Posts Tagged Inside Secret

Guest Loyalty Programs. Do They Work?

One of the owners of my property is a very creative and passionate man. He wouldn’t have been able to build the property I work at, with its unique flair and style without such a grand big picture already in his mind. He also has a tendency to make sweeping statements on goals and projects that he wants to tackle without much understanding of the nuts and bolts that goes into execution. When he does get involved in execution, things tend to get frustrating when the realities of business operations conflict with his personal vision. The other day in a meeting he tasked the GM and I with developing some system for tacking, recognizing, and rewarding repeat guests. We have a system in place now for tracking and recognizing, but I’m the first to admit that it’s not really accurate, and the “reward” portion is fairly lacking. The bigger boxes in the industry have developed intricate Guest Loyalty Programs, and I have mixed feelings about the big box solutions out there.

Guest Loyalty Programs swept through the “chain” side of the industry some time ago. Most every major brand (Marriott, Fairmont, Hilton, Four Seasons, etc) has some sort of Guest Loyalty Program. You know that club that you sign up for at the Front Desk or two days before you get there because it gives you some little perk like free Wi-Fi or whatever. Ostensibly the program makes it easier for the hotel to recognize repeat customers, track their preferences, track issues or problems the guest has had/caused, and offer them rewards for repeat business. The programs represent two important factors to the Hospitality industry. The first is that guest loyalty is truly essential, a guest who enjoys your product and comes back over and over again is worth their weight in gold, not only for the actual dollars they spend, but for all the other people they refer our way. The second is that information is power. These programs allow us to build massive databases of information about our guests and when used appropriately they let you keep repeat guests happier, but also allow you to better market directly to them. In order to profit from this large database of information and cover the administrative costs, less scrupulous companies will also sell this information to “partners” like Frequent Flyer programs, sister brands, and other affiliates. I’m not saying everyone does this, but some of them do. If I signed up for a program I always use my Junk Mail email address (Yes, I have like 3 personal email addresses each one with its own purpose).

The programs do all of that, however, there’s also much doubt in the industry that these programs actually foster guest loyalty. Most of these programs are tiered in some way and the basic membership is free to join. Many frequent travelers belong to every “loyalty program” out there just to have the basic membership benefits. At a certain point, they don’t care if you’re a Fairmont or a Hilton so long as your rooms are within their price range and they get a bed to rest their head on. They carry cards for every loyalty program and offer zero loyalty in return. I won’t say this is the case for every member of a loyalty program and for those that reach the upper levels of membership, many of them have demonstrated that they have at least a strong preference for your brand. The majority of Loyalty Program members are in that bottom category of occasional visitors that generally just signed up to get the initial perks.

For smaller properties a formal sort of program can be a double-edged sword. The software for Customer Relations Management (CRM), to correctly manage these programs is expensive. Sometimes it’s just easier to try to do it through your existing Property Management Software (PMS), but most PMS’s aren’t designed to track the same level of detail that dedicated CRM software can. For instance I can see in my PMS that a guest has stayed with us 12 times before, but my PMS doesn’t really track whether you told us you prefer feather or foam pillows on your last visit. Unless I remember the guest’s name, it also isn’t great at letting me know if this guest had a major issue and screamed in the lobby about something on their last visit. Being a smaller stand alone property, we have to be a lot more careful about what “free perks” we give away. If we’re going to give stuff away or offer discounts to repeat guests does that mean we have to nickel and dime or raise prices for new guests to make up for it? Or do we just hope that the guest “loyalty” this expensive software has helped us earn will make up for itself in repeat business. And isn’t the best thing about repeat guests supposed to be that they’re basically free? You’ve already attracted them once, if you did your job right the first time they should just come back all on their own regardless of marketing efforts. I know that’s not entirely accurate, but we all would like it to be.

I’ve worked at a smaller independent property before where we offered a 15% discount on the room rate to any return guest, that was easy to implement if the guest’s name was in our system. We were a trusting property, so if a guest asked about the discount and said they had stayed before, but we couldn’t find a computer record for them we just took them at their word and gave it to them. As a promotion we would offer the 15% discount to anyone that said they were referred by a repeat guest. Once again we were very trusting about this. This was a lean and relatively efficient method of promoting guest loyalty and occasionally encouraging them to refer friends and family. And I have no idea what that does to your ADR or RevPAR in the long run. It also doesn’t allow for distinguishing between the guest that’s been back twice and the guest that’s been coming back for 20 years and spends several thousand dollars each time. Should both of them be equally rewarded? Or should there be an extra perk for the guest that spends lots more money? At the smaller property most of those truly long-term guests ended having a relationship with the Front Desk manager and she made sure they got their extra attention. My current property is already too big for that level of relationship with our guests and we’re about to more than triple in size.

I have a feeling our Loyalty Program at my current property will end up falling somewhere in between the “big box” solution and the smaller independent property solution. Mostly because I doubt I’ll be able to sell the owners and the GM on the likely fairly expensive CRM software I was looking at online today, but pretty soon we’re going to be considerably larger than my small property solution can handle. I smell entirely too complex spreadsheets in my future trying to do something they were never intended for.

I am curious, if any of you have similar mixed feeling about Hotel Loyalty Programs? Do you sign up for the free perks wherever you’re staying? Or do you only sign up at properties that you really like and want to stay at all the time? Will a club membership help you decide between staying at one property over the other? Especially if both offer similar programs? Will a repeat business perk, like a 15% discount on your room, heavily affect your decision to return? OK, I know that was a lot of questions. You can answer none, one, all or just some of them. This is an issue we discussed at great length during my academic program for Hotel Management, but I haven’t discussed with most people outside of the industry or outside of an academic setting really.

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Hotel Blog – OPUS Hotel

So I think I might be in love. I went Googling for other hotel related blogs this evening and came across the blog of OPUS Hotel in Montreal. Most of the posts I’ve read are by their General Manager. It’s an absolutely great read. Sure it has some PR and Buzz pieces about stuff going on at the hotel. A business blog like this is first and foremost a PR tool. But it also has a lot of personality and soul to it, and it’s not just a PR tool. Although I’m sure it helps their SEO quite a bit. Their GM is very well spoken/written, has good stories to share, and like me, tries to offer some educational type tidbits to people outside the industry (namely travelers). It’s a great blog, and I highly recommend it after only about an hour of cruising posts.

It was funny, in one post he even talks about how a Professor at my University, in my program (Hotel Management), assigns this blog as required reading. That must have been after my time there, but judging by the post date, maybe just barely. I don’t remember that assignment…of course I tended to skim text books for what it’s worth.

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Travelling tips and stuff…

So I’ve already talked in the past about some important travel tips, like not using your debit card whenever possible while traveling. But my recent trip to Vegas reminded me of some additional tips that I’ve been meaning to pass on and some observations as well.

buzzzzzz beep beep CLICK!

Your Room Key and Room Number

First of all, I feel compelled to dispel a particular myth. If you’re at a property with electronic locks and key cards, you don’t have to destroy your key or take it with your when you leave. Somehow a nasty rumor got started that hotel key cards store all your personal information, including credit card number, on your magnetic key card. It was probably Michelle Bachman that started it. The magnetic strip on your key card doesn’t store any information, all it stores is a randomly generated code (usually) which will match up to the lock on your door and allow you access. Please don’t destroy them, the hotel can reuse those. It’s just wasteful. And stupid.

The security of your room key and room number are especially important areas of concern though, the more so the larger the property is. A security minded hotel will train its staff not to say your room number allowed or ask you to say it when other people are in ear shot. When I was at the desk, I usually wrote the room number down on the key envelope and would point to it and say “You’re room number is written here for you.” That being said, not every hotel is as security conscious at others, at least not until something bad happens and they get sued. Once you receive your keys, try to memorize the room number and then separate your key cards from the envelope, preferably just leave it in your room. If you can’t memorize the number, then keep the key card and the key envelope in separate pockets. Otherwise if you lose you key and the envelope together you’ve just given whoever finds it full access to your room. If you lose your key go to the Front Desk and have them cut you new ones. Let them know that the old keys were lost and that you need a fresh set to overwrite the old keys. If you’re traveling with someone else, this will overwrite their key as well so keep that in mind if you aren’t together when you get the fresh set.

List the Names of Everyone Staying in the Room on your Reservation

This step serves two purposes. The first is any hotel that is half way conscious of their key control, won’t issue keys to a person unless their name is listed on the reservation as an occupant. Most people don’t think of this, but it can turn into a major headache. If you’re traveling partner isn’t listed on the reservation and gets locked out without you, they can’t just go to the Front Desk and get a new key. Even if you’re husband and wife and have the same last name. Even if that same last name is really weird and uncommon. So list all occupants on the room. At a property that has incidentals that can be charged to the room (like restaurant and spa charges) only people listed on the reservation should be able to charge things to your room. You might even have to think about this before you arrive to check-in. I’ve had to deal with more than one pissed off spouse or partner that arrived before their partner and couldn’t check in to the room because their name wasn’t on the reservation. Sometimes that lead to hours of having to wait for contact from the primary guest to give us authorization.

And if you run into this wall, getting pissed off at the Front Desk won’t really help. Besides, think about it this way, they’re trying to keep you and the people in your room safe, and all your stuff.

This also includes if you’re having someone come to visit you at the hotel and you want the Front Desk to tell them your room number. A good Front Desk won’t just give it out to whoever walks up without prior permission. I hate it when TV Shows and Movies show characters just walking up to a hotel front desk and asking “Can I get Mr. Johnson’s room number?” the correct answer is “No you can’t!” but most of the time that’s not relevant to their story so they skip over that detail.

Also, most security minded places are going to want you to have ID of some sort if you get locked out and need a new key. So it’s a good idea to keep some form of ID on you at all times. Although, if you leave it in the room and get locked out, likely they can have a manager or security let you into the room, but they’re going to insist on you showing them your ID once the door is open. Once again, I know this seems tedious and can be frustrating, but it’s in the interest of protecting you and your belongings.

If you’re traveling with kids or teens that are old enough to be apart from you but young enough to not have some form of ID (or don’t carry it with them) then ask the Front Desk if you can designate a “password” with them that can be used to have a new key issued. I don’t know if that’s a standard practice out there, but I’ve used it before to great effect for the guest and hotel.

Colored Bedspreads UCK!

Fail

I hate it when hotels have a cheap colored bed spread on their beds. This is a hold over from another age, and I don’t understand why any property above the Motel 6 category still does it. Sure it’s cost-effective on laundry, but it’s just gross. Because here’s the big clue in, in case you didn’t know already, those bed spreads get washed every 6 months MAYBE. In the mean time, think about all the other people who have likely used it while sleeping…and other bed related activities far more messy. When I get into a room that has some colored bed spread, the first thing I do is strip it off, toss it in a corner and wash my hands. I won’t use it during my stay. The only time this doesn’t apply is when the hotel has a nice duvet cover with a changeable (preferably white) sheet cover. This is a relatively new introduction in the hotel industry, but almost every luxury brand has already adopted it. Sure the duvet gets used from one guest to another, but the cover is changed regularly, and that’s the most important part.

Winning

That all being said, I’m not one of those travelers that won’t walk barefoot in my room and wipes down every surface with Clorox wipes that I brought from home. Or that asks for 10 extra bath towels so that they can make a path on the carpet for everywhere they plan to walk. I know the carpets aren’t more than vacuumed on a regular basis. Sure there’s probably some germ stuff or dirt left behind from the previous guests. Think about everything else you touched in your travels, especially the airport. If I was going to worry that much about germs, I’d just live in a bubble and never leave my home. Whatever doesn’t kill me just makes me stronger. I just don’t want to be sleeping draped in a bed spread covered in someone elses cum.

Yes Please!

Shower Curtains

This isn’t wide-spread yet, but I believe glass shower doors are the wave of the future for hotels. Or at least they should be. That shower curtain hanging in your hotel bathroom shower is worst than your bedspreads, sure, it “probably” got sprayed with some form of disinfectant by housekeeping, but how sure can you be? Glass shower doors are more green because they don’t need replacing as often, more hygienic and easier to clean between guests, and it’s a lot harder for a stupid guest to cause water damage to your hotel by not applying the shower curtain properly (seriously you’d be surprised how often this comes up). As far as I can see, that’s all win for the guest and the hotel. Sure they cost more to install then a cheap curtain rod and flimsy curtain. That call saying “There’s water dripping from my bathroom ceiling” because the guest upstairs didn’t know that the curtain belongs on the INSIDE of the tub rim is a lot worst than that initial set up cost though. So to the hoteliers out there, Glass Shower Doors are the way to go people! Seriously.

Using Your Privacy Sign

This is a real easy one, you’re “Privacy Sign” or your “Do Not Disturb Sign” means just that to most hotel staff. So if you order room service or ask for the bellman to come shine your shoes or if you want housekeeping to give you turn down service or fresh towels during your stay, remember to take it down. And if you forget to take it down, don’t be surprised if everything takes a little longer or that housekeeping didn’t tidy up. However, leaving your privacy sign up does not entitle you to an automatic late check out either. Ask for one if you need a late check out, if it’s not available then try to check out on time. Don’t try to just take one.

In Conclusion

Well that about wraps things up. Hope this post was more insightful than a rant. Safe travels out there. May the Force be with you, always.

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Yelp Censorship. Right or Wrong?

Is Yelp silencing their Yelpers?

I just did a little research on Yelp’s filtering methods this morning, and I’m not sure how I feel about it as a business or a user of the site.

I have a tendency to obsess over my Yelp and TripAdviser scores at work. I have them pinned as app tabs on my Firefox browser so that I can check them quickly and regularly. After checking so frequently, I’ve noticed that often times reviews, both positive and negative disappear occasionally. We got slammed on Yelp the last week or so and two of those horrible reviews just dropped off our score and the site. I had noticed this before, but this morning it stirred my curiosity enough to research it.

First off, if enough users flag a review as abusive or inappropriate in someway, like they’re threatening violence or using crude language, the review can get taken down. Yelp evaluates those reviews that are flagged and determine if they should be removed. That makes sense, free speech issues aside, Yelp is a private entity with the right (in my opinion) to set their own bar on appropriate content. Any reviews that get flagged for those issues really have no place in that forum. Yelp is supposed to be a community review site, but those community reviewers need to maintain a certain level of decorum otherwise they’re no better than the establishment they’re slinging out a 1 star review too.

The other way a review disappears, is Yelp’s automatic filtering algorithm. The program is designed to help prevent abuses of the system, like current employees or owners going on to write a glowing review about themselves or their work. Or competitors or disgruntled employees going on to write negative reviews. That makes sense. However, the computer program that can actually review the content a review and determine its veracity just hasn’t been invented. So what does the filter look for? First off it looks at the user information, number of reviews, amount of profile information (and a bio pic), and length of time that you’ve been a member, so more established users that have been Yelping for awhile have a higher authenticity rating in the eyes of their filter and their reviews are likely to stick around whether they’re positive or negative. The filter also isn’t static, so if you’re a new user that goes on and writes your first review and it gets filtered out in a couple of days, Yelp says to keep on Yelping, once the filter can be more confident that you’re authentically reviewing establishments your previously filtered reviews might pop back up. This all makes sense to me and seems relatively fair, though I can see how new users would find it frustrating at first. It also cuts down on those people who I’ve encountered that created an account just to write the one review about my establishment because they had a horrible experience and they want to trash us (legitimately or not). They have no real interest in providing useful or constructive feedback, and Yelp recognizes that some people are just crazy customers.

This is what Yelp creates in some customers

Here’s where it gets tricky. The filter also looks at how your review, the score you gave, measures up to the business’s over all average. Basically it’s trying to eliminate outliers both positive and negative. Once again this isn’t a static filter, it just takes a certain amount of critical mass for reviews to start effecting the overall average. However, it means that unusual experiences get dropped out, a business with a strong 4 star average, that gets one 1 star review out of six 5 star reviews is likely to have that 1 star review filtered out in a couple of days. This once again protects businesses from vindictive reviewers. However, what about users? If a business suddenly takes a dramatic downturn, what is the point of critical mass where those filtered reviews will return? It also means a business with a low or middle rating business like a 2 or 3 star average that is trying to turn things around will have a much harder time doing so, because their positive 4 and 5 star reviews are getting filtered out. The only saving grace to this, is it takes about a week for the review filter to catch on, so regardless of whether they’re going to get filtered out or not, they’ll at least be up there and visible for a few days. Also, one star reviews still show up on places with a 4 star average as well, so this filter is weighted along with the Yelp reviewers user history, so someone with a strong Yelp reputation who writes and outlier review is less likely to get filtered.

Now some of this is conjecture and supposition because is very tight-lipped about their filtering process, because the more they explain it to the public, the easier it is to trick the filter. There are very little news and blog posts out there that I’ve seen in a quick Google search, but the Yelp message boards was understandably filled with this question from users and in some cases there were official Yelp responses.

At first glance it seems like a fishy practice, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more it kind of makes sense. Yelp is trying to protect both users and businesses from outlier experiences and from users who think that because they’re anonymous they can be horrible and vindictive human beings. On the other hand, I can see it’s frustrating for reviewers to get filtered out initially. Making it seem like their voice, opinions and experiences don’t really matter to Yelp. The only saving grace is that filtered reviews can return if the reason that it was filtered no longer qualifies. I’m curious what other people think though. Is Yelp abusing their power by filtering reviews? Or are they doing the responsible thing? Are they pandering to businesses that they might want to attract as advertisers? Or are they just trying to prevent their site for being used for fraudulent and abusive purposes?

***Update*** Yelp has addressed this issue somewhat on their own blog. Worth checking out.

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It is possible to have too much business

The recent firestorm around Netflix reminded me of a recent conversation my GM and I had about our hotel occupancy. Last year our annual average occupancy was 89% which is amazingly high especially in this economy, most properties in our competitive set would kill for a 70% average right now.

How did we interpret this number? Our rates were too low, and so in 2011 we raised rates for the first time in 3 years. Not a gigantic amount, between 10-20% depending on the room and time of year. The reasoning for this was that we had been too busy. Our goal is 85% occupancy, which was our average in the 3 years before 2010. Not much less and not much more.

Less occupancy and we see a drop in revenue which we obviously don’t want. Above 85% and we’re literally too busy, it becomes difficult to get into the rooms to do bigger maintenance projects and deep cleaning while the wear and tear on the rooms continues and the quality of our product falls resulting in discounts and lost revnue. 85% is the magic number we’ve picked. So when we hit above that, it was time to raise rates, in the hope that it would actually lower our occupancy closer to 85%. We’d be less busy, but hopefully make the same or greater revenue as a result. July is the first month of the new rates, but so far the change is paying off as planned. We’ll get to do maintenance projects easier without having to sacrifice revenue generation. It’s actually a tactic that we never discussed in school and I found very interesting. We’ve done the same thing with our spa rates over the years. When the spa gets too busy, and we’re sold out every day and slamming with business, it’s time to raise rates so that we can work less hard, provide a better spa environment, and either increase or maintain profits.

Netflix is likely trying to do the same thing to a certain extent. That is to say, they’re trying to encourage their customers to choose one of their new standalone packages, which will decrease the need for infrastructure in one or both of their services. And charge a premium for those that want the option of both. I saw the argument out there that they haven’t added any value to either product, and with the DVDs that might be true, you can’t really add any value to that service already, other than adding additional DVDs rented simultaneously for the same price. But the streaming service, they’ve adding value constantly. I blogged not long ago about the addition of most of the Star Trek catalog to the streaming service. And while they aren’t adding the “newest releases” to the streaming service (yet) they’re constantly expanding that library with the products that the big studios will license to them. The added value just wasn’t tied directly to the new price points. Hell considering I’m planning to save $2/month the added options is added value for me.

I guess I’m saying this. Netflix knew they were going to lose customers over the new prices. How could they not after all? And a lot of them are probably the customers that already weren’t getting their full value out of the service. Essentially dead weight in their membership. Sure those members weren’t costing Netflix in postage or bandwidth, but I’m pretty sure Netflix doesn’t pay for stamps, they’re contract with the post office is probably a lump sum determined by their membership numbers, not their actual use (that’s pure conjecture, but it kind of makes sense). And then they’re asking the members they hold onto (like me) to make a choice, select a more limited plan that reflects your actual demand, or pay a premium for the option of both. Once again, this is deliberate strategy. Netflix is about to go into negotiations with the studios, and I’m hoping they want to show them that DVDs are a dying medium and that digital distribution (preferably through Netflix) is the way to go. The writing is on the walls in this regard, DVD/BlueRay are rapidly going the way of VHS, Betamax, and the Dinosaurs. And though it’s not plainly stated I imagine being able to demonstrate the clear divide between steaming customers, DVD customers, and those with both will factor strategically into Netflix’s negotiations with the studios.

Remember this old gem?

Anyways, I just wanted to put that thought out there. It seems counter intuitive to a lot of people that a business can have too many customers and be too busy. Just think of high school Econ class and those old Supply and Demand graphs and the old invisible hand of the market making them intersect. That’s all we’re looking at here.

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Staff Power

Looking back, I haven’t written a lot about my staff. I’ve certainly talked a lot about myself, and a good amount about guests in general, but the largest portion of my day is dealing with my staff more than anything else.

I have a department of 14-17 to oversee (it fluctuates over time), usually in a day 7 to 10 of them are actually here and on duty. Most of them are somewhere in their 20’s with a few outliers that are in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. It’s not necessarily typical of this business that a Front Desk team will be so young, however, it is generally considered an entry-level position, and it’s typical for there to be a good amount of turn over. I say an entry-level position, but I and many hiring managers at similar properties usually won’t even consider you without at least some customer service experience under your belt. I definitely won’t even look at someone looking for a first time job right out of high school, unfortunate but true. And yes I realize the paradox. I once got a resume from someone right out of high school once that in place of job history, listed classes he had taken, I didn’t stop laughing for a couple of minutes. I’ll admit, I’m super judgmental of resumes, but having a bad one isn’t going to exclude you from selection, it just works against you. And I’ve found my most successful hires have been those with prior hotel experience, spa experience, and restaurant experience (hospitality generally). A relative of mine accused me of having an age biased, and for the record, that’s entirely false. I’ve interviewed people in a wide range of ages, and offered this job too much older people than what is currently the mean age of my staff. All of those people have turned me down or failed to pass the back ground check we require. I had one lady with a great resume and experience walk out of the interview when we discussed the wage, and we pay on the higher end of the spectrum for hotel front desk in this region. I’ve also had many point out that my staff is entirely female other than our graveyard crew. That’s entirely unintentional. I’ve hired a man for this position, he’s since left when his personal life fell apart and he left the area. And I’ve interviewed and offered the job to men, it just hasn’t worked out so far. And statistically, I get far more qualified resumes from women than men. I’m not sure why that is, but I noticed that there were more women in my degree program then men. Not sure why, if we discussed it in a class, I either missed it or have since forgot it.

Generally, I’m very fond of each member of my staff (even the people I’ve had to terminate). I have some that irritate me from time to time, and some that I pretty much always get along with well. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and yes some of them are stronger than others. When I look at a situation involving a guest, I take into consideration the people involved when estimating whether or not there was an error made. That isn’t to say that any member of my staff is incapable of making an error, but there is a degree of probability calculation that affects my decisions. I get a good grip on who I can and can’t count on. Most everyone provides very strong customer service, and after getting to know my staff I know that most of them make decisions from that standpoint. That is to say, I think they usually all approach situations from the perspective of “What provides the best service for the guest?” For one thing, when the guest is happy, their jobs become a lot easier.

My fiance and some friends think that I have an immature staff from some of the stories I tell about them. That’s not entirely untrue. Some of them are very immature, and even unprofessional sometimes. I expect to deal with some rough edges, because even though I try to hire for experience, that hasn’t always happened, and like I said before this is an entry-level position. Or at least somewhere along the tier of entry-level. Only 2 or 3 of my staff have any kind of post-high school degree. And most of them just view this as a job, not a career, and are still to young to realize that those two can be related in the long run even if they don’t stay here forever. But it’s easy to spot the ones that think of this as more than a job, either because they want to build something here at this property, or they just know that it’s good to develop good habits and a strong work history now for other employers.

We talked in school about “management theory” “conflict resolution” and “management techniques” but we never really talked about the true day-to-day grudge of managing people. Holding their hands, training them, backing them up, juggling the work schedule of 15 different people while still trying to meet the needs of your property, people sick, incompetent people, malcontents and malingerers, delivering disciplinary actions, and listening to their whining. My LORD THE WHINING SOMETIMES! And writing performance reviews! Holy frak is that awkward sometimes. Because like I said, I generally truly enjoy every member of my staff on some personal level. They’re all people to me, not cogs, they have to be in this environment. At the same time I have to be the boss. My predecessor let a lot of issues in my department fester because she didn’t enjoy confrontation and she was trying to “protect her department”. I’ve never been able to understand that and get behind it. For one thing, they’re performance reflects upon me as their manager. So covering up for slackers really doesn’t help me, it’s much better to go through the process openly, because if it becomes apparent that they’re just not going to work out, I don’t want it to seem strange that I’m cutting them loose. There has to be a foundation for that. And maybe that’s part of why I haven’t stopped hiring since I got here, because there was a lot of dead weight left for me to trim.And I’ve had to terminate people, and I hated it, even when it was justified, even when I gave the person every chance to succeed and I did everything I could to help. I still loss sleep over it. I still agonized over the decision, and never reached it lightly or out of anger. The first person that was terminated on my say-so, I could have avoided the entire process, it was going to happen on my regular day off, and the GM and our HR manager could have handled it without me, but I got up that day, got dressed and came in. I didn’t even really do any talking, I let more experienced hands handle that, but I sat there and watched what I had done unfold. It had ultimately been my decision, and I felt it was important to see it carried out. I probably would have lost more sleep if I hadn’t.

Slowly, I honestly believe this staff has only gotten stronger since I came on board. The biggest thing I took away from my Human Resources class in school was that you can’t train the talent of customer service, and it’s as much talent as skill. You can refine it, absolutely. I know my service is 1000 times better than 5 years ago or 10 years ago. But in the end it’s like hiring a juggler for the circus, ultimately, they either have the talent or they don’t. And customer service, truly great customer service, is a talent as much as a skill, it’s something innate in us that pulls us towards our jobs and makes us successful. Not everyone enjoys giving strangers smiles. And not everyone has an innate empathy for strangers coming in off the street. You have to have both of those things to be truly great at any customer service job. Because it will affect what your first reaction is to any situation. So my biggest goal when hiring is, I hire for customer service as a talent, and realize that a lot of the other skills, the technical stuff, can be trained and even rough service can be refined. That said, given the choice between a polished gem and a diamond in the rough, I’ll almost always take the gem. I’ll let someone else clean up the diamond.

A Hotel can be made or broken on the service of its staff. That’s Staff Power.

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The Tipping Point

I tweeted this article about tipping your housekeeper earlier this week, but I wanted to discuss it more.

Every hotel handles their tipping slightly differently, and this makes it extra confusing for guests whether they’re travel veterans or not. Some properties charge what’s called a flat “resort fee” to eliminate this issue, so that basically guests aren’t expected to tip their housekeeper, bellhop or valet. The article mentions some other tactics that hotels use to encourage tipping, but I can’t say that I’m a 100% fan of any of them. A resort fee is great, so long as your service is up to par, guests will begin to feel a little ripped off if they’re being charged a resort fee and the service they receive is less than stellar. Ways of “reminding” the guest to tip are probably fairly effective, but I wonder how many guests are insulted, or a bit put off but such reminders no matter how subtle.

When traveling I almost always tip housekeeping, and I try to educate my friends and family to do the same when traveling. As a whole I think housekeepers get under tipped in the industry, and I try not to be part of that problem. But I also make sure to have some cash for the valet, the bellhop, and the concierge if I utilize their services. That’s just something I budget for when I’m traveling and selecting the caliber of property that I’m staying at, and also what services I’ll use. I obviously don’t need to tip the bellhop if I carry my own bags to my room. I will say, on my previously blogged trip away to a friends’ wedding, we didn’t leave a tip because it was obvious the room hadn’t been cleaned that well before our arrival. In my opinion the tip is as much for the housekeeper cleaning your room after you leave as it is for the one that cleaned it before you got there. If you get to a hotel at 6 PM and your room isn’t ready, you can consider not leaving a housekeeping tip in my opinion. It might not be the housekeeper’s fault, but there’s a good chance it is in some way. If your meal comes out cooked wrong or cold, you’re likely to deduct from the tip of your server even if it could have been the kitchen’s fault.

At the Front Desk, I rarely got tipped and sometimes it was a little weird when I did. Sometimes the tip made perfect sense, I had done something exceptional for the guest, and they had decided to express their gratitude in an appropriate and appreciated way. Hugs are less appropriate and usually less appreciated, but that’s happened to. However, I also hated it when someone slipped me a tip to try an incentivize me to do something for them (like find them an upgrade), because it wasn’t always something within my control, and it felt more like a bribe then a gratuity since it came before the service was rendered or even certain. Then there were times where I did something exceptional and while a tip wasn’t necessarily required, it certainly would have been nice, but it never showed up. And of course, there were the really weird tips that I got and I didn’t even know why. I tried to take a lesson from that, that sometimes what seems like a very little thing to me, can make a startling difference for my guest.

At my job now, I do housekeeping inspections once or twice a week on average. We’re a small property and everyone wears many hats. Even our GM checks rooms once a week usually. My property pools the housekeeping tips as a solution to some of the questions stated in the article. So once or twice a week I see what the tips are in the actual rooms, and I can say first hand that the 30% average figure seems accurate for the number of guests. Especially when you take into account the guests that leave $20 for a one night stay in a not so messy room and then all the guests that leave nothing or very little. Did you know some people really just leave pocket change? How is that even close to appropriate? I don’t even clean the rooms, and now that we pool the tips our housekeepers don’t even see the coins left for them, but I’m offended on their behalf. If you’re that strapped for cash, maybe you shouldn’t be traveling at all. Or at least I’d rather you left nothing behind and did something small that actually helps the housekeepers, like stripping the sheets from your bed. I know you “shouldn’t have to” do something like that when you’re paying for a room, I’m just saying from the standpoint of curtsey if you’re financially too strapped to leave a gratuity. It kind of says “thanks”. If you don’t want to tip the bellhop, carry your own bags. If you don’t want to tip the valet, self park your car (assuming that’s an option). If you don’t want to pay the automatic 15-18% service fee, don’t order room service, leave your room to eat. BTW you don’t need to tip you above that 15-18% unless you want to tip them more. If you use the concierge and find that they gave you good advice and really made a pleasant impact on your stay, then leave them something at the end of your stay.

Housekeepers work hard every day, the ones that don’t work hard, usually don’t stick around long in the position. And most of them take pride in the rooms they leave behind them. Bellhops and valets are usually minimum wage positions that rely on healthy tipping. Good concierge are highly specialized and well-trained experts that can drastically alter the quality of your stay, but while they’re not usually considered a “tipped” position for tax purposes, many of them rely on tips. I know several concierge that keep themselves up to date on their area (restaurants and attractions) on their own time and on their own money, so some extra cash helps to make sure they have the ability to keep providing you and other guests with great service. It doesn’t have to me much, just don’t leave pocket change, and be genuine about it. What would you want to receive if you were in their shoes?

Lastly, if you’re not able to leave a tip, but you take advantage of some or all of these services, take a moment to fill out your comment card and give some praise to the people who gave you good or great service. Those cards get read by owners and managers usually (at any decent property) and shout outs for great service get acknowledged. If you can’t give them a few buts, give them that extra shout out to the people who make decisions. Usually word will get back to the person that helped you so much, I like to post really great guest comments where the employees can read them. Even better it can affect the management’s decisions about raises, bonuses, and maybe even overall employment. If you can’t tip, use that comment card. I even prefer a nice comment card over a guest stopping to speak with me personally (on the phone or in person), because people higher up than me will see that comment card and it to a certain extent reflects on my entire department.

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Working Like a Dog

I was out having a beer with a friend last night, one that also works in the hospitality industry, and we were talking about various parts of the business. Which brought up an old and familiar rant, that I realized I hadn’t discussed on here yet. That being the issue of “Service Animals” in the hotel business and the infuriating laws around them. They become an issue for me at my hotel because, like many properties out there, we’re not “pet friendly”. However, every hotel and restaurant, regardless of their “pet policy” is required to grant service animals access to any location that a normal guest is allowed to go. I don’t begrudge anyone the legitimate use of a service animal. I really don’t. I recognize that many people have a legitimate and purposeful need for them in order to function in the world. I don’t just mean dogs for the sight impaired or wheelchair bound. Animals (of various species) can be trained to provide all kinds of useful services to those with impairments. That really is a great thing, and I gladly welcome legitimate service animals in training or servicing those in need of their assistance. What I, and many in my industry, take issue with is the over restrictiveness of the federal laws that apply to service animals. They tie our hands, and because they’re federal laws, it doesn’t matter what statutes the States or local municipalities put in place unless they only put further restrictions in place. They can’t make anything less restrictive on the local or state levels.

What do I mean by over restrictiveness?

If someone comes in to my hotel with an animal and proclaims it to be a pet, I can refuse to allow the animal to stay with us. That usually means the guest has to leave too. Service animals are a game changer though. If a guest proclaims their animal to be a “service animal” and not a pet then things get tricky real quick. By law, we’re prohibited from asking the person what their disability is (at least directly) or proof that they have this disability. We can’t ask if the animal has been specially trained. We can’t ask for a special permit, medical documentation, license or anything. All of this in fear that it might end up being discriminatory to those with disabilities. Ultimately, there is no required special license, training, or certification process for service animals. Many of them, at least the legitimate ones, do have special training and certification, but not all. They’re not even required to wear those little bibs that many of them wear, that’s entirely optional and at the discretion of the owner. The one and only question we’re allowed to ask is “What service does the animal provide?” However, the owner can say just about whatever they want, and since we can’t ask for any kind of proof that they have this condition or that the animal helps with it in any way, very often it’s a useless question to ask. It’s apparently a crime to present yourself as needing a service animal fraudulently, but that’s nearly impossible to detect given the restrictions placed on us and local law enforcement officers. We’re not allowed to charge a special cleaning deposit, and we’re only allowed to charge for additional cleaning if the dog makes a mess in the room or actually damages something. We can only ask the animal to leave if it’s barking, growling, or causing some other disturbance that isn’t part of their normal duties. These are all things that a legitimate service animal, I mean one that has been trained properly, won’t cause issues with. But we have to wait for the fakes to actually make a problem before we can do anything about them.

I want to reiterate, that I don’t have a problem with legitimate service animals and the people who need them. However, I think the laws as written leave the doors wide open for abusers. It’s easier to fraudulently present an animal as a service animal then it is to get a medical marijuana card, and I’ve seen enough people with them that don’t need them to know that that’s pretty fraking easy! Because if anyone ever refused you entrance to an establishment, all you’d have to really do is call the cops and or threaten to sue and someone will cave and let you in. In fact the only way you’d get caught is if someone called you bluff, because in a law suit is the only time that the person would have to provide any kind of proof that they’re animal is a service animal that they’re in need of service from, but then a faker is never going to actually sue anyways! But loosing that bet and actually getting sued by someone with a legitimate need, that’s a big enough risk that most business won’t or can’t afford to take the gamble.

And I’ve heard the arguments as to why a certification process by its very nature would be discriminatory to the handicapped. That it would make service animals more expensive and would discriminate against those that are both poor and impaired. And that not every service animal actually needs to be trained. The ones that help those with PTSD and other mental or emotional conditions are often totally without training. I really don’t know what to say to that, except that we require handicapped people and people with diseases to provide proof of their disabilities all the time. We have a permitting process in place for handicap parking placards, it’s widely abused, but it exists. We require those in need of medical marijuana to get a special permit from a doctor. Maybe the dog doesn’t need special training, certification, or a permit. But why is it discriminatory to require that those that want to bring a service animal with them around the country have some kind of permit for themselves? It would probably be a pretty widely abused system too, but I bet it would have some kind of impact on the fakers out there. And I’ve also heard the argument of, what happens when someone forgets their card or paperwork at home and then they can’t check in at your hotel with their legitimate service animal? My answer is that this is the 21st Century people! The information age! People with a certified need for a service animal would probably have a physical card or documentation, but they could also have digital credentials. A national website that a business or individual could visit, punch in some ID number into and it would provide a digital copy of that person’s documentation. Even a 1800 number that the person could call 24 hours and have credentials faxed or emailed out from. There are so many possible solutions to this issue other than the head in the sand approach that we’ve taken because when the law was written, we didn’t have these options. And ultimately, I would think this would be even better for those with a legitimate need for a service animal. The credentials don’t need to state the disability, parking placards don’t divulge any confidential information. It just says that a neutral but official 3rd party has issued these credentials and we can have a reasonable belief that this person is on the level. It would eliminate the suspicion and the endless conversations and arguments that people with legitimate service animals probably encounter on a regular basis. Like any system, it could probably be abused by those that are clever or determined enough, but is that really a reason not to try?

I’ll admit that I only see one side of this issue. I haven’t lived in the shoes of those that need a service animal. And if anyone reading this thinks I’m way off the mark here, or that I’m being a discriminatory bastard, that’s truly not my intent. I’d love to have feedback from those with a different perspective then mine. Maybe I’m missing a side to the issue that my plan or my point of view doesn’t cover. And this is written mostly from my own personal experience in the business, my schooling, and research I’ve had to do as a manager in this industry. If I’m wrong on the law, please let me know. If my plan seems unfair, or would discriminate against those in need, I’d love to hear some outside points of view. And obviously, this is just one lonely blog among many on the internet, likely to change next to nothing, but I haven’t seen this conversation taking place in many other places on the internet. So, why not here?

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Checking-In

We had a great weekend at my property. We’re a resort destination, and so you can probably imagine that Memorial Weekend is a big one for us. Saturday was a bit of a let down, we stayed busy, but there was rain in our area so it put a tamper on the experience. Sunday though was the perfect storm of awesomeness! The weather was perfect, we had a therapist for every treatment room and we booked the spa as full as it could get! We pulled down what we hope will be record-setting revenue, and there was $0 in discounts or comps given out, in both the Hotel and the Spa. That’s really amazing, overall the day ran very smooth, and it means what few speed bumps we did encounter didn’t affect guest service to any large extent. I’m super proud of my staff, both those that worked it, and those that didn’t but played an instrumental role in the reservations process that helped make the day go so perfectly. The other departments of the property (spa attendants, spa providers, housekeeping, and maintenance) were all on it too!

So, I feel like it’s time for some “Behind the Scenes Hotel Information” about Credit Card Authorizations. People who travel a lot aren’t caught so off guard by this, especially if they’re usually on a corporate credit card. Hotels among other businesses take an authorization on your credit or debit card. Hotels will do it at check-in time at the hotel. This is for some predetermined amount that generally at the very least covers your room & tax for the length of your stay, but generally there’s something else on top to guarantee any incidental charges you might have (spa services, retail items, in room movies, food & beverage anything). My hotel only does room & tax for the stay plus $100/night which is really a very small amount. I’ve worked at a resort that charge $300/night on top of their room & tax. Rental Car agencies do something similar depending on your package. At a restaurant, when they take away your card, they authorize for your bill plus about 15%-20% so that when they bring it back to get your signature, any amount you’re likely to tip will already be authorized. This protects the business from the customer walking away and the card declining after they’ve left. The merchant is basically asking the bank if you’re approved for a certain dollar value. The bank gives them an approval code, which is a promise from the bank to cover any single charge up to that maximum value. This process was originally designed for credit cards only, and in my opinion the bank industry has failed to adapt it well to the use of debit cards. The way they do it works great for banks, but it’s horrible for merchants and customers.

Here’s where it gets tricky, debit cards don’t work the same as credit cards. It boils down to this very simple principle, credit cards represent a hypothetical sum of money which some institution has agreed to loan you should you need it. Debit cards, because they go to your checking account, are tied directly to cold hard (well cold electronic) cash that you actually own. So the banks treat these two similar looking pieces of plastic in very different ways. I really like this article from Yahoo: Debit or Credit: Which Card to Use? Here’s what you need to know when you’re traveling. When you get to the Hotel check-in desk, they’re likely to ask you for a credit card at that point. If they don’t tell you, ask them how much they’re authorizing your card for (we believe in transparency and write it on our check-in slips for the guest). It should be a pretty automatic answer. If you’re using an actual credit card you just want to make sure this amount won’t max out your card at that time, because anything released from the authorization will go back onto your card nearly instantly and you’ll never even notice the authorization from the final charge unless the value hits your credit limit to begin with.

Debit cards are more tricky. Since debit cards are tied to “real money” not just money that someone says you can have if you need it, the banks are a lot more cautious with it. So when a hotel, or gas station, or restaurant, or rental car agency authorizes your card, there’s 2 things you have to worry about. The first is the same as a credit card, is there enough money on your daily limit or in your account to cover the amount being authorized for. I’ve run into this at gas stations before, I swipe my card at the pump and it declines because they’ve tried to authorize me for $80 or more dollars and I was needing a pay-day real bad. Go inside and it’ll approve for just the $40 I wanted to pump anyways. The second factor you have to consider, is even if you have enough in your account to cover the authorization, how soon are you going to need that money back when any unused amount is released? Because once the merchant releases it, the money can take 3 to 5 business days for your bank to put it back in your account. This especially happens when the merchant’s final sale is less than the amount authorized for. Say the hotel authorized for $100, and they put through a final charge of $75, your bank can legally take 3 to 5 business days to reflect the release of that additional $25. Sometimes this process can be cut down to 24 hours if you call your bank and ask for it to be released, it depends on your history with them. Another way to speed up this process, that I’ve found through years of experience, is the amount gets released a lot quicker if the entire preauthorized amount is released not just a portion, once again you’re looking at around 24 hours depending on the speed of your bank (instantaneously is rare). Here’s the catch to this one though, the merchant has to call their merchant service provider, and manually release the amount with them. You’re money is still going to be tied up for a time, but these are the two quickest ways of getting them released. Either one will involve someone making a phone call usually.

So here’s the advice I give to my guests, friends and family. If you’re traveling use your credit card for any preauthorization purpose that you can. For fraud and theft reasons use a credit card whenever you can for restaurants too (in school we talked about restaurants being one of the #1 industries for credit card thieves). Heck, if you can afford to do it, leave your debit card at home when traveling, your theft and fraud protection is much higher on almost any credit card then on your debit card if it’s lost or stolen. If you’re using a debit card, be cautious and be aware, just be educated about how it’ll effect your money.  If you want to pay with a debit card at check-out, that’s fine, use a credit card to check-in and preauthorize your stay. Let the Front Desk know that you plan to come back at check-out and pay with your debit card or cash or a check or whatever. That way the final charge doesn’t go on your credit card where it might collect interest, but you won’t tie up your “real money” in your checking account.

A lot of hotels are adapting to increase their transparency on this issue, since the banks have been very unresponsive, because it leads to upset and disgruntled guests very often. Some use a signed waiver form (which I’m pushing for us to use). We check for cards marked as debit and try to have a very frank conversation with them at check-in time. Some people really need to know before they even get to that point, however, and I just got my GM to approve my proposed redraft of our confirmation letter to include this policy. Not everyone will see it, but at least we’ll be able to say we tried. Not every hotel does this though, I often hear “I’ve never had any hotel do this before.” Well the truth is, they probably did it and never told you, and if you were using a credit card (especially a corporate card or a card with a large limit) then you probably never noticed the process. It’s just as the use of debit cards have become so incredibly common place that this has become a real issue for the industry and the guest. But most of the “big box” hotels (Fairmont, Marriott, Hilton, etc) have been doing it for at least the last decade, and even they are struggling to deal with guests that want to use a debit card for their stay. Any hotel that has more to offer then just the room (food, retail, spa, whatever) should be trying to take a preauthorization. It’s the safest thing for them and allows them to more securely offer extra services and amenities, and safer for the educated cardholder, it allows fraud to be more easily detected sometimes. Ultimately, I don’t like seeing this fairly common business practice ruin people’s relaxing vacations when it catches them unprepared. And I wish more consumer travel magazines would talk about it.

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Feedback

I don’t think it’s any secret that customer feedback, good and bad, is essential in any customer service field, especially hospitality. Generally staff, managers, and owners don’t get to spend the night in their rooms terribly often or partake of the other facilities. Sure, someone is generally walking around the place a lot and that should catch a lot of things, but sometimes you just don’t know that there’s a sag in the mattress or a certain light is out until someone tells you. Or any number of things. On top of that, managers, like myself, try to be out on the floor and try to observe their own staff in action, but we’re biased in any number of ways when trying to observe interactions.

I can look at one of my staff and think to myself that they provide really good service from my side of the equation, but it’s hard to know that unless guests stop to give me their own input. Maybe I’m overlooking a flaw in their presentation, because I see that person in action so much, or because it’s not something that particularly bothers me, or any number of things. Similarly, I might miss something particularly great that my staff does. In fact it’s a lot easier to miss the great things they do, because far fewer people stop to express their appreciation for great service, then they do for bad or disappointing service, so often we only hear about bad things.

I have a friend who also works in the industry, and when we go out for a meal, if our server is particularly great, we’ll try to find some way of conveying that to the management (on top of leaving an appropriate gratuity). We know how difficult it can be for word of good service to get back to the people in charge. Sometimes managers just have to assume someone is giving good or adequate service because they don’t get complaints (not a great barometer for success) . And when someone stops, takes time away from their day, to give a manager positive feedback it’s always appreciated, and sometimes surprising. The person you’re complementing is likely to have a much better day because of it, and that only serves to improve their service further.

That said, negative feedback is just as important, and though I dislike taking guest complaints, when they’re valid and reasonable I truly appreciate them. We can’t improve without that negative feedback and any manager or customer service provider that doesn’t welcome the good and bad feedback it is asking for failure.

What does irk me, are the people who assume that just because something went wrong, or wasn’t to their exact liking that they’re automatically entitled to something more than a thank you. I’m not saying that negative experiences don’t sometimes warrant compensation, because there are certainly situations that call for exactly that. We also deserve a chance to fix it for you, the guest has to meet us half way. For instance, complaining that your heat didn’t work at check-out after a 2 night stay. I agree the heater should have been working when you got in the room, but sometimes things break and we need a chance to fix them for you. I’ll grant that if you realize the problem at 1 AM on your first night that you might feel it’s too late to fix it, but to not inform us the next day and to wait until you’re about to pay the bill. Honestly, it just looks cheap and grubby from my side of the counter, and I’m inclined to do very little for you at that stage other than apologize. On top of that, have a reasonable expectation of what I might offer you, not every situation calls for a complimentary night, or a 50% discount. If 95% of your visit was enjoyable, then why should you only have to pay for 50% of the stay because of that last 5%? Granted a hotel stay or a spa service can always be broken down into percentages very easily, but when you’re evaluating your stay try and evaluate the entire picture and not dwell on just the negative things. Was it all horrible? And was any of it because maybe we just weren’t the right resort for you? Sometimes that does happen, not every destination (especially in leisure travel) is the right fit for every person or every vacation.

This all brings me, in a round-about way back to feedback. I admit that we need it. We want it. And good or bad I try to welcome it and see it from your perspective. Generally people in my industry are very empathetic individuals who enjoy providing good service, especially when you start dealing with the managers of establishments.If they’re not those kinds of people, this business will eat them alive until they’re a dark, hollow, bitter husk….or they run away from it.

Also, just because someone says “No” to you in service position, doesn’t mean they’re providing bad service. Generally we always want to say “Yes” It’s much easier to say “Yes” to every request. If we’re saying “No” it’s not bad service, at least not always, sometimes it’s just reality clashing with your hopes or expectations.

So when you’re out there receiving customer service, and it’s good or great, stop and take a moment if you can. Tell the clerk helping you that you really appreciate they’re service. Speak to a manager and tell them about a pleasant experience you had. Fill out a comment card. Write a letter or and email to management or the owners. Write an online review (I check Yelp and TripAdviser for my property daily). Call and leave the manager or owner a voice mail. Guess what? We’ll appreciate it more than I think you’ll realize. Not only that, but we’re far more likely to remember you if you come back and you’ll get even better service the next time. And oh yeah, gratuities are almost always appreciated if you have the inclination and/or means.

When something goes wrong, if something breaks, doesn’t work, bothers you, or you have a negative experience. Stop and tell us about that too, and the more immediately you do the better our reaction should be. Give us a chance to fix it and to make things right. Don’t put your hand out right away. Stop to think if compensation is going to really fix anything, is it going to enable you to let it go and feel better? Will you not be a customer again regardless of what the establishment does for you. And is what happened so bad that it warrants something punitive? I’ll admit that those situations do arise. And if you don’t stop to talk to us, then you can do those other things, call and speak to us later, fill out a comment card, write a letter, send an email, and yes if necessary write an online review for the public. Just consider that the more direct and discreet you are with us, the more appreciative (and sometimes generous) we’ll be with you. Aggressive, loud, abusive, or nasty approaches are far less likely to get the desired result for you. Honey and vinegar and flies and all that jazz.

As good old Wil Wheaton says “Don’t be a dick”

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