Key learning outcomes:

  • Learn that communication is essential in addressing problems and enables a customer to modify their expectations.
  • Adopt a policy of always delivering what is promised to a customer.
  • Recognise that honesty is the key in any service.
  • Acknowledge that first impressions are lasting impressions.


It is a simple fact that not everything goes 100% to plan for any business 100% of the time. The difference between the great businesses and the not-so-great businesses is how they handle any setbacks or problems. This is a useful case study illustrating how a leading hotel handled a bad situation. The lessons that came out of it are worth noting and can be applied to any business.

The business

A luxury five-star hotel located in a major city.

The scenario

The hotel had just undergone a major renovation project with the re-opening widely marketed as taking place on 1 December. The hotel promoted Christmas packages as part of the re-opening celebrations. Packages were promoted and priced as a luxury stay and included a welcome gift and a fine dining Christmas lunch experience.

The customer

The customer had stayed in comparable hotels and wanted a luxury Christmas experience for the family. They booked well in advance and had prior positive experiences with the hotel chain. They booked one standard room and one suite with the plan to use the extra space in the suite to open presents with their children on Christmas morning and to have Christmas night drinks with friends.

The experience

On check-in, the hotel lived up to the five-star expectations of the customer and within a short time they were being escorted to their rooms. On arrival at the rooms it was clear that both rooms were identical and neither was a suite. When queried, the escort phoned the check-in desk and then passed on the message that the customer would not be charged the extra cost of a suite. The customer replied by explaining that it was not about the extra cost and that they had booked a suite for a specific purpose. After some discussion it became evident that the larger room was not available as the renovations were not completed on time.

It became obvious to the customer that the hotel had rushed to complete at least some of the accommodation as both rooms had defects that were not acceptable in a hotel of this standard. Power outlets did not have decorative covers on them, taps were marked incorrectly and some power outlets did not work at all. Additionally, on leaving the hotel for dinner, they were informed that the restaurant was not yet functioning other than for the Christmas lunch and the spa was not yet opened. Also, the promised welcome gifts were not presented.

The fine-dining Christmas lunch was not formatted as initially promoted. Due to the delay in renovations, the meal was served as a buffet rather than as a fine dining experience. This change had not been communicated to the customer.

The outcome

The customer was unhappy and passed on their comments to the front desk manager. The customer acknowledged that the hotel had tried to accommodate a bad situation, but they believed the experience fell well short of their expectations and did not reflect the promotion put forward by the hotel. They did not receive what was promised and the experience did not live up to their expectation of a luxury Christmas experience. The hotel amended the final check-out account to reflect a discount; however, in this instance, the customer would have preferred to receive what was promised rather than a discount after the fact.

What could have been done differently?

  1. Communication in advance

The customer should have been notified well in advance that the hotel renovations were not going to be completed on time. This would have given the customer the option to either continue with the booking or make other arrangements. This advance communication would have conveyed a level of concern for the situation and would have enabled the customer to re-set their expectations in line with what the hotel could offer.

  1. Communication on first point of contact

Upon check-in, the customer should have been notified that the booked room was not available. The lack of communication left the customer feeling let down on arrival at the room. Once again, with advance warning, this might have been alleviated to some degree.

  1. Deliver what you promise

The package was sold to the customer with the promise of a welcome gift on arrival. Regardless of what the gift might have been, the failure to deliver it showed a lack of attention to detail. If there is any doubt as to your ability to provide an extra, it is infinitely better not promote it and instead provide it as a “Surprise and Delight” element. Our article of the same name explains this concept in detail.

  1. Honesty is the best policy

When things do not quite go to plan you will find that most people sympathise with your situation if you are honest and upfront. Had the guests been advised in advance of the unavailability of rooms and that the format of the Christmas lunch had to be changed due to the delayed building works, their expectations would have been modified and their satisfaction level would have been higher.

  1. Adopt a long-term strategy

It would seem that the hotel adopted a strategy to simply book in people as they arrived and then deal with the percentage that complained. While in the short term this might have meant that ultimately, they earned higher revenue during the holiday period due to the absence of cancellations, they ran the risk of damaging their reputation in the longer term. For any business wanting to differentiate on quality it is important to adopt a long-term business strategy.


It is important to remember that first impressions are the most lasting. If you fail to impress from the outset it can be difficult to turn the customer experience around. In this instance it was a series of small disappointments that added up to a less than ideal customer experience. The room change, the altered lunch format, minor room defects and the lack of a welcome gift were not huge issues individually. However, these issues, when combined, and the fact that the issues were not properly addressed, left the customer feeling very dissatisfied.

The real lesson in this case study is that communication is the key to overcoming a difficult situation. It can be tempting when things are going wrong to just sit back and hope that people will not notice and just deal with the ones that do. The reality is that most, if not all, of your customers will notice that things are not perfect and yet only a minority will speak up and complain. This does not mean that they have endured only a minor fallout. The more likely outcome is that many customers have left feeling far from satisfied.

Never be afraid to be upfront and transparent in your dealings with customers. What you might gain in the long term will always outweigh what you might lose in the short term.

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