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5 steps to becoming "unflusterable"

(MoneyWatch) In 20 years of travel, I've stayed in lots of hotels in lots of places, from negative-star hotels in rural China to ultra-luxe properties in the world's biggest cities (the latter only if I got a steal, used points or someone else was picking up the tab... I travel cheap). I'd like to think I've seen the best and worst that the hospitality industry has to offer, and that nothing -- good or bad -- could faze me. So Imagine my surprise last month when a mid-range business hotel in New Jersey gave such jaw-droppingly great service that I practically had to walk outside to make sure I didn't accidentally walk into the Four Seasons.

Though I am obsessed with great service and loathe its opposite, I am actually a pretty easy customer. I don't expect extraordinary service everywhere, so if I get treated at a basically good level by basically friendly people, I am friendly and understanding in return. But it just so happened that I was a particularly "needy" customer on this trip: GPS took me an extra hour to the wrong place, not the room type I requested, in need of an unreasonably-late check-out, the inevitable missing toiletries, and more. Nobody's fault -- just one of those trips. Like any frequent business traveler, I took it in stride. But I did throw a lot at the fine overnight staff of this hotel.

They responded by taking it in even better stride than I did. GPS screw-up? The impossibly pleasant gentleman at the front desk talked me in by phone and stayed on until he saw my car. Room problem? Upgraded to executive floor. Mid-afternoon checkout? No problem -- "we'll make that work" (loved that answer). They just couldn't do enough, or nicely enough.

The capper was when my executive floor key didn't open the breakfast lounge door. The woman working the lounge let me in and said she was going to have someone come up immediately with new key cards. When I explained to her that I'd be checking out that day and probably wouldn't need them, she said "maybe not, but we inconvenienced you and it's the right thing to do." Two minutes later, a cheerful lady from the front desk showed up, tested the keys and handed them to me with another apology. I sat with my scrambled eggs, wondering if I had landed in some parallel universe of luxury resorts disguised as business hotels.

So this plain-vanilla national chain property wowed me sufficiently to write about it, by being unflusterable. Being unflusterable means keeping your attitude and actions positive, without fail, no matter what comes your way:

1. Never let 'em see you sweat. A really hard-to-please customer can test even the best service professional, but it's a test you can and should pass with flying colors. Keep a genuine smile on your face (a fake one is worse than none at all), listen more than you talk, and never stop visualizing and telegraphing a happy conclusion.

2. Own it. Whatever "it" is -- a real problem, a special request, or even a seemingly unfounded gripe. The what, why, who and when (especially the latter -- the past is the past) are far less important than what you do next. So don't look for another person or place to dump the issue -- grab it and run with it. If you need help or authorization, get it, but don't relinquish ownership of the issue.

3. Take your opinions and emotions out of the equation. Too many employees take business personally, and while there are times when a customer has a problem with a specific employee, more often she is just shooting the messenger. It's not about you -- take the bullet.

4. Let your default answer be "yes" (or "certainly," "absolutely," or any variation thereof). If there isn't a really good reason to say no, don't look for one. I'm not saying you should be a doormat or give someone $20 to break a five-dollar bill, I'm just saying that it's always best to look for ways to say yes. Saying yes to even half of what a customer asks for has a shot at making him happy; saying no is guaranteed not to.

5. Do something, fast. Minimize the amount of time you spend discussing, explaining, debating or negotiating. The sooner you get to some positive action, the less time there is for the customer to stew, grit her teeth and think of more (increasingly legitimate) reasons to be upset. Start solving before the end of the problem even leaves her lips.

Whenever I write a piece along these lines, some readers post comments or write to say that it's a nice thought, but unrealistic or inappropriate in some circumstances. Their argument is that there are customers who indeed ask too much, can't be pleased and are even abusive to employees. One commenter on an earlier post even suggested that I was rewarding bad customer behavior. But in my experience, truly "impossible" customers are really few and far between, and most people who are upset, demanding or venting can be turned around. So if the trade-off is that I get taken advantage of sometimes, I'll take it.

By being completely unflappable, this nondescript hotel showed that greatness has nothing to do with the sign on the door, the thread count of the sheets or even the price of the room. In fact, I wasn't even a paying customer -- I was staying for free, with points -- so after all this great service, I checked out with a zero bill. That didn't bother them either.

Image by Flickr user combust

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