What can a broken toilet teach you about customer service?

By | April 15th, 2013


When Tanya Fernandez checked into room 323 at the Microtel Inn & Suites in Colorado Springs, Colo., recently, she was met with an unpleasant but fixable problem: a broken toilet.

Fernandez, a purchasing agent for a flooring company in Sanford, Fla., was in town for the weekend to visit her son, a cadet at the Air Force Academy, and knowing she’d be leaving soon to see him, she decided to give Microtel a chance to repair the bathroom fixture.

It didn’t.

“We came back Friday evening and the toilet was not fixed,” she remembers. “So my young adult children had to come to my room and also use the lobby bathroom.”

Her case offers a lesson in managing expectations: yours and, if you’re running a hotel, your guests’. It’s also a reminder that sincerity matters, when it comes to customer service gestures, no matter what kind of business you’re running.

Stopped pipes

Undeterred, Fernandez asked again for, and again was promised, a quick fix for her toilet. But a day later — nothing.

“We came back Saturday afternoon and the toilet was still not fixed,” she says. She asked about the broken toilet one more time and a hotel clerk assured her it would be taken care of.

“To my surprise, the toilet was still not fixed that Sunday,” she says. “I was frustrated and perturbed by the non-service of the hotel regarding the bathroom problem and would deal with the hotel when I got home and I just wanted to try and enjoy the last day with my son.”

When Fernandez returned, she sent an email to the Microtel’s manager “explaining my displeasure,” she says. A hotel representative contacted her and offered to “fully reimburse her” as well as a $10 per night discount off a future stay.

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But when she checked her credit card, she found that Microtel had only credited her $43, which is slightly less than half of one night’s room rate, minus taxes.

Fernandez wrote back, saying that wasn’t enough. Besides, why would she ever want to stay in that hotel again for a measly $10 discount?

In response Microtel credited her another $43.

“I was promised over and over again that the bathroom would be repaired and I believed the staff at the hotel,” she says. Fernandez wants all of her money back for the bathroom-less stay, as the hotel suggested it would do, and turned to my consumer advocacy site for help.

Well, what did you expect?

Microtel is a budget hotel chain that promises, among other things, “free” breakfast and wireless Internet (technically, it should say that those are included in its room rate, since you can’t just show up and eat the food and use the wireless connection without paying for a room) — and, most importantly, a “better” stay. But when you’re paying around $90 a night, you can’t expect Ritz-Carlton service.

The only mention of toilets — working or otherwise — in Colorado’s innkeeper laws is an obscure mention that toilet tissue, soap, shoeshine cloths, clothes bags, matches, facial tissue, coffee and other items available for guests’ use are not subject to sales or use tax at the time of purchase by the hotel or motel. I guess that assumes each hotel will have a functioning bathroom.

Even Microtel’s virtual property tour warns that actual rooms may vary. So technically, it’s possible for the hotel to sell a room without a functioning toilet.

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When to refund and when to shut up

Microtel should have provided Fernandez with a room that had a working toilet, of course. And the room discount? That wasn’t the most sincere gesture for a guest who lives thousands of miles away.

But her complaint is functionally similar to the business-class passengers who can’t use their in-flight entertainment or fully recline their seat, and ask for a complete refund.

In both those cases, the desired punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime. The passengers were able to enjoy the ample legroom and first-class cuisine the airline offered, and so also, Fernandez could sleep in the bed, use the closets, the in-room wireless, and the breakfast. It isn’t as if she received nothing for her money.

Microtel might have offered her a refund as a customer service gesture, but for the entire stay? Even its published guarantee doesn’t provide for anything close to that.

In other words, Microtel was both right — and wrong.

Fernandez would have happily accepted a different room in the hotel, but the Microtel was fully booked and there were no hotels nearby with available rooms because of an event that weekend. I think Microtel might have been able to sweeten the deal if she’d spoken with a manager before leaving. Often, supervisors can offer points or meal vouchers to make up for minor problems.

“It’s indescribably wrong,” she says. “I can’t comprehend how this hotel can’t do anything more to satisfy this customer.”

Will Fernandez ever get the rest of her money back? It seems about as likely as her ever staying at another Microtel.

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