April 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Do the Right Thing April 1999 Current Issue
April 1999
"I didn't get my room gift"

Do the Right Thing

Think before you react: Perfecting the art of appeasing malcontents

By Lisa Grimaldi & Amy Drew Teitler

What is it about a meeting that turns reasonable, thinking adults into complaining, whining, griping attendees and thrusts the unwilling meeting planner into the roles of parent, police officer, judge, maid and ear of God?

“It’s like they become children again, and the planner is expected to have all the answers and solutions,” says Janice Tencza, a New York City-based independent meeting and incentive planner.

Seasoned planners shared with M&C some of the real-life gripes they have had to contend with and the manner in which they responded in these sticky, potentially explosive situations. We also gave our sources, who almost universally requested anonymity given the touchy subject matter, a chance to tell these folks what they really wanted to say.

Next, we queried some experts  Hilka Klinkenberg, business-etiquette expert and president of New York City-based Etiquette International; Leonard and Zeace Nadler, Silver Springs, Md.-based authors of The Comprehensive Guide to Successful Conferences & Meetings, and Cindy Novotny, customer-service expert and managing partner of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based Master Connections for their advice on handling such complaints in a professional, tactful and practical manner.

Thermostat wars
It is the classic attendee conflict: Within minutes of each other, one attendee will proclaim it is too cold in the meeting room, and another will complain it is too hot.

What planner wanted to say: “I’d like to point at each of them and say, ‘You take your clothes off, and you put a #@%’ing sweater on.’”

What planner did say: “‘The client requested we keep the room at 72 degrees, but I’d be happy to turn the heat or air conditioning up or down.’ Of course, I generally wait until at least three people approach with the same request... Otherwise, you get a torrent of people complaining that the heat or A/C is too high.”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“This answer is OK, but I recommend planners never put the blame on their clients or their bosses. It’s much better to say something like, ‘A requirement of the meeting is that the temperature is kept at 72 degrees.’”

Leonard and Zeace Nadler: “There is absolutely nothing a planner can or should do about this, unless it is obviously too hot or cold. Generally, just a statement like, ‘We will look into it’ is enough for the moment.”

Cindy Novotny: “Here, the planner should listen carefully. Show a little empathy: ‘I know if it’s too cold, it’s hard to sit in the room.’ Then ask if he has a sweater or jacket with him. If he doesn’t, say that you’ll find out what the temperature is and then take a poll to see if everyone else is uncomfortable.”

Early birds
“But I made my reservation three months ago!” This complaint is from an attendee who tries to check in early and finds his room isn’t ready, despite the fact that on every piece of hotel information he has received, check-in time is listed as 3 p.m.

What planner wanted to say: “Is this your first time in a hotel?”

What planner did say: “I apologized, then checked his bags at the bell stand, found a place for him to freshen up, bought him a cup of coffee and tried to get him into his room as soon as possible. It wasn’t as much fun as what I would have liked to have said, but it kept me employed!”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“The planner handled this very well. The attendee is left feeling that he’s being taken care of.”

The Nadlers: “If the gripe arises before the check-in, while the participant is sitting in the lobby, try to arrange for coffee or some other amenity to ease the waiting. Check with the desk, where you previously had established a relationship, and perhaps something can be done for the attendee. If the gripe arises later, there is little to offer, other than a simple apology.”

The spell-checkers
“You misprinted our company’s name in the prospectus.”

What planner wanted to say: “I had no snappy comeback for this. It was totally our fault.”

What planner did say: “‘The prospectus is a sales piece that doesn’t reach our attendees. We’ll make sure that the right name is in our registration brochure, which reaches more than 200,000 people. I will fix the name on our Web site right away.’ I also offered some extra show- floor passes to compensate. They wanted money, but it just wasn’t that grievous an error.”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“The planner should have apologized first, but otherwise, she handled it well. It’s a good idea to explain who will be receiving the piece. Sometimes, though, if a paying client really is upset, you might have to make a slight monetary concession to keep the peace.”

Bugged out
“There’s a cockroach in my bathroom.” This complaint was phoned in to the planner at 3 a.m.

What planner wanted to say: “What the @#*! do you want me to do at this time of night?”

What planner did say: “I’m in bed right now, and I know that by the time I get to your room, that roach will be gone. What I can do is notify housekeeping first thing in the morning and make sure they spray your room tomorrow.”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“I would have forgone the beginning of that response. You don’t want to sound like your sleep takes precedence. If the caller still was upset after her answer, she could have offered to go to the room and personally check it out.”

Cindy Novotny: “I’d suggest saying that you’re extremely sorry. Never say the word ‘roach.’ It may not be a cockroach, but the second you say it, you’re admitting that it is. Ask, ‘Have you called anyone from the hotel? Do you know where it is? May I have someone come up right now, or would you rather have your room changed?’ It’s better than offering to change their room straight away because sometimes the attendee may say, ‘I already killed it. I just wanted to let you know it was there.’”

Gift hounds
“I didn’t get my room gift.”

What planner wanted to say: “Give me a break. The bellman insisted I accompany him to your room after I had him deliver a third bottle of champagne and guess what we saw? Three bottles of champagne lined up on your bureau.”

What planner did say: “‘I’m very sorry that you didn’t get your bottle of champagne when everyone did, but I personally checked and noticed that three bottles are in your room now.’ I added, ‘It’s very possible that they all went to other rooms and now they’ve found their way to you. I’m just glad the problem’s been resolved.’”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“Do not make the complainer feel awkward. It is important to remain gracious, particularly if this person is a VIP. In this type of situation, it is a good idea not to take it out on the bell staff, since this kind of thing is often the attendee’s fault. It won’t endear you to [the bell staff], and you need their help for the rest of your program.”

Cindy Novotny: “The most important thing is to realize that short answers, like ‘I’ll look into it,’ will turn the gripe into a monster of a problem. Here, the appropriate response is an apology. Then ask, ‘What time did you check in yesterday? Did you call anybody [so they would know your gift could be delivered]?’ If they already checked with someone at the hotel, I want to know, so I can call exactly who they called and not duplicate any efforts.”

Everyone’s a critic
“That was the worst speaker I’ve ever heard [or worst session I’ve ever attended].”

What planner wanted to say: “You’re entitled to your opinion.”

What planner did say: “I’m sorry this person [or topic] didn’t appeal to you. Please be sure to fill out the evaluation form for this session.”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“Never brush off a complaint by telling the attendee to fill out a form. People like to have their concerns heard and acknowledged sooner rather than later.”

The Nadlers:“Tell her to please make a note of that in her evaluation. Usually, nothing else will result from the incident. There’s no need to prolong the exchange.”

Stranded and surly
“I’m at the airport, and there’s no one here to meet me and take me to the hotel.”

What planner wanted to say:“How have you gotten through life thus far?”

What planner did say: “I’m terribly sorry. Are there any taxis around? Take one to the hotel, get a receipt and I’ll reimburse you.”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“I would advise handling it the way this planner did. And she gets extra points for not blaming the person [DMC, CVB rep, etc.] who was supposed to be there. She can find out what really happened to them later on, without dragging the attendee into it.”

The Nadlers: “The planner should apologize and say something like, ‘The transportation we hired obviously made a mistake.’ The important thing is to get the participant to the hotel as quickly as possible.”

Food fights
“I can’t eat these hash browns. They’re not made from scratch. They’re the frozen kind.” This is just one example of a major complaint category: food.

What planner wanted to say: “If this is your only problem in life, I really envy you.”

What planner did say: “‘I’m very sorry about that. I checked with the chef, and he says that he only makes hash browns from scratch.’ When the attendee refused to believe that, I added, ‘I wish you had called me over during breakfast so I could have seen for myself.’”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“Given the situation, the planner followed through on the complaint and checked it out, so she handled it to the best of her ability.”

The Nadlers: “Complaints about food generally are expected at most large meetings. The important ones [involve] a participant who is allergic or has a religious limitation on food.”

All wet
“I can’t use the towels in my room. They’re white, and I only like pink.”

What planner wanted to say: “You are the biggest pain-in-the-@!# I’ve ever come across!”

What planner did say: “‘I’m sorry that this matter is making you so unhappy. I’ll see if I can find some that we can have put in your room.’ Then I actually had someone on my staff hunt down some pink towels, and they were delivered to her.”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“This planner went above and beyond the call of duty. I would have told the participant, ‘Hotel towels are hotel towels, and most hotels only have white.’”

Cindy Novotny: “The planner should ask, ‘Could you share with me the reason you need pink towels? Is it an allergy to the bleach in the white ones?’ If it’s really a problem, and the sponsor won’t pay for the item, say, ‘I’m going to have to go off property to get some. Can I get them to you by tomorrow morning? If we have to buy some, would you be willing to pay for the towels?’ Sometimes we assume that people just want things for free, but often, people just want that item and are willing to pay for it.”

Weather pains
“Why is it freezing at this time of year? The meeting brochure said it’s supposed to be 70 degrees!”

What planner wanted to say: “Who am I, Al Roker?”

What planner did say: “I can only go by what the norms are for this time of year. The locals say this cold front in May is highly unusual.”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“If you have any sweatshirts with the group’s logo on hand, give them out. Aside from that, what more can a planner do? Even the weather people don’t get this stuff right, and they still get to keep their jobs.”

The Nadlers: “Obviously, the meeting planner does not control the weather. If there is nothing to the gripe, just commiserate with the person complaining, and try to move the conversation on to something else.”

Trade show/ convention complaints

Missing in action
“What do you mean I’m not registered? My paperwork was sent in months ago!”

What planner wanted to say: “Your secretary probably screwed up.”

What planner did say: “‘Let me take down all the information and check again. Could it be under a different name or company name?’ If that doesn’t work, I register the attendee on site and ask her to check with her office to see if someone can find the original registration material and proof of payment. I tell her that I’ll gladly refund any fees she has to pay on the spot or differentiation in fees, such as early-bird discounts, when they can show us the proof, even if it’s found after the convention.”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“The way this planner handled it was correct and very tactful. A lot of times, people show up and try to get away with [not paying]. Just make sure you keep your temper while the attendee is losing hers.”

The Nadlers: “This is one of the most common gripes and [one that] too often is legitimate. Register the participant on some ad-hoc basis, and then look into the situation later. Most important is to get the participant away from the registration area so as not to create a negative atmosphere for those waiting to register.”

Musical hotels
“I don’t like the hotel I’ve been assigned. I want to stay at the headquarters hotel.”

What planner wanted to say: “What’s the big deal?”

What planner did say: “The reason we put you at that hotel is because we grouped like professions/companies/nationalities together in certain properties, so you’d have the opportunity to network. If you’re really unhappy, I’ll see what we can do about getting you switched.”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“Planners should be sure that if they give an excuse, it must be substantive. Treat people with respect, and deal with them rationally. They’ll come around. If they catch you in a lie, you’ve really lost them.”

Cindy Novotny: “Say, ‘Can I ask you when you registered? Did you list the headquarters hotel first?’ You can’t just say ‘No rooms available’ or ‘I’ll look into it.’ You have to figure out why they didn’t get into the hotel they wanted, then ask, ‘What are your concerns about the hotel you’re in?’”

Booth envy
“Why can’t I get a 10-by-10 booth in the middle of the floor?”

What planner wanted to say: “Because the show is in three weeks, genius.”

What planner did say: “I told them that the size of our trade show and the traffic density [will make for] a superior show, where no space is a bad space. I explained that the important issue [was having] a presence at the show and that good pre-marketing would draw attendees to the booth, [regardless of] the location. I explained our priority-points system and on-site selection process. I also told them that we have a better-space waiting list; if an exhibitor drops out, we move the person on the top of that list to the better spot.”

What the experts say:
Hilka Klinkenberg:
“Planners never should admit that there are better spots. It is better to say there is a spot-preference waiting list and you will move the exhibitor there if possible. Otherwise, you are contradicting yourself, and then you will lose credibility with the exhibitor. I would say that spot preference is determined on a first-come, first-served basis. Don’t over-explain. The important thing is to to make an effort to assuage their annoyance.”

The Nadlers: “If it is a small show, there may be some flexibility. In a large show, there may have been some cancellations. It also depends on how spaces are allocated. Usually, those who have exhibited previously get first choice. The procedure should be in writing, and this can be shown to the person griping.”

The rules for keeping cool

It is not always easy to maintain grace under pressure. Hilka Klinkenberg, a New York City-based business-etiquette expert, and Cindy Novotny, a Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based customer-service expert, offer the following tips to help planners keep their cool when they are in the hot seat.

1) The first time: Even if you’ve heard the same complaint from 50 attendees, treat the problem as if it is the first time you ever have encountered it.

2) Listen: Always let the attendee voice the complaint without interruption. In many cases, he or she knows full well that the planner cannot do anything about the problem; the attendee just needs to vent.

3) Do not pass the buck: Never put the blame on anyone else, even when you know the hotel or DMC screwed up. Deal with the guilty party later.

4) Do not snap: Resist the temptation to snap back an answer at an attendee who has just bitten your head off. Take a deep breath before you speak.

5) Avoid pat answers: Because every situation and attendee is different, there is no such thing as the perfect answer. Ask the complainer a question like “What can I do to take care of you right now?” This will defuse anger and let the attendee know you genuinely are concerned.

6) Follow up: Write down any complaint given to you. Then leave a voice mail explaining (if you can) how it will be solved. If it does get solved, make sure the solution was to the attendee’s liking.

7) Pacify: If there is nothing you can do about the situation, ask if there is anything else you can do to make amends. Be sure complainers know you did everything within your power to make them happy.


Gimme shelter
When you’re working a conference, and irate attendees are circling like sharks in a chum slick, how do you find a safe harbor in which to collect yourself?

According to Seattle-based clinical psychologist Keith Sonnanburg, Ph.D., preparation prior to the conference is as crucial as taking a breather while you are on site. “One of the most important things to do is look for solutions, not to place blame,” he says. “If people are complaining, ask them what would make them feel better.”

Here’s the doctor’s advice on what to do to prevent and control the stress that comes with being the convention’s sounding board.

With Your Head

  • Know what is within your control and what is not. All you really can control are your interpretations, evaluations, communication and behavior. This leaves out things like vendors, catering and weather.
  • Plan ahead. Preparation and prevention are much better than a cure. Focus on fallback plans rather than catastrophes.
  • Maintain a caring attitude toward attendees and yourself. If others are unreasonable, forgive them, and move on to promote your own comfort and peace.

    With Your Body

  • Slow down. Seek refuge from the onslaught whenever possible. Find a quiet place with a pleasant atmosphere to sit. Breathe slowly and evenly.
  • Cleanse yourself. Try to avoid caffeine, alcohol or other unnatural calming or energizing agents. Once you get your body on a roller coaster, there’s no settling down.
  • Stretch and move without rushing. Tense muscles and a stiff posture will take a toll and drain your energy.

    With Others

  • Savor appreciation from others and from within. Offer and receive support without revealing how crazy things are.
  • Find humor in the impossible. Do it without sarcasm or ridicule.
  • Trust. Know that others are working toward the same goal and that you are not alone.
  • A.D.T.

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