Sometimes bypassing customer services and going straight to the top is the only way to resolve a complaint, says Derek Picot.

A hotel manager’s mail is always a delight to read. Grumbling letters tumble through the letterbox at a rate of three complaints to every one compliment. It’s quite a ratio, and the petulant correspondence is the full spectrum; the food, the service, lost property, the bill, the room, the people, and even the weather.

Complainants can be very rude. For example, I once received a note which read: “Compared to your hotel in Athens – this place is a cowshed.” I replied by thanking him for his kind remark about the hotel in Athens and then added that I had visited many cowsheds and in my opinion, the particular one I was managing was the most luxurious cowshed I had ever seen.

Another correspondent complained about the programming on the local TV station after the 9pm watershed, which included some inappropriate offerings. “Do you realise children are up at this hour?” he asked rhetorically. I did, but I wasn’t expecting his next line. “Mine weren’t,” he wrote, “but I got them up especially to see the sort of rubbish that goes on while they are asleep.” I couldn’t think of a reply to this, so instead arranged for his television to be unplugged.

Not all problems are so easily solved. One guest wrote: “Dear Sir, I wish to complain about absolutely everything…” And he went on to do exactly that.

Even praise can come with a sting in the tail. One guest wrote in glowing terms about the quality of the hotel linen and at the end of his letter added: “…and the towels were so fluffy we could hardly pack them into our suitcase”. I didn’t hear from him again, even after we had levied a late charge on his credit card for sundry items stolen.

Contact the boss

How should we express our comments good or bad to make sure that they get attention? Has customer relations offered a real solution to your problems in a timely manner? If not, what should you do?

Well, I would suggest you skirt past the complaints department and vent your frustration directly with the head of the organisation. Marcus Williamson knows how to reach them. He is the founder and editor of, a site that gives you direct access to the head offices of a huge number of businesses together with the top man or woman’s email address and telephone number. He reports that receives up to 11,000 hits a day from customers.

However, before you fire off your email to the CEO, it is worthwhile considering what constitutes a well-structured complaint. There are several key points to make.

Firstly, act quickly; strike before the iron goes cold. Know your rights and don’t exaggerate what happened. No one died, we hope, otherwise the police would be involved. Before writing, condense your story and list the points you want to make with the most important one first. Getting everything onto one page helps with clarity and gives the recipient an immediate picture of your grievance.

Be as polite as you are able, avoid sarcasm and, most importantly, let them know how the experience affected you (again, don’t exaggerate) and what you would like in compensation. It helps to let the organisation know you are a valued customer. Tell them how much you spend with them, or why you chose them on this occasion.

Set a deadline by when you expect a reply (for business people, time is of the essence). Finally, make sure you finish your letter correctly. You would be surprised about the number of times unpleasant notes to me have been signed off, “love”.

Business travellers constitute an important segment of hotels’ and airlines’ business. If you receive a reply but you still don’t think your complaint has been successfully addressed, there is no point in prolonging an unsatisfactory correspondence. If you are clear on your rights, take the issue further, perhaps to an Ombudsman or similar authority where one exists.

Lost and found

Finally, here’s some useful information for those who complain about unreturned lost property. Customers cannot understand why a lost item is never automatically sent on when found. The reason? Hotels can’t be sure who was with whom in a room and what relation they have to one another.

On a lighter note, an astonished room attendant once found a prosthetic leg in a recently vacated room. I immediately rang the client and asked if he was missing anything, perplexed as to how he could have left the hotel without noticing. “Oh!” he replied. “You must have found my jogging leg – I wondered where I had left it.” For once, one guest who wasn’t hopping mad with us.

Derek Picot has been a hotelier for more than 30 years, and is author of Hotel Reservations.