The New Ethics Of Complaining About Service In The COVID Era

COVID-19 cases are surging in Texas, especially the major metropolitan areas including where I live in Austin. The governor here closed the bars, reduced indoor seating capacity at restaurants, imposed mask mandates (for all counties with more than 20 total cases, about 80 counties can opt out) and allowed cities to ban outdoor gatherings of 10 or more people.

The economy is going to contract here, even more than it’s already contracting, but further spread of the virus means contracting even more. I’m not going to eat inside restaurants, but I’ll still order contactless pickup.

One recent restaurant pickup experience reminded me of one of my last hotel stays before the pandemic, and got me thinking about the changing ethics of complaining about service during the COVID era, struggling hospitality companies, and high unemployment.

Do You Still Complain About Poor Service During A Hotel Stay?

Coffee is an important topic for business travelers, at least it was when there was such a thing as business travel. My morning routine starts with coffee to begin with but put me in any given city on a business trip in another time zone, add in a a few late nights, and you’d better not mess with my caffeine IV drip.

On a business trip back in February I got up in the morning and headed downstairs to the hotel lobby where there’s supposed to be coffee available, only the person who was supposed to make it available was asleep.

I had a conundrum. The hotel was supposed to give me access to coffee. The person in charge of this was right there in front of me. She was ostensibly working. Do I wake her?

It was a city in the Northeast. It was early in the morning and since it was in February it was well below freezing outside. Since I hadn’t planned to go off premises I didn’t bring a jacket downstairs from my room.

So there I was, in the lobby with no jacket wondering do I ask this woman for coffee or do I walk to Starbucks in the cold? (Going back upstairs to get my jacket wasn’t an option that occurred to me before I’d had my coffee. Besides I’d come too far.)

I walked to Starbucks, came back, and this woman was still asleep. I tiptoed past her, upstairs to my room, and sat down with my coffee. I felt like I should have billed the hotel back for the cup, but I didn’t feel like it was worth getting this woman in trouble over the cost of a cuppa.

This was during normal, pre-COVID times. Should I have woken her? Should I have asked for reimbursement of my Starbucks?

Getting Refunded By A Restaurant

I’m really fortunate. As you can imagine travel businesses like my blog and award booking service have largely dried up of revenue. But I have a full-time job. I’m just fine. Not only does my family have our health (so far!) but we’re financially sound. I’ve tried to do right by the people I normally buy services from, and when picking up from a restaurant I’ve focused on the places I went to before the crisis and I tip generously even though it’s take out.

Last weekend I picked up from one of my favorite spots I’ve been going to for six years. The restaurant isn’t a small mom and pop, it’s owned by a group that has a handful of other restaurants in town, all of them different and all excellent. Two of their places have among my favorite examples of mac and cheese, though both are very different.

This one serves a crab mac and cheese that’s amazing. We ordered two servings, to serve the three of us and have leftovers. When we got home we discovered there was no crab. I wasn’t going to say anything, but I got an email survey the next day asking me to rate the experience. I gave it a 3 out of 5. Then I was prompted to let them know what wasn’t perfect? I told them.

A day letter I got an email from the restaurant’s general manager apologizing, and refunding the crab mac and cheese purchases. I felt genuinely bad. I wasn’t looking for my money back, I was just answering honestly – maybe they didn’t know things were going out differently than intended? If they’d contacted me and said that wasn’t their intention or how they’re normally doing it, I’d have been more inclined to order the dish again.

In normal times I would have felt it entirely appropriate to get my money back for a dish that wasn’t delivered as-promised. Now I figure I’m good, and I know restaurants are strugglig.

Changing Ethics During A Pandemic And Recession

In normal times I didn’t say anything about the sleeping hotel front desk employee. Maybe I should have. You can tell me what you think.

Now I wouldn’t dream of it. They might be fired, and getting another job – whether in hospitality or elsewhere – is extra tough.

On the other hand I think it makes sense now to work harder than ever to do as good a job as possible, ‘so good they can’t ignore you’ because as I wrote offering 16 work from home tips in mid-March jobs are less secure now than they’ve been in years.

The total number of people being employed by a hotel probably isn’t changing, so if someone loses their job it probably means someone else keeps theirs that would have been furloughed or terminated. So is it really the right approach to be more forgiving or ignore failures? Do we need to hold businesses, employees, and each other to a higher standard now if we’re going to bounce back quickly?

I didn’t say anything about the employee then, and certainly wouldn’t now, out of fear of what might happen to that employee – even though doing so might make someone else (who is unseen) better off to compensate. I normally would say something to a restaurant that isn’t delivering on promises in normal times, but I feel badly I rather accidentally did this now.

My gut feeling is that there’s something wrong with complaining when others are suffering so much, though people are suffering all around the world during ‘normal times’ and I don’t have an issue talking about ‘first world problems’. Does this shift during COVID times make me, on some level, a hypocrite?

How are you handling customer service complaints now, and is that different than it was at the start of the year? And if there’s a change, will it last past the coronavirus pandemic?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I definitely think I’d give people/businesses a bit of slack during this time. I think most places are still trying to do right by the customer but if something is wrong it still doesn’t hurt to bring it to the attention of the owner/ management.

    Unfortunately there are always going to be people who use any situation to their advantage. There is one Boardingarea blog in particular who seems to always use any service flaw as a way to pounce and get compensation. Covid 19 is no different. It’s not the end of the world if your Amazon Prime package takes 3 days to get to you…you shouldn’t get 50% refund on Prime memberships.

    Bad service is different than best service given the circumstances. Covid 19 doest give businesses a free pass to give horrible service. But I do think it gives people a reason to give people a break.

  2. I am not patronizing either hotels or restaurants during these days of widespread COVID-19, so the only customer service I deal with are at the grocery store, the pharmacy, and through mail order. I was overcharged (dramatically) for a bunch of celery at the supermarket, and I did return to the store later that day to get it fixed. The cashier punched a quantity of 14 when I was buying 1. I hope I didn’t get her in trouble, but I didn’t feel like letting a $25 error go.

  3. I’m not trying to get anyone fired but it’s times like these that really shine a light on incompetence and I have no problem pointing them out. I lost my job despite being a top producer and people should be working extra hard to do the right thing these days. Hyatt recently confirmed my club access award and I specifically double checked that the club lounge was open with the Twitter team and what they were serving. Hyatt confirmed it was open but then when I go to check in and property tells me the club isn’t open at all….then they have the nerve to still deduct my club access award and Hyatt tells me they can’t reinstate it once it’s been pulled.

    Another Hyatt Prive stay had no welcome amenity which is part of what the booking entails.

    AA in-flight service is all over the place and their regional carriers are making up fake rules to do nothing even for FC cabins.

  4. Very good question. It also makes you wonder if you should be brand specific, because if response to complaints is why we like Hyatt but we are ethically bound to stop complaining….another reason to be a free wheeler.

  5. I’ve had exactly the same thoughts.

    There is a local restaurant near us that *always* botches carry-out orders of any kind (ESPECIALLY Uber Eats/Door Dash). The employees seem both sincere In flighty in person, so I’m constantly stuck with the dilemma – do I complain about the mistakes and end up likely having a meal that is a net loss to them? Or do I “let it go” and ultimately cost their overall business because if they can’t get it together it’s just not going to be worth it to continue playing roulette with my orders?

    Tough call.

  6. Well unemployment is sky high so if you find an employee sleeping on the job make sure you shine a light on that. There should be plenty of people who can step up and do better.

  7. Nice post, great to have this discussion.

    Well I called Amex two weeks ago because a few hundred dollars of points from grocery stores weren’t credit at 12X during the current Hilton offer. And we wanted those points.

    Began the phone call by asking the rep how she was doing. Listened carefully. Then said: “I am really sorry to ask this, and actually I am even embarrassed to be even asking. And I hope you can forgive me for asking at a time when so many people are suffering.”

    It made for a nice phone call. And I got those points credited.

    A bit of empathy and self-deprecation goes a long way right now.

  8. I probably have a different view from most…
    “Covid 19” has, in many cases become a standard excuse for sub-par performance. This may have had some validity 6-8 weeks ago, but now, not so much.
    If I paid for it I want to promised service and quality level I paid for and was led to expect.

    PS: I automatically avoid companies whose patronizing ads and execs tell me we will “all get get through these trying times together” or similar pandering BS.

  9. I always give slack where I think it is needed, the one area which is difficult to give is when a business who has signs up that say masks are required have employees with no mask. A small family business I frequent has one of these signs, there is an in-building with open doors fresh produce stand and the young girl not wearing a mask. I ask her why she has chosen not to, not in a confrontational way, just curious, I was double-masked as I am always. Her answer, I have a medical condition followed by fewer people are dying and I am healthy so I don’t need one. Not going back there although now that there is a mandate in PA for masks, curious to see what the results are.

  10. Going a bit stir crazy after living/working in our NYC apartment since mid-March, so my wife and I took a road-trip vacation to Mystic CT to do some trail biking. Rented an SUV, dropped the back seats and threw in the bikes, and stayed 3 nights at the Mystic Marriott (technically in Groton, CT) on points. Two relevant events:

    1). We did takeout for all our meals and ate in the hotel room. After an outstanding lobster salad dinner from The Mariner restaurant (downtown Mystic, CT) on Friday, we ordered the same thing on Monday before driving home (4PM checkout request was honored). But we discovered, in our hotel room, that the staff had forgotten the salad dressing. We called the restaurant on the outside chance they could drop some off after some other delivery – and after a short time, got a call-back that dressing would not be forthcoming – but the manager had authorized to comp our whole meal back to my credit card. Now that’s a class act. And we promised ourselves that the next time we’re in the area, we will be going back to The Mariner.

    2). I noticed one of the housekeepers on our floor in the Marriott was not wearing a mask (as we passed by in the hallway) – against Marriott’s new policy that all staff shall wear masks ( Now, my wife and I are scrupulous (some would say neurotic!) about wearing masks whenever outside our apartment (or the hotel room) – even when biking. We sincerely believe that if everyone wore a mask we’d be done with COVID-19 very quickly, and that it’s everyone’s social responsibility to wear a mask when in public, all the time, right now. So I agonized about ratting-out this housekeeping staff person. I’m a New Yorker, and New Yorkers aren’t snitches. But my wife convinced me that it was in everyone’s best interest that the staffer be counselled, so I called the front desk and before I told what I saw, made them promise me that nobody would lose their job over this. I really hope I didn’t cause some poor housekeeper to lose their job. By the way, we declined housekeeping the whole stay, except to put our trash/recycling outside our door and once to get a bag of new towels tied to the doorknob and put our dirty towels in the same bag on the doorknob.

    All in all, a great long weekend vacation!

  11. In the hotel case, I’d probably try to wake the employee, both (i) to get the coffee as promised, and more importantly (ii) to give the employee a chance to improve. Just because you were forgiving and didn’t want the employee to get in trouble, doesn’t mean the next guest will do the same. By telling the employee directly, rather than involving management, that gives the employee a chance to improve and avoid getting into trouble later down the line.

    As for the restaurant case, in hindsight: if it makes you feel more comfortable, you can also emphasize that you’re not looking for compensation or anything, but do want to provide feedback for them so that they get it right in the future.

  12. God Gary why even ask this question. Sure I don’t have the same standards for service since many businesses have cut back on staff. However if I ordered something and paid for it I would damn sure raise hell if I didn’t get what I paid for. Anything less is to accept crappy service and only reinforces businesses delivering a sub par product.

    BTW I don’t feel a bit guilt about calling people out right now. Yeah times are tough but when you pay for something you have every reason to receive it. Maybe you are just a wuss

  13. @gleff

    Dude, it’s never acceptable for a business to take my money and not deliver as promised. In the case of the crab mac and cheese, if the crab was real, you’re paying $ for it, and I would really be pissed that I paid a premium for something I didn’t get. If you didn’t pay a premium, then you got imitation crab and they did you a favor by “forgetting” it.

    Businesses are getting cut slack — and reasonably so — while they’re figuring things out. However, if this does become the new normal, then those that don’t “figure it out” won’t survive, and then what? If I have a choice between patronizing a restaurant that executes as expected (and paid for), and one that doesn’t, just how long is the later going to stay in business? And how is the proprietor going to know what mishaps a customer is willing to overlook and which are going to cost him business if he is never informed? By the time business disappears, it’s too late.

    What I’m noticing with some restaurants that have gone full-on no-contact ordering and payment, is that “service” has been diminished to a food runner. And yet… these places are expecting you to pay and tip at the time the order is placed. That drives me nuts, because I am willing to tip more for legit good service during the pandemic to “show my appreciation”, but if I’m just getting my food run out to me, and service is nothing more than the equivalent of take-out with a provided table, I’m not going to tip extra for that. Except I can’t know what type of service I’m going to get and tip accordingly if I have to pay up front. People can call me a cheap you know what if they want, but the reality is, I can just choose to patronize businesses that are more to my liking. Some places are doing the prepay, skip-the-service, and some aren’t.

  14. I feel pretty mixed about this subject. I’m in sales and was laid off by my company since we’ve been hit pretty hard. I’m organized, detail-oriented and thorough in my work, which I think helped me to stay a top producer for decades (no no, not trying to sneak in my resume or a sob story here). When I see someone who has a job and is doing it poorly, I feel resentful because they have a job, but I also feel for them because I imagine it’s frustrating/tiring/scary to have to work with the public every day (ie. bus drivers, delivery people, restaurant/hotel staff, etc). Over the past two months, I’ve had pretty rough service at the car dealer, the bakery, on the airplane, with TSA staff, etc. I’ve been trying to cut everyone some slack, but service and standards have definitely dropped, while prices (at least at the restaurants I go to) have not. We had a server at a restaurant seat a couple 2 feet behind us who were coughing and sneezing (maybe allergies? I have them too, I take a claritin) and when we asked to be moved, she said no and walked away. huh….

  15. Grace. You showed a little grace. There’s definitely not too much of that going around. Thumbs up!

  16. I’ve stayed at probably a dozen hotels since early May. Both chain and independents. My biggest complaint has been hotels not fully disclosing if they have reduced services or amenities. That’s fraud in my opinion. Even so-called full-service hotels are now refusing to do daily housekeeping. Others have closed pools and gyms (despite no legal requirement under their state or community’s coronavirus public-health orders) without any notice. And yet hotels continue using the dispensers even though the CDC says they are unsafe. I also chuckle every time a hotel says they can’t provide coffee or water or a hotel directory in the guest room because of coronavirus. If that’s the case then we need to bring our own bedding and they should remove the phone, remote control and everything else from the rooms. It really concerns me that hotels will use this as a long-term excuse to eliminate expenses. And at what point are the plexiglass screens at front desks going away? It’s like buying booze in the hood.

  17. I’m definitely more lax on the service side. I still make sure I get product I paid for.

    I had an odd week in mid-March, before lockdowns were enforced, where I got garbage service at every restaurant I went to. Entered my order wrong, forgot to put in order so we waited forever, etc. I sent feedback to those restaurants and then heard absolutely zero, presumably because they all shut down and thought they were going out of business so who cares if we wasted 30 minutes of Steve’s time! Fair enough, I guess.

    The last meal I went to was a birthday meal for me with my family (this particular restaurant gives you $25 credit on your birthday). They screwed everything up, took forever, my wife had to leave with my kids to put them to bed while I waited for my entree which I ate alone. Then I slid the birthday $25 certificate in with the bill and the server just deadpan goes “Oh. Sorry for ruining your birthday.” Then walks off. It’s comical now but I was raging at the time 😀

  18. Gary, this is a tough question and I am having some of the same dilemmas.

    I recently spent two nights at a Ritz Carlton property. No where on their its website did they disclose all restaurants, including fine dining, would serve with only disposable plates and cutlery. Although some adjustments are to be expected with the current Covid crisis, paying $1000.00 per night for your room, and being served at the fine dining restaurant on disposable chinet paper plates, with plastic silver utensils from the grocery store, and wine in a plastic water cup, WHILE NOT DISCLOSING THIS ON THEIR WEBSITE, borders between a reprehensible business practice, and fraud. Hotels and resorts have a duty to provide a disclaimer to their guests if the experience will fall far short of normal operating standards. Then it’s on the guests to assess and determine if they will stay or book elsewhere. I’d feel differently about this disclosure at $79.00/night Motel 6 diner. However a Ritz Carlton, at $1000.00/night (with tax & fees) for the lowest room category, has a different standard of care to their guests. It’s not enough for the polite and embarrassed servers to mumble their apologies due to local ordinances and the new age of Covid-19. Nothing short of prominently displayed full disclosure on the Ritz Carlton website is appropriate. I haven’t decided if I’m going to follow-up after the fact or night for any compensation. I probably won’t because it just doesn’t seem worth it right now (and yes, I am grateful and blessed to have such a 1st world problem to deal with.)

    Most of the service at the Ritz was very good. Pool staff was excellent. Fine dining Restaurant staff were excellent, trying their hardest despite the plastic plate absurdity. However it painstakingly challenging to reach anyone at the Front Desk by phone, from either my cell or the room, the two instances I had to speak with someone during my stay. 5+ instances of being on hold 15 minutes + with no one picking up. It was like Huca without ever reaching an agent. Three instances of being told to wait in my room and someone from the front desk would call me right back. 45 minutes + each time, waiting in the room, no call before I left. Finally the operator enlisted the concierge to walk over to the front desk.

    Anyway, the point of that background, is that the concierge apologized profusely, and begged me to understand that over 50% of their staff was refusing to come back, due to not wanting to co-mingle with the public. So my first reaction is, I’m being a jerk, and I’m sorry. But then I start to think – wait a second – this explanation asking for my understanding doesn’t really make sense. The pool and water sport staff is staffed appropriately. The restaurants are staffed appropriately. Housekeeping is staffed appropriately. All of these are direct public, high contact duties. The front desk is behind plastic shields. But, the concierge played the “Covid Card”. Which seems designed to immediately shut down any complaints, because after all, what kind of person complains if it’s due to Covid?

    We seem to be in a place and time where substandard service is increasingly explained with the “Covid Card”. At which point if a guest or patron doesn’t nod quietly, with a mute acknowledgement they were insensitive to even ask, then they’re labeled a “ken” or “karen”.

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