Just the Facts: Writing in a Customer Complaint Situation

Whether you have “writer” in your job title or not, writing factually and opinion-free about customers in complaint situations is an important professional skill. My first experience doing business writing for pay was in the hospitality industry, but it could happen anywhere. What you write matters!

Describing an Unhappy Guest

In the 1990s, the hotel where I worked used a green-screen system to check guests in and out of the hotel. The system included a section on each guest reservation to note guest requests, such as nonsmoking room, king-size bed, etc. It also offered front desk staff to note any reservation changes, guest concerns, or other items.

Because the hotel was often very busy, front desk hosts and hostesses had to keep their comments short because other guests were waiting. We also had to keep the comments factual and to the point without including a lot of opinions. We had to write in a Disney-friendly way, so our job was to describe the situation in a clear, useful manner.

Semi-fictional story: A guest comes to the desk with three dirty, crying children in tow; scruffy bed hair; and an unhappy expression on his face. The unhappy guest scowls at the host and yells, “I want to talk to your manager, NOW! This place is a dump! My kids missed their character breakfast because your maintenance people never got to our room to fix the shower!” The host quickly apologizes, starts to call Engineering, and offers to make it up to him, but the guest is having none of it. “You can’t help me. You’re just a peon. I want to talk to the man in charge!” The host makes a quick call to the shift lead, who comes out to talk to the guest. Wearing the same costume as the desk host, the shift lead receives the same treatment, even when the lead offers to comp (provide a complimentary) character breakfast the following day. “I don’t want to talk to an underling. My kids’ holiday is spoilt! I want a manager. NOW!” The ruckus starts to attract attention from other guests. The lead goes backstage (Disney language for any operational area away from the guests) to get Nancy, the duty manager, who works in professional attire as opposed to a themed costume. The guest yells, “Where’s the manager? I want the man in charge! I want a free vacation out of this!” Nancy calmly explains that she has full authority to address his concerns and takes the guest aside, away from the desk to have a private conversation. The guest remains unhappy because he wanted his kids to have a character breakfast and his family was checking out the next day, so another breakfast wouldn’t work. While the front desk host calls Engineering to fix the shower, Nancy arranges for a complimentary character dinner that evening, and the guest goes away somewhat soothed, or at least not yelling.

Admittedly, this is a rather lengthy tale, but that’s the point: you now have to explain what happened in the reservation comments. What do you include?

Writing the Report

Out of all that drama, the front desk host report might look something like this:

Gst. came to FD upset that shower wasn’t working in rm and his family missed their char. bkfst. Rob offered to comp, but gst wanted a mgr. Gst. wanted to talk to the “man in charge” and wanted a free vacation. Nancy explained she could handle his concern. Nancy offered gst char. dinner at GF [Grand Floridian] for this evening. Engineering rushed to address shower. BL 8/3 0930

There’s a bit of shorthand in there, but the desk host covers the basics:

  • What happened
  • What was done to respond
  • Details relevant to the guest’s complaint or any service recovery/compensation
  • Who wrote the comment and when

Also note what’s not included:

  • Descriptions of the children
  • Guest’s calling the hotel a “dump”
  • The guest calling the front desk staff peons or underlings
  • The fact that the guest’s yelling was attracting attention
  • Front desk host’s opinion of the guest

You need to write professionally any time you are commenting on interactions with a customer, guest, or client. Your words can reflect not just on you, but your organization. Also, other coworkers might have to act based on what you write. Like it or not, the words you write are part of the official documentation and so legal documents. Write carefully!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in audience, business writing, clients, workplace. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Just the Facts: Writing in a Customer Complaint Situation

  1. Robin Lynn Scott says:

    You bring out the bang of writing! State facts and move on.

    I have worked in medical. I worked in medical. Later at a professional meeting all people were held accountable for we were customer service savvy and for good reasons. Let us say that the hospital not only wanted hygienic but also aesthetic results.
    We found solution such that this situation would NOT reoccur and then wrote the process to follow, which was signed off by administration.
    You brought out points, too, of how people are spoken, too. You might consider doing some notation on to whom customers speak more openly and to whom customers don’t complain to as much. Usually the person with more direct contact performing the actual services can be communicated with less respect than someone in a management position. Good to know when writing process documents.

  2. Back when I was a security guard, one of my incident reports referred to an employee’s belligerent attitude. The next day, he apologized to me in person for his belligerent attitude. So, you never know who will see your words. Choose them carefully.

  3. calino says:

    In addition to calling Engineering, you should have instructed Housekeeping to sprinkle ground fiberglass on his bed sheets.

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