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Guests Behaving Badly: How to Cope with Expert Stephanie Coradin

A recent post on LinkedIn by Stephanie Coradin, a Florida-based Executive Coach and founder of DEMBO Inc., a training and consulting firm specializing in workforce challenges and solutions, made our jaw drop. She recounted examples of everything from irate guests drawing a gun (!) on a manager to a customer spitting on front desk staff. While it’s true these are extreme examples, there is lots of evidence that bad behavior is on the rise everywhere from airplanes and restaurants to theme parks and of course, hotels.

What's going on?

The Wall Street Journal recently reported firms tracking consumer behavior are observing unusually high levels of “crankiness and dissatisfaction.” Customer satisfaction is at the lowest level since 2005, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which monitors the behavior of 300,000 consumers across 46 industries. According to the FAA, “unruly” passenger behavior on airplanes has literally gone up TEN times since the pandemic, so much so that airline CEOs are trying to coordinate on a master “no-fly” list.

The pandemic, and now the conflict in Ukraine, is causing further inflation and exacerbating already existing product shortages, labor shortages, and supply problems. The gap between supply and demand—combined with unusually high levels of stress—has everyone on edge, to put it mildly.

According to Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at the University of Santa Clara, bad behavior is caused by a confluence of factors. He told CNBC recently, “We’ve got a tsunami of mental health issues out there, with anxiety and depression…our collective stress levels have never been higher.” There’s also “observational learning,” Plante said, explaining that “when people see bad behavior all around them, even by so-called role models, they are more likely to repeat it.”

So how do we deal with the tantrum trend?

hertelier met with Stephanie to learn more about what is happening and get tips and strategies for dealing with aggressive, even dangerous, guests. Stephanie has an extensive background in hospitality and holds both an MBA and a Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling. We asked her what hoteliers can do to better protect and train their employees.

First, Stephanie, tell us some of the stories you’ve heard from your clients lately.

True stories I’ve heard from front-desk agents just this week are out of this world.

  • One was spat upon because the guest didn’t want to leave a deposit at check-in

  • Another was threatened with bodily harm by a guest when informed that they still had a mask mandate in place.

  • One front desk agent had a guest yell at her when she explained they couldn’t refund the deposit due to having to get the entire room cleaned – carpets, drapes, everything – due to the smell of marijuana. The GM stepped in and the guest then pulled a gun on him. The desk agent had to call 911 and for the rest of the week, cops had to be parked outside since there was a fear the man would return and threaten the employees. Not a good look for a hotel to have police camped out in the parking lot!

  • This is probably the worst, but I heard from a hotel operations person in Las Vegas that one of their employees was trying to clean in a bar area but a customer wouldn’t leave their slot machine. The man kindly asked her to leave but she stayed and proceeded to pee in her chair, so adamant was she that she wouldn’t leave until she won something. (Whattt??)

Wow, I know everyone is stressed by the pandemic and the Ukraine conflict, but this is on another level entirely.

It is. Mental health is at a premium. And it’s not just in hospitality. I spoke to the Mayor’s office in Miami-Dade because they are so worried about their team members. The building collapse (Surfside) had a compounding effect.

So it’s not just the pandemic that is affecting people…?

The pandemic of course affected everyone. But there are different elements that are emerging. A lot of people are coming out of lockdown and quarantine realizing they don’t even like their spouses. A lot of divorces are happening. For many people, this was the most time they spent with their spouse in ages and this forced them to realize that this person wasn’t the person they married 20, 30 years earlier.

So what are you seeing as a result of this?

A lot of depression. A lot of uncertainty. To bring it back to the hospitality industry, for employees, there’s the stress of not knowing what is going to happen. The ones that got to keep their jobs are still walking on eggshells. They don’t know if the hotel will stay open for good, or whether there will be a different variant. It’s all unknown.

And it’s the same for guests. They are coming in with all of that frustration bottled up. Some have kids at home trying to do online school. Some have lost family members, or their marriages are ending. So many people are just so angry and they take it out on the first person who says “no” to them.

Do these people not realize it’s not appropriate to take your anger out on an innocent front-desk clerk?

I think some people don’t even realize why they’re so angry. I had one person tell me about losing it with a gas station attendant. He got into his car and took a deep breath afterward and realized that he had no idea why he just blew up at that poor man. Luckily, he had the presence of mind to go back and apologize, but a lot of people don’t have that amount of self-reflection.

What is the way forward? How can the industry protect these front-line workers?

The way that management addresses this issue is critical. There is already a labor shortage and this is going to exacerbate it if it is not addressed. For example, the employee that got spit on left the job completely. That didn’t have to happen.

What does management need to do to help improve the situation?

We need to stand up for our team members and show them that they will be protected. When people know that there are certain things that are unacceptable, they will stop.

Look at the airline industry. They are now empowering their employees and saying, you don’t have to wait for a supervisor. If a guest or traveler is being abusive, you can take them off the plane. You can fine them. They will be put on a no-fly list. Having consequences makes a huge difference.

In the hospitality industry, the motto is that the guest is always right, but we have to adapt that to: “the guest is always right until they’re not” and you have to show that you are serious about tackling abusive behavior. Empower employees to use their best judgment. If they have to call security or call the police, they should be free to do whatever is necessary to protect themselves and other guests.

What else can be done?

Just like the airlines are doing now, we have to make it very clear in our communications that abuse won’t be tolerated. Obviously, in a luxury hotel, you won’t have a sign saying that at check-in, but it can be printed out on every room reservation or invoice.

We have to start standing up for these team members, otherwise people – especially younger employees – are going to leave the industry. I am promoting the idea of a NO STAY list, similar to a NO FLY list. We will give these people chances – for example, they will be fined first, but if they continue to behave badly, they will be put on a NO STAY list. A lot of people like this idea.

We have to start standing up for these team members, otherwise people – especially younger employees – are going to leave the industry. I am promoting the idea of a NO STAY list, similar to a NO FLY list. We will give these people chances – for example, they will be fined first, but if they continue to behave badly, they will be put on a NO STAY list. A lot of people like this idea.

Why do you think the hospitality industry is bearing the brunt of this?

We are trained to be hospitable, to stay cool and collected and friendly, if possible, which is all great. But the customer can take advantage of that.

I think the hospitality industry as a whole has become the punching bag for aggressive guests. There’s also a whole generation of entitled people, which contributes to the problem.

What about communicating with the people behaving badly? Obviously, not anyone pulling a gun, but you know, trying to talk someone down from a place of anger and frustration.

We don’t have specific scripts for that because when a guest is frustrated you don’t want to respond robotically as that will only make them angrier. So firstly, we always advise to let the disgruntled guest speak. Try not to say “I can’t” or “No” right away. Give them options. I also recommend trying to keep yourself grounded. I tell people on the front lines “This is not about you. It’s not personal, you’re just the target for this general anger and frustration.”

Then, of course, employees should feel free to call the manager. If you need to ask the person to leave, make sure you have security with you. Don’t try to do anything by yourself. Leadership needs to make sure their employees know it’s okay to protect themselves and that they will be supported.

Along those lines, recognizing the stress their team members are working under, it’s important for management to put wellness services in place for their team members. Massages, yoga, mindfulness classes - they all help.

Thank you, Stephanie! Wise advice for these unsettled times.


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