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'You need to confront customer complaints. The more aggressive they get, the more polite I am'

The owner of one of Ireland’s most famous hotels delivers a masterclass in customer service.

Francis Brennan Co-owner, The Park Hotel Kenmare

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN a four-and a five-star experience is all in the quality of customer service.

In the hotels trade, everybody has a power shower and a television in each room – it’s our personal touch that sets us apart and how willing we are to go the extra mile.

The way you train people is important. That should take up a lot of your time. You shouldn’t just lob someone into a position and hope that it’s going to work out.

Training is very important to us at the Park Hotel Kenmare. We would have an ethos in the house to be nice to everybody.

I remember when we first opened the hotel in 1980, one gentleman was in an awful state when he checked in because he had a puncture in his car.

“Oh, that’s no trouble,” I said. “Give me the keys and we’ll look after it.”

He was puzzled and wanted to know if I knew how to fix a puncture.

I said: “No, no – we’ll take the wheel off and we’ll bring it to the garage, get it fixed and put it back on.”

Somewhere else, they would have just given him a number and directions for the mechanic down the road and let him sort it out himself.

I always look at those situations and think about what I would like if I was in South Africa or Ghana and I got a puncture. If I thought the hotel would take my keys and fix it, I’d be very happy.

I tell all the youngsters that story. That’s the kind of thing you have to do to be special.

Personal attention

Personal attention goes such a long way in any industry. Whenever I go into an Apple Store they’re always extremely nice to deal with. You can go in and ask the most stupid question, but you never feel foolish because they’re trained to treat you right.

They don’t just point you to what you’re looking for in a shop, either. They walk you to what you want. It’s the same as a restaurant waiter showing you to your table. That reassures the customer.

Apple store reopening Inside an Apple Store Source: Dominic Lipinski

We would always be like that in our business. We take a guest to their room, show them around and explain to them the view.

We’re all the time reaffirming the guest that we’re there to look after them. I’ve noticed that more in retail nowadays, even in supermarkets. They’ve learned that from the hotels business, I believe.

Keep in touch

When you have a customer that’s happy to work with you, you have to stay in touch with them. A lot of people let a good customer go.

Here at the hotel, I’d say 40-45% of our business is repeat custom. When we open our doors next week after the Christmas break, we’ll have 50% of our bookings for the year. Of that, 30% is repeat business because we keep in touch with our clients.

That said, we don’t annoy them beyond belief. We simply send our past customers a St Patrick’s Day card when nobody else does – and it’s an actual card, not a digital one, signed by myself and my brother, John, who is managing director of the hotel.

2967026 Francis and John Brennan Source: The Park Hotel Kenmare

We would only send out an email about three times a year just to let them know we’re still here. We’d do that if we had a special in the autumn or if there was a concert coming up – something of interest.

You can over overdo that, of course. Don’t be like Booking.com where you make one booking and they never stop sending you emails.

Confronting complaints

If you’re confronted with a complaint, don’t be afraid of it. Just confront it – things happen.

For example, we had a big flood here over Christmas. It was nobody’s fault – a pipe burst in the wall of one of the rooms.

We apologised to the guests and moved them immediately. They were very understanding, and we made it up to them with a bottle of champagne.

Of course, you’ll get professional complainers, and there’s a particular type of customer that can get very aggressive. The more aggressive they get, the more polite I am.

I remember many years ago, we had a group coming from Philadelphia that booked 10 rooms. Two months later, they wanted to add another 15 beds, which were no longer available.

I explained to their tour operator that I was sorry, but I’d have to put some people somewhere else in town because I didn’t have enough rooms.

As it turned out, some guests cancelled, others changed their travel dates, and all of a sudden we had enough rooms to cater for the group of 25.

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At that time, we had four single rooms – we don’t have them any more. They were just a small single bed and that’s it.

park The Park Hotel Kenmare Source: The Park Hotel Kenmare

I was delighted that I was able to squeeze the group under the one roof. There was one gentleman, however, who wasn’t pleased with the single room we’d given him.

He stormed into my office and said: “Who’s in charge here?”

“Oh, I am,” I said. “Can I help you?”

“Yes,” he said. “My car at home is bigger than the room you’ve given me.”

“Goodness me,” I said, “you must have a very big car.”

I explained to him what had happened with the tour operator that overbooked the group and apologised that he had been given a small room. He still wasn’t happy.

“Do you know that in my house I have 11 bathrooms?” he said, prodding me very hard in the chest.

“Oh really?” I said, not really sure what to say next. “Well, in my house, I have 47 bathrooms – because this hotel is my house.”

With that, he burst out laughing. I wasn’t rude or anything. He had nowhere to go with his complaint – he was cornered.

He left my office smiling and came back four days later to say that our hotel was one of the nicest places he had ever stayed in.

It just goes to show that humour always works. You can defuse situations very easily if you’re honest and a bit of fun.

Francis Brennan is co-owner of The Park Hotel Kenmare and star of RTÉ’s At Your Service. This article was written in conversation with Conor McMahon as part of a new series of masterclasses with some of Ireland’s most influential business people.

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, email opinion@fora.ie.

About the author:

Francis Brennan  / Co-owner, The Park Hotel Kenmare

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