Turning a Refusal into a Helpful Suggestion

Published on 2011-12-13

Source: Reddy Aprianto@flickr
 I HAVE JUST RETURNED from a fantastic 4 days in Shenzhen. All of ClarkMorgan’s trainers, from our various bases around China, converged there for our annual trainer retreat. We couldn’t have chosen a better location. The weather was great, everyone in Shenzhen seemed to be permanently smiling, and best of all, we stayed in the city’s number one hotel. I do like a bit of luxury once in a while, and our Shenzhen accommodation was that and more. I would love to name the venue as the service we received deserved praise aplenty, however, let’s settle for saying that the hotel, which shares its name with a mythical utopian city, really was a paradise.
The purpose of our trainer retreat was for all of our trainers to come together to exchange best practices, pick up seminar delivery tips by watching each other deliver training and also to brainstorm new seminar ideas for 2012. All in all it was a roaring success and, helped greatly by the friendly atmosphere of Shenzhen and the care shown to us by our hotel hosts, the result was that each trainer headed back to his/her respective city bases with renewed energy and determination to make 2012 an even better year for ClarkMorgan and our clients.
Now you may be wondering what the trainer retreat has to do with refusals and helpful suggestions? Read on and allow me to explain the connection.
In order for our trainers do demonstrate training methods to their peers, we required an audience. Our hotel hosts kindly provided a cross-section of their employees as trainees and one by one, we delivered training on a variety of topics. My specific topic was customer service and so my session focused on handling difficult guest requests.
Having trained a number of 5 star hotels’ staff over the years, I had a good idea of the most common questions asked by guests and also the requests which the staff are duty-bound to refuse. I decided though that it would still be a good idea to interview some hotel staff members in order to make sure that the training was 100% relevant to them before designing the session. For this reason, I found myself interviewing the reception staff at 11 p.m. (a quiet time in the hotel) in the sumptuous surroundings of the hotel lobby.
Should anyone out there be unsure as to the value of training as a motivator, then you would only have had to have seen the reaction of the girls on the reception desk to being asked about the challenges they faced. The knowledge that their managers were taking a real interest in their daily work and offering solutions and self-improvement tips by bringing in a trainer from a large training company (ie me) had a real effect on them. What began as an informal Q&A between me and the two girls on duty then became 4, then 6 and finally 10 staff members as word went around that I wanted to hear about what they found difficult when dealing with guests. Coffee appeared as if by magic and the 20 minutes I had expected to be talking to them ended up becoming one hour. Every question led to two more and with every suggested solution, the smiles became ever bigger.
The issues raised all followed a similar line. Guests staying in this hotel were paying 5 star rates and rightly expected 5 star service. However, as keen as the staff were to provide the very best service, some requests had to be denied. These requests, such as free upgrades, complimentary meals and even offers to take some female staff members to dinner all had to be met with refusals. It was this challenge of saying no firmly whilst still being polite that the staff feared the most.
The key to dealing with this kind of request is to avoid telling guests what they cannot do and instead to offer suggestions as to what they can do. Thus ‘Sorry Sir, you cannot smoke here’ becomes ‘Hello Sir, we have a special smoking area set aside for you just over there’ and ‘Sorry Sir, I am afraid that you cannot have a free upgrade as you do not qualify for it’ becomes ‘We are allowed to offer upgrades to our ‘Platinum Club Members’ (fictional club name) so if you would like to join this scheme then I will then be able to upgrade your room for you’. Using negative language can feel to some guests like lack of respect or even a verbal slap in the face. By offering them other options and suggestions the message is still a ‘no’ but without the negative impact.
Turning down dinner offers from wealthy guests who may or may not believe that 5 star room rates include not only use of spa facilities and a buffet breakfast, but also dates with staff members is a little more challenging as the male ego is a fragile thing. One solution which I learned from working with women in the service industry in the U.K. is for girls to buy a cheap ring and wear it on their wedding finger when working. That way, when a guest asks a female staff member what she is doing after work, she can confidently smile and say that her husband will pick her up from the hotel and they will go to visit her parents. That way the reason for refusal is not a dislike of the guest but for the perfectly acceptable reason of already being married. I once suggested this to the staff of a 5 star hotel in Beijing and was delighted when 2 weeks later in a follow up training I walked into the room and was greeted by smiles and the view of 6 girls all raising their hands to show off the fake wedding rings that they had bought at a local market.
Finally, for those of us who may have encountered negativity from customer service employees in the past, it may be worth considering that the way we form questions may encourage a ‘No’. Often we will ask ‘Can I?’ and ‘Could you?’ These closed questions will nearly always elicit either a yes or a no. If we instead begin with ‘How can I?’ and ‘What is the best way to….?’, then we are almost guaranteed to get better and clearer answers.
So there you go, lots of advice in this month’s blog. If you have the time, go and enjoy some of Shenzhen’s warmth. If you have the money then stay in the city’s premier hotel. If you are asked a question that requires a no, then try to offer other options instead. Ask open rather than closed questions to make the life of customer service staff a little easier, and finally………………… if you are in a five star hotel and the receptionist is sporting an inexpensive wedding ring, then smile at her, nod at the ring and ask knowingly, ‘Rupert’s training?’