Monday, October 8, 2012

The Opposite of "people-friendly"

After twenty-two years as an Innkeeper, I still have lots to learn. Let me share what I learned this week. It's about a kick in the gut from a TA review and how to recover from it.

My last post here concerned my notion of being "people-friendly'. In essence, our B & B  tries very hard to meet the dictionary definition of hospitality - to be welcoming to strangers or guests. To me, that means ALL strangers.

This week, we had a one night stay by a fiftyish married couple, from the blue-collar, oil sands town of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Albertans, perhaps because they have elected the same right wing political party to power for over 40 years, are sometimes stereotyped as rednecks. Anyways, this couple drove up in a large truck with a covered camper van over the back. Most of their luggage was carried in a dozen or more plastic shopping bags. In hindsight, I should have noticed that neither husband nor wife offered a handshake in introduction.

The wife had quizzed us by phone:"Is it clean?" Mildly concerned, I invited them upstairs to view the room before they signed in or committed to their one night stay. I engaged in relatively easy banter with the husband while the wife decided on things. She disappeared into the guest-room's bathroom for a full minute or more. Husband finally called: "Honey - are you coming?" When she did, I ventured a little joke: "Did we pass inspection?" There was no reply but wife gave hubby the nod to start bringing the shopping bags to the room. Check-in was uneventful and the couple asked for and received the usual tourist orientation and map and off they went.

The next morning, they did not appear at breakfast and the key was simply left in the room. Later that day my housekeeper phoned me to say that she had never seen a room left in the condition that this one was left in. Again, after twenty-two years in the biz, I shrugged off her remark.

The next day, the one star or "Terrible" TA review appeared. Reading it, I felt my stomach muscles contract and a slow ache begin. It began: "Not impressed with pictures of naked men for one..." Well, yes, we do have an original signed and framed art photo on the way upstairs. It does have one naked man in it but the overall effect is of a softly sleeping fairy. Besides it's "art", isn't it? No one has ever complained about it before. And even more besides, our B & B's website does proclaim us to be "Vancouver's favourite gay and lesbian accommodation." And yes, it's in bold font too.

But then my eyes drifted over the rest of the review:"...and blood on my suite door and the comforter was well worn. My husband and I cringed sleeping in that room. The hot memory foam was uncomfortable as well as the old musty smell in the house. Not recommended at all. Gross!!!!"

My goodness - blood on the door and four exclamation marks!!!! I cringed. That phrase - blood on the door - was bound to be a sure-fire hit online. After pacing and breathing deep, I raced upstairs to the same guest-room. A charming Seattle couple were staying there and had just mentioned a good night's sleep between laughs and compliments over my quiche. I prayed that there would be no sign of foul play on the suite door. There was not! Maybe just a little smudge by the lock but certainly no gross bodily fluids.

I began to calm down. I went back to the reviewer's other reviews and sure enough, three out of four were "Terrible". One of them even started with the same catchphrase - "not impressed". Not very original either.

I began to think about these strangers that I had welcomed into my home. I went to my housekeeper, a Mom, a sweetie and an almost compulsive cleaner and she described the way she found our guest-room. The folders, in which we enclose a Welcome letter encouraging our guests to let us know if they need anything, as well as our recommendations for nearby restaurants, had been emptied onto the floor. The two home-baked oatmeal cookie teddy bears that we leave in sealed plastic envelopes had been taken out and ground under foot into our carpet. Other oddities amongst the general chaos of towels and linens on the floor was a table-cloth removed and rolled into a ball in a corner.

I began to think that the review's initial focus on "naked men" was the clue. This woman simply hated us. Not for the memory foam mattress or the smell of a century-old house, but simply for who we are. Gay.

Well that made me feel better. This was a customer who could not be pleased. My Management Reply on TA had to be sufficiently innocuous to get by the TA censors. It did. I checked the reviews of other fine Bed and Breakfasts in Vancouver that I know and respect. Sure enough, every B & B that had operated for more than a few years, had gathered at least one of these "Terrible" reviews.

Do people ever stop to think that a mean-spirited online review, aimed at a small business like a guesthouse or restaurant, is likely to financially damage a family business? Sure, maybe a multinational hotel chain can shrug off slanderous and distorted reviews as the price of doing business, but for a sole proprietor, those kind of remarks, delivered anonymously over the internet, are truly hurtful. Anyone who is self-employed will understand how much of yourself you put into your business. It is your baby.

Just because online review sites enable people to anonymously hurt other people, does not make it OK. In person, a legitimate complaint will always be addressed by a caring proprietor. After all, in a small business, a customer can almost always discuss things with the Boss and Owner. Reasonable people should always be able to sort out small issues like a comfortable mattress or cold soup. Don't be a TA hater. Don't be a hater at all. Life is way too short to have death-bed regrets.