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  • Writer's pictureKate Wilhelm

How Not to Respond to a Customer Crisis — and How to Handle it Right

A negative encounter with a major hotel chain reminds COO Kate Wilhelm that prioritizing empathy should always be the rule.

Sometimes you need to see someone handling things wrong to remind you how to handle them right.

Last month my seven-year-old daughter and I planned a getaway to New York. We anticipated a great Christmas experience — visiting friends, gazing at holiday lights, shopping at the American Girl store. A genuine girls’ weekend in the Big Apple.

Unfortunately, Lizzie tested positive for COVID soon before our trip — the day after Christmas. We had to cancel.

I called the hotel where we’d reserved a room. “Sorry,” they flatly said. “We can’t refund your money or credit you for a future stay.”

After asking to speak with a manager, I was brusquely told that I needed to send my daughter’s COVID test results before they would even consider releasing our reservation. Although I considered this a violation of privacy, I did — only to be told they weren’t satisfied because my at-home rapid test didn’t have my daughter’s name. No refund, no credit — a big “sorry, not sorry” from the establishment.

I was stunned.

If this international hotel chain had been my client, I’d tell them that we need a cleanup, because they were failing the public on customer service and compassion. They were missing the most important point.

So I persisted.

My opening salvo to this large chain’s corporate office was a mock press release that summed up my bad experience. I’ll spare you the details of every subsequent call and email. But eventually — 48 hours later — that same manager who would not relent on charging me for a stay that did not happen, grudgingly conceded that perhaps they didn’t want a child who had tested positive for COVID in one of their properties and, yes, they would drop the charge on my credit card.

There’s a lesson here — and it goes beyond tenacity born out of outrage.

The lesson is that there is a better way to treat customers, clients and co-workers. Empathy and concern for public safety should lead the way. That’s true any time — and most especially when everyone, everywhere is trying their best to cope with... you know — a lot.

Being a leader in your industry means that the bottom line isn’t always the most critical aspect. What’s key is the need to be responsive and respectful. The impression you make is the one that will stay with customers — so be sure to use your good energy, don’t stick to illogical protocol and make sure everyone leaves the conversation with a positive feeling.

In other words, my one-night reservation is far less significant in the long run than the lasting bad taste that I -- or any future customer -- will take away from the encounter.

Hey, mistakes happen. When they do, I tell clients, don’t double down on your error. Don’t entrench. You risk long-term reputational damage if you don’t think through the best way to renew trust and confidence with your customers or employees.

Internally, we make the Golden Rule a priority at Ceisler Media. Our firm employs dozens of people with different situations. Some take care of young children or older parents; some have their own health concerns.

So coming into 2022, we reverted to a 100 percent flexible work schedule. Though we place considerable value on face-to-face interaction, we also believe people are at their best when their employer aims to put them in the most comfortable environment.

Our firm has done very well during the pandemic and that’s because of the great efforts of dedicated people in sometimes difficult circumstances. As Chief Operating Officer, my priority is to put them in the right situation for them to succeed. That requires flexibility, respect and — here comes my favorite word again — empathy.

The hospitality industry is in crisis and I was careful to recognize that in my correspondence. Yet if they were a client of Ceisler Media, I’d be jumping up and down to advise they were making a huge error and taking on an even bigger risk. It was not about being disgruntled or changing my mind on a whim; we needed to protect ourselves and others in the midst of the pandemic’s latest challenges.

So. I got the refund and hopefully they got the lesson, but one can never be quite sure. Meanwhile, Lizzie and I hope to get back to New York sometime soon for the girls’ weekend we’ve been dreaming about for far too long.


Kate Wilhelm is the COO and Senior Vice President at Ceisler Media's Philadelphia office.


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