That’s the issue raised in this amusing news story, about a ‘real-life Basil Fawlty’ who was assaulted by one of his hotel guests. The hotel manager in question states Whoever said the customer is always right has clearly not worked in the hotel industry.”


Or any other service industry perhaps, where staff regularly have to deal with guests whose demands, complaints or general behaviour go beyond what is generally deemed as acceptable. If you’ve been trained to think that the customer is always right, what do you do when the customer is plainly and obviously 100% wrong?


We’ve had a couple of incidents recently where the customer has very obviously been wrong. In the first, two very drunk guests returned to their room at 4am and decided they fancied a swim. Finding our pool locked up for the night, they knotted their bath towels together to form a rope, and climbed down the wall of the hotel, straight into the pool! They even managed to climb back up again after their swim, but not before they had awoken several angry guests whose rooms overlooked the pool. The result? A damages and cleaning bill. Sure, we could have waived it – the customer always being right – but that isn’t really the sort of behaviour we want to encourage at the Duxton!


In the second, one guest, who had also obviously been enjoying Saigon’s nightlife, got lost on the way from his bed to the toilet and ended up using the fire escape. Another cleaning bill, presented to a guest who was quite clearly not in the right!


Of course, these are extreme examples and, on the rare occasions when our guests have reason to complain, they do so politely and are politely received. But there are times when someone’s attitude or behaviour goes a little too far, and the hotelier has to defend his property and his staff from unreasonable complaints and demands.


In the ‘Basil Fawlty’ story, it sounds rather like the guest had a legitimate complaint – his room was noisy. However the way he approached the complaint – refusing to pay for his room and then attacking the hotel manager when challenged (albeit somewhat brusquely) – overstepped the mark by a considerable degree.


There’s a lesson for both of us, hoteliers and guests, here. A polite guest complaint will be much more effective than a rude or aggressive one, and a hotel that handles complaints politely and effectively will probably create a loyal customer. But if the guest is ‘wrong’, most hotels will cut their losses and wave that guest goodbye, while if a hotelier mishandles a legitimate complaint, the guest will never come back.


I once did some consultancy work at a South African tour operator, where all staff had the motto The customer is always right – even when they are wrong pinned above their desks. Do I agree? It depends how ‘wrong’ the customer is!