any problems, they will be resolved quickly and without drama.

2 – You also have the field that believe that irrespective of the issue, the recovery should not have to occur in the first place and the very fact that it did, is enough to put the guest off your business for good.

(okay, you will also have the third contingent who just don’t care!)

Time for psycho-babble now – there is actually a strong psychological reasoning behind both.  To start you have the age-old ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ – this is actually very useful for hoteliers as the theory states several layers of human needs – each set of needs is layered, and each layer cannot be reached without fulfilling all the needs of the layer below it…… okay, does not make much sense, but here is a graphical example:


Anyone who has done any formal ‘train the trainer’ or HR training will probably be familiar with this model.  and here is where hoteliers really do come in to play more than anyone generally understands.

On the very basic, lowest level, hoteliers actually fulfil several needs – provision of food, sleep, water.  So we can move to the second level; safety.  Suffice to say that on a very simple level, a hotel provides the shelter and removal from danger that will cause this level to be fulfilled.  The third level is belonging, and this is where hoteliers can either fulfil or disappoint (I will talk about this in a moment); the fourth level is esteem and is about being made to feel good or important and the final level is self-actualisation where someone begins to fulfil their potential.

Starting at the bottom of the pyramid – levels 1 and 2 here are the basics of what you provide as a hotelier (food, water, sleep, shelter); levels 3 and 4 are what you aim for, and level 5 is something that the guest can only really achieve in themselves.  Remember however that for each of these levels in the hierarchy, all the lower levels below it need to be fulfilled.  For example someone cannot feel safety if they are not healthy or receiving food, sleep and water.  Someone cannot be truly affectionate or feel strongly belonging if they do not feel secure and safe.

So what does this show?  The belonging is something we, as hoteliers, need to strive for – by making the guest part of our group (the hotel team and guests), then we achieve level 3 which can increase level 4’s likelihood – basically the guest feels a part of something so ends up having a boost in self esteem.

Let me give you a few examples here – belonging is probably easiest with guests from different cultures, or guests who stay with you for a couple of weeks, or regular guests who you see time and time again.  Take one instance in my career – we had a celebrity guest staying at the hotel and they stayed usually for a few days a week, but almost every week for 3 or so months.  They came to the last week of their stay and had become almost like part of our hotel family.  We anticipated their arrival and looked forward to it, they were very friendly and genuinely one of the nicest people I have met in my career.  The end of their stay coincided with my birthday, and when I got back in to work the day after my birthday, I had a birthday card waiting for me from the guest, and the reception team had a christmas card too.  It may not seem much, but actually means a lot – if you are getting christmas cards or birthday cards from guests, then you have done it and achieved level 3, as the guest feels belonging (they belong in the hotel).  This can go to other situations – the guest who is welcomed in their native language, or with the standard welcome from their culture, will feel belonging.

One other case in my career is when concerts are on in local areas – each guest when they check in is invited to tell us about their plans for the night (not because we are nosy, but so we know whether to put people above the parties taking place or whether to put them in the quiet area, and how busy the restaurant will be etc).  One instance was a group of about 6 rooms that were all wanting taxis for around the same time to go to a concert.  Rather than arrange separate taxis, we contacted all the guests and ordered a minibus.  All the guests then met in the bar half an hour before the pick-up time.  The common interest with the concert meant that conversation quickly started. The taxi firm then did not send the minibus booked as ‘it is busy’.  There eventually were 3 cars sent, and this was 30 minutes after the booked time – all the guests were late for the concert.  But they met up afterwards and shared cars back – the following morning, we had hugs and thank you’s from all the guests and each one of them has been back 2 or 3 times – we achieved level 3 (and possibly level 4 with a boost in esteem over everyone’s knowledge of the act they were going to see).

My point here really, is that if you achieve a sense of belonging for the guests, and help boost their self esteem, then you can do little wrong as even when service fails, you are forgiven – look at the feeling of belonging; someone who feels part of your hotel ‘family’ is more likely to actually forgive this small mistakes than someone who does not feel at home.  All too often we are concentrating on revenue, admin, and other tasks that take us away from guest interaction – as a manager I regularly take time to talk to guests and never have I berated or chastised my staff for failing to complete a simple admin task if they have been dealing with guests.

I deal with regular guests who turn up and don’t have a booking, they don’t mind and will happily chat whilst the booking is entered.  We know their preferences and adhere to them, we ask how the family is or how the holiday was, we remember birthdays and give cards and drinks.  We remember faces and room preferences – we have guests who say they don’t care if the room was a grotty broom cupboard, as long as they got the staff interaction – that’s all they care about – some people come just for the staff.

So is the service recovery paradox an argument worth having when you actually can avoid the situation by offering the right experience in the first place?  I guess you can.  Service recovery will never be ‘not needed’ and there will always be complaints to deal with from guests; there will always be those one-off instances where guests do come back but generally only when it’s free of charge, and even then there is a sense of anticipation that things will go wrong.  The service recovery paradox does exist to some extent – I have seen people who think it is simply fantastic how we dealt with complaints, and others that hate us; that is the nature of being human.  To be fair, the paradox of creating loyalty by creating a complaint is hard to swallow – if that were the case then surely every business would be peeving us off straight away, just so we can become more loyal to them – so go forth and alienate people, or go forth and hug a guest – your choice, but also your business on the line!

Matt Shiells-Jones

Husband, Author, Hotel Manager and ambitious 'old cat lady'

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