The Five-Step Guide to Hugging Bears. Turning Unhappy Guests Into Your Biggest Fans.

While not every campground owner or manager needs a strategy for dealing with bears in the wild (if you do, click here), you do need an effective strategy for dealing with your most unhappy guests. Given the similarities between how encounters with bears in the wild and unhappy guests can make us feel (a sense of terror, vulnerability, a racing heart), we affectionately refer to our most unhappy guests as "bears", too. And we see it as our job to transform them back into happy campers. You might think we are crazy, but we are on a mission to be the most hospitable company in the world, and we cannot achieve our mission without actively engaging all of our guests, no matter how bear-ish their behavior.

In a hurry? Here are the cliff notes:
  1. Identify that the bear is unhappy
  2. Be present and actively listen
  3. Empathize and apologize
  4. Offer some honey
  5. Decompress

For those of you still with us, here is a fun fact before we get started. DID YOU KNOW: 80% of businesses believe they deliver "superior" customer service, but just 8% of customers agree that service is superior - Service Quality Institute

Statistics like the one above scream OPPORTUNITY. Let's take a look at what we can do to be a part of that amazing 8%. In Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers, author Jay Baer describes two types of unhappy customers: those that complain in-person "on-stage", and those that complain in reviews or over the phone "off-stage." Today, we are going to be sharing our strategy at LLA Hospitality, the leading provider of professional campground and RV park management services, for addressing the on-stage bear. Below is our five-step process to hug a bear and turn them into one of your biggest fans.
STEP 1: Identify that the bear is unhappy.

This step may seem obvious, but bear's complaints can present themselves in different ways. Sometimes the bear is big, aggressive, and in-your-face. Identification here is easy. Other bears are much more subtle. They do not fit the description of an "on-stage" bear and are really an "off-stage" bear in hibernation waiting for the chance to write you a negative review. This step is dedicated to the hibernating bear.

To identify these bears, you and your team must spend time in your campground every day speaking with guests and soliciting feedback. Listen carefully for any seemingly negative comments. You will be shocked at how many small issues can be solved and elevate a 1-star "the cable didn't work" review into a 5-star "the manager is awesome and helped me fix my cable!" review, simply through increased guest interaction. How much time should you spend speaking with guests? As much as possible. We encourage our managers to spend at least two hours per day walking the sites or behind the front desk to ensure meaningful and direct one-on-one guest interaction. Once you have identified that a bear is unhappy, it is important to have specific processes in place for collecting and transmitting the feedback you receive to the rest of your team. It is often more effective to take on a bear as a group than as an individual.
[Note... A guest can transform into a bear for any number of reasons; it is our job to identify the root cause, solve the issues to the best of our ability, and transform them back into happy campers. It takes honest self-awareness to accurately attribute each type of service mishap. To clarify, we are not suggesting that the guest is always right. They aren't. On occasion, they really, really aren't. Perhaps they reserved the wrong date online and blame you. Not your fault. Their drive took longer than expected. Not your fault. Their kids got car-sick. Bummer. Still, not your fault. But guess what? Whether it's your fault or not, that bear is getting its claws out and it's ready to use those claws to type one of the harshest reviews you've ever seen.]
Which leads us to step 2...
STEP 2: Be present and actively listen.

Tell yourself two things as you begin to listen to the guest's complaint: first, "be calm" and second, "this is not a personal attack." (It is likely worth repeating the second one... as tough as that may be.) Pay close attention to what your guest is telling you and ask questions to understand what the REAL issue is. Why are they ACTUALLY upset? You cannot move on to step three without knowing the true why behind their complaint.
[The True Why... We had a bear last season who was rude and impossible to please. A lovely combination. No matter what our team did, offered or said, the guest was not any happier. We were trying to solve the situation with our mouths instead of our ears. After a few minutes, our manager took a step back, looked the guest in the eyes and calmly asked, "I understand that you are upset, and I am terribly sorry that's the case. What's the REAL reason that you are this upset right now?" The guest broke down crying and explained that they were traveling with their ex-partner and that the two of them had been fighting all day. The guest needed to release a trip's worth of pent up frustration. Often times, people just want to feel heard. Let them feel heard. One loud roar can be a lot less harmful than a set of claws.]
At LLA Hospitality, we separate complaints into three categories: (1) complaints that we can control today, (2) complaints that we cannot control today but can in the future, and (3) complaints we cannot control. In actively listening to your guests, it is important for you to determine whether a complaint is a (1), (2), or (3). View the feedback as free consulting and move onwards...
STEP 3: Empathize, Apologize, Take Action.

At this point, it is important to put yourself in the guest's shoes to show that you understand where they are coming from. This is the time to say, "I understand that you are upset because of (fill in the blank), and I am sorry that we have not delivered on your expectations." Relating to and expressing an understanding for a bear's situation can go a long way. Next, offer a true heartfelt apology.

Once you have expressed genuine empathy, it is important to ensure the bear that the problem will be addressed. Note that addressing a problem and resolving a problem may not be the same thing. Are your sites too close together? You can't resolve that, but you can certainly address it by being more clear in your site descriptions on your website. Were the guests in the adjacent site too loud the night before? Sounds like an opportunity to address that by reminding all future guests of the campground's quiet hours. Is the water in your pool too cold? Likely an easy fix, and one that could avoid a barrage of future complaints.

At LLA Hospitality, one of the ways we live our core value "we get better every day" is through our commitment to fully understanding and taking action on each of the issues that our guests bring to our attention.
STEP 4: Offer some honey.

In the backcountry, you would (hopefully!) carry bear spray to fend off a bear's attack. But our goal here isn't survival, its to transform a bear back into a happy camper. We've identified the REAL problem and whether it was something that was in our control (now, later, or not at all). We've listened and made the bear feel understood. We have offered an apology. We have ensured the bear that the problem will be addressed. Now is our chance to sweeten the situation, dare we say 'WOW!" the guest? Oftentimes small gestures like a handwritten note or a bundle of firewood go a long way. Try it! Here is a sample of what you can write: "Thank you for speaking with me today and allowing me to provide you with our campground's brand of warm hospitality; I look forward to building a lifelong relationship with you and to hosting you and your family for years to come".

Care to go a step further? Bring them a free bundle of firewood and a s'more pack. While that might not turn their frown completely upside down, bears are known to have difficulty ROAR'ing when their mouths are full of marshmallows.
STEP 5: Decompress.

Face-to-face confrontation with a bear is not an enjoyable experience. It can alter our mood and leave us feeling less hospitable. In these situations, it is important to take a few minutes away from our team and other guests to decompress, process, and move on from the bear experience. We may even find some simple meditation helpful. Or some photos of puppies. If you are a skeptic, this book may be for you.
Notes for the future.

What's better than hugging a bear? Avoiding the creation of bears to begin with. While these bears will likely avoid extinction for as long as humans remain on earth, there are ways to limit their future reproduction. Your guests have traveled to your campground for different reasons, each with their own set of expectations. One of the most common causes for bear-like behavior, to begin with, is that the guest's expectations do not match the reality of their experience. Expectations are a funny thing. Sometimes they are set by the guest. "I thought your campground would have sunnier weather because it's located in Texas." Other times, those expectations have been set by you and your team. "Our pool is always the PERFECT temperature, our team is ALWAYS smiling, and we GUARANTEE that you'll see the Big Dipper from your site."
[Tip... Emboldened hyperbole can set you up for a mean reality if the expectations you're setting for guests aren't ones that you can deliver on. Make sure the photos on your website are of your campground, not ones from the recently improved campground down the road. Don't guarantee early check-in if you can't guarantee a space will, indeed, be available.]
Put yourself in the guest's shoes and ask, "am I setting expectations for my guest's experience that will match the reality of their experience when they're with us on-site?" Your chance to set expectations is before a guest chooses to stay with you to begin with. Your opportunity to exceed those expectations is once they show up.

Interested in learning more about our professional campground and RV park management services and letting us help you WOW! your guests?
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