January 9, 2019

The five most difficult customers you’ll encounter in hospitality – and how to remain calm and composed

A career in hospitality can be highly rewarding – but sometimes you’ll need to deal with difficult customers. Here are some common problem scenarios – and how you can keep calm and composed.

First thing’s first – the customer isn’t always right

We’ve all heard of that slogan ‘the customer is always right’, a phrase which was emulated by retail entrepreneurs like Harry Gordon Selfridge. However, sometimes the customer is wrong – and often this will be because they had unrealistic expectations or made a mistake.

The most successful hospitality professionals are proud of the work they do and are passionate about delivering exceptional customer service. Dealing with difficult customers can also help you improve your interpersonal and conflict resolution skills, so you can become even better at your job.

Five difficult customers you’ll need to deal with in hospitality – and how to stay professional

1. The customer who complains about the most trivial matters

Anyone who has worked in hospitality long enough will know that there are some customers who will never be satisfied, no matter how much effort you put in. For example, even if you were the highest-rated hotel or restaurant in your city on TripAdvisor, a fraction of your reviews (i.e. 1% or 2%) may contain a 1-star review. You could do everything right, but you still won’t be able to please everyone. That’s just how it is in the hospitality industry.

Even for the most trivial problem, it’s important to stay professional and do everything you can to find a solution. This means you might need to keep giving the customer apologies for very minor issues – even something as trivial as a hotel’s pillows not being the right colour!

You may have to invite the customer to speak with someone more senior if they’re still unhappy after you’ve made repeated attempts to resolve the situation.

2. The customer who refuses to accept that they’ve made a mistake

Many people find it difficult to admit when they’ve made a mistake.


Because this is part of our human nature – and it can all be explained by what’s known as cognitive dissonance. That is, people become stressed when they do something that is contrary to what they thought or believed, so they try to deny that they’ve made a mistake by shifting the blaming onto someone else.

For example, in a hotel, a customer might deny that they booked the wrong dates or the wrong room type because they’re embarrassed that they made this error. Or a customer whose card had been declined might insist there’s a problem with the hotel’s card reader – even though it’s probably more likely that the customer’s card has been blocked. As a hospitality professional, you must politely stand your ground and prove that the hotel was not responsible for these mistakes.

Undoubtedly, there will be times when you might make a mistake too – no one is perfect! However, if this happens, it’s important to tell the customer immediately, apologise, and do everything you can to resolve the situation professionally.

3. The impatient customer

Hospitality staff often have to deal with very high volumes of customers, particularly during busy periods like Christmas. That means people may have to wait in a queue – or they may need to wait a little longer than usual if a member of staff is dealing with a particularly complex enquiry. Most customers are rational enough to accept this – there’s no magic solution when demand outstrips supply. However, some customers might make a big deal about this – insisting that the hotel staff have deliberately kept them waiting – even though this is extremely unlikely!

In this situation, all you can do is apologise for keeping the customer waiting (again, even though this is out of your control) and thank them for their hospitality – even if they haven’t shown particularly good manners. It’s also important to explain why the customer has had to wait – i.e. you may be understaffed and/or the business may be unusually busy.

4. The customer who resorts to verbal abuse

A small minority of customers may fail to keep their temper under control when they’ve encountered a problem. However, no matter how unpleasant a customer’s situation may be, you should never have to put up with abuse.

Firstly, ask the customer to calm down, tell them that you empathise with their problem, and reiterate that you’ll do everything you can to resolve it. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to contact your manager, although if the abuse escalates then you should advise the customer that you will call security (if your hotel has this) or the police. There’s a good chance that the customer will calm down before you have to make the call.

5. The customer who makes a ridiculous complaint

Whether you work in a hotel, a theme park, or another hospitality business, from time to time you may deal with complaints that will sound so bizarre that you’d question whether they were genuine.

For example, a while ago, TripAdvisor posted 20 of the most ridiculous complaints made by holidaymakers – based on research by Thomas Cook and ABTA. The findings are astounding. Here are three of those complaints (made by real customers to their travel agents!).

“The beach was too sandy.”

“We had to queue outside with no air conditioning.”

“We booked an excursion to a water park but no-one told us we had to bring our swimming costumes and towels.”

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