You’ll enjoy a wide variety of guests over the course of your tenure as a vacation rental owner. Some will be charming, delightful people you’d like to keep as friends well after their stay. Some will be fairly neutral and quickly forgotten – you didn’t talk much, but they left the property in decent condition and you wouldn’t mind hosting them again.
And then there are those other guests.
Every now and then you’ll have a guest who absolutely ruins your day – either because they have a legitimate complaint that you don’t know how to resolve, or because they’re belligerent, unreasonable, and demanding.
If you’ve put into practice our suggestions for vetting potential guests, you shouldn’t encounter many of these at all. You can usually tell in a phone conversation or even via email when a person is going to make unreasonable demands of you.
That said, we’ve yet to meet a single owner who doesn’t have a few tales of impossible guests that they never saw coming, and it’s best to be prepared for these interactions when they occur. Let’s talk about how to handle these conflicts in a way that reflects well on you – and protects your rental business from negative reviews.
Mistakes do happen. Once in a blue moon, your cleaning service will flub their scheduled cleaning or you yourself will forget to turn on the heat in the pool as you promised.
Sometimes, a situation arises that you couldn’t possibly anticipate. I heard from a woman at the HomeAway Summit who had a guest complain because a neighbor’s cat had left a dead mouse on the property’s threshold! Hard to think how she could have avoided that particular issue.
Whatever the reason, the guest has a legitimate complaint that has disrupted their vacation, and they’re calling to let you know about it. What should you do?
Your default, knee-jerk reaction when a guest has a complaint should be to apologize for the problem existing in the first place. You don’t have to take the blame yourself, but the first words out of your mouth should be something like: “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
People need to hear that their concerns are valid; they need to know someone cares that they were inconvenienced. Think how you’d feel if you arrived after a long day of traveling, expecting to finally be able to put your feet up – only to find you have to deal with some problem that needs resolving. No fun, right?
So apologize. Apologize if you were at fault, apologize if someone else was at fault, apologize if no one at all was at fault. Tell them you’re sorry this happened to them on their vacation – because come on, aren’t you?
Get someone over to the property right away to solve the problem. Remember your local contact person? This is why there’s absolutely no substitute for a nearby person being available in case of emergency – they can be your saving grace when that unforeseen issue arises.
Prompt response is especially important if their issue is something that impedes the guest’s ability to begin using the property, such as the house not being cleaned, the guest not being able to access the property, or the heating or cooling systems being broken.
If you cannot get someone to the property right away to resolve the problem, acknowledge that this is deeply inconvenient for your guest, and tell them exactly what you are going to do to fix the problem and when you are going to do it.
This is also a good time to ask if there’s anything that needs taking care of right away, such as groceries that need to go in a refrigerator. If at all possible, find resolutions for these problems immediately – call in a favor from a neighbor and ask if they wouldn’t mind storing those groceries temporarily, for example.
Then tell the guest how you’re going to make it up to them.
The size of the restitution should be commensurate with the amount of inconvenience the guest experienced. If your neighbor was able to hop over right away and help them with the lockbox, your guest was only inconvenienced for about 10 minutes.
If everything else goes well, that problem will likely be forgotten almost immediately, especially if it comes with a sincere apology. If you have the time, send over a small gift such as a local snack or a bottle of wine the next day with a note apologizing for the inconvenience and telling them to please let you know if there’s anything else you can do.
Most problems can’t be resolved quite this quickly, however. If your guest was inconvenienced by more than an hour, particularly if they were really upset by the issue, up the ante with a larger restitution.
This is particularly effective if you can couple it with an activity for them to do while waiting. For example: “I’m so sorry, I can’t get over there to help you until 7:00. Can I suggest you take the family to dinner at Local Restaurant on me while you wait? I’d be more than happy to call ahead and make reservations for you.”
Make it easy for them, and be prepared with a few ways they could spend the time it will take for you to get a resolution to their problem.
If the guest is still angry, it’s time to turn to your final option: offering a refund.
You needn’t offer to refund the entire amount of the guest’s stay. Start with a refund appropriate to the inconvenience they were caused – for example, if the house was not cleaned when they arrive, refund their cleaning fee.
That makes sense: they paid to have a clean house and didn’t receive the service they paid for, so give them their money back.
Similarly, if the issue was such that the guest was unable to stay in the house (such as a broken heater in the dead of winter), refund them for any nights they were unable to stay at your property. Again, this is simply logical: they didn’t receive a night in your property, so you shouldn’t charge them for it.
Other issues can be harder to calculate. What’s an appropriate refund for the guest who had to deal with a broken stove over Thanksgiving weekend?
As ever, it’s up to you as an owner – but we highly recommend putting yourself in the guest’s shoes and asking yourself what would make up for that level of inconvenience.
Your guest’s goodwill is important to the integrity of your business, and one bad review detailing the problem the guest suffered can really damage your reputation. Guests want to know that if an issue arises, you’ll be willing to fix it – and that they won’t wind up paying a large sum of money for a stay that didn’t meet their expectations.
Most guests know that problems do happen and will be satisfied if you make a good-faith attempt to resolve the problem and compensate them for their trouble. But every now and then, you get a guest who will not be satisfied with these efforts.
Which brings us to the belligerent and the unreasonable.
Where most people understand that mistakes and problems will happen from time to time, unreasonable guests simply will not be satisfied with an apology, a prompt fix, and an appropriately-sized restitution.
Other guests may be problematic from the get-go, insisting that a property hasn’t been sufficiently cleaned because there are pine needles on the porch. One guest complained when a certain amenity wasn’t provided even after multiple emails explaining that amenity was not available!
These guests are very difficult to deal with, and many owners struggle with these types of conflicts because the guest may be aggressive, rude, or insulting. It’s hard to keep a cool head when someone is calling you names over the phone!
Here’s how to handle these types of problematic guests.
If a guest becomes aggressive or insulting on the initial phone call, tell the guest calmly that you’re going to need to call them back in a few minutes. You can make an excuse – “I will see what I can do about that problem and call you back shortly.” – or you can simply tell the guest that you feel the conversation has gotten out of hand and you think you both need a moment to cool off.
Then give yourself a minute to be upset about the situation. Tell someone nearby about it. Rant and rave a little, if that makes you feel better. Take a walk around the block if possible to work off a little distressed energy. A calm state of mind is essential for dealing with difficult guests!
Ask yourself what the facts are. It can be hard to look at the situation logically when you’re feeling upset, so it can help to write down what really happened so you can assess what needs to happen next.
Assessing the situation from a “just the facts” perspective can help you get a handle on what problem you’re really trying to solve. You’re not trying to fix the problem of the guest being aggressive. You’re fixing the problem the guest actually encountered: a dirty house.
The guest may or may not be misrepresenting the property. They may or may not have found an unclean house. They may simply have higher standards for “cleanliness” than your previous guests have had. Regardless, you have a complaint about an unclean house – so what would you normally do if the guest weren’t being belligerent?
You’d offer to refund the cleaning fee and send over the housekeeper to re-do the cleaning, wouldn’t you?
Call your guest back when you feel a little calmer, and propose the solution you would have provided any ordinary guest. If they continue to be aggressive, calmly state that it’s your standard policy whenever there is an issue of this kind to offer this type of resolution.
You are sorry they were inconvenienced, and this is the solution you are offering. Stick to that line, and don’t waver.
Your rental agreement should include language that allows you to evict the guest if they become destructive or make personal threats, but for the most part, the guest will simply be unhappy that you didn’t acquiesce to their demands. Let them be upset; you’ve already determined that you’re not dealing with a reasonable person. Be prompt, respectful, and responsive through the remainder of their stay, and disregard any further aggression.
Then wait. In a best-case scenario, the guest will simply depart at the end of their stay and you’ll never hear from them again. But even the worst-case scenario – a bad review – isn’t the end of the world.
If a guest threatens to leave you a bad review because of their experience, don’t panic.
Bad reviews are to be avoided if at all possible, but you should not negotiate with a belligerent guest for fear of a bad review. Guests of this type will leave bad reviews no matter what, and you can always contest the review with your listing site if the guest grossly misrepresents the situation.
If the review isn’t inaccurate enough to dispute but still represents you badly, you can respond with a calm, rational description of exactly what happened and what you did to resolve it. Again: you are sorry they were inconvenienced, and this is the solution you offered.
You can describe the guest’s behavior, but be careful not to engage in name-calling yourself. Other guests need to see that you are a reasonable person who stays calm in a difficult situation. They don’t want to imagine you bad-mouthing them on the internet later if they also have a complaint.
Instead, neutrally describe what happened and what you did to resolve the situation. Do not characterize the guest or talk about them personally – you can describe their actions, but do not stoop to unflattering descriptions of the guest. Better to say “She called me several names on the phone” than to say “she was rude and obnoxious.”
Here’s an example of how to describe the situation without attacking the guest personally:
“I have to say I disagree with this guest’s description of the situation. They complained that the property was ‘filthy’, and naturally I was worried my cleaning service had forgotten their appointment. I called, apologized, and offered to send the cleaner immediately, with a refund for the cleaning fee. The guest was very aggressive and called me names, insisting on a full refund of all fees – although they wanted to stay at the property for the full week. I said I couldn’t do that, but would refund the fee and send the cleaner. When the cleaner arrived, she found the property was in perfect condition and took pictures, but she re-cleaned every surface. The pictures before and after she arrived are identical. I do not believe this guest’s complaint is in good faith.”
Describing accurately what happened works far better than calling the guest a liar.
Of course, not all guests will mischaracterize the situation or your response. Some will simply be upset about the problem and feel that they should have received more compensation than you were willing to give. Here’s an example of how to respond to a bad review when the guest’s complaint was legitimate:
“As I told the guest, I did forget to turn on the heated pool before they arrived and I apologized profusely. I refunded their fee for pool heating and also offered them dinner on me as an additional apology for their inconvenience. I then started up the pool heat and it was heated by the following day. I’m sorry the guest feels this wasn’t an appropriate amount of restitution for this issue, and I hope they enjoyed the heated pool for the remainder of their stay.”
State the facts of how you handled the problem, and let future guests know how you would resolve the same issue if it arose during their stay. Aggressive guests aren’t common, and most reasonable people would be more than happy with the practical resolution you provided.
They’ll see you’re a calm, reasonable person who’s willing to take practical steps to make a problem right – which is, of course, the case.
Let anyone else who may be dealing with your guests know how you prefer to handle complaints or other issues. If you have a local contact who will be dealing with your guests regularly, you may want to empower them to come to appropriate resolutions without your needing to get involved.
Alternatively, you can tell your local contact that they’re free to refund cleaning fees or provide small gifts as apologies, but you’d prefer to handle any other refund situations yourself. Or you may decide you would rather be the only one making money-related decisions, and tell your local contact to apologize on your behalf and refer the guests to you.
Whatever you decide, make your wishes clear to the people who will be handling your guests, and tell them how important it is that all interactions – even difficult ones – be handled professionally and courteously. You don’t want your hard work in conflict resolution to come to nothing because your cleaning service lost their temper with a difficult guest.
Feel like you don’t want to handle these kinds of hassles? A service like Evolve might well be what you’re looking for. We have an entire department devoted to resolving guest complaints and mediating between the parties to come to a satisfactory resolution – which means you can let someone else keep a cool head on your behalf in a difficult situation.
And as ever, remember not to let a few bad apples spoil the experience of vacation rental ownership. As we said in our post on screening, difficult guests are few and far between – and you’re likely to only need this advice on rare occasions!