I arrived to check in at my hotel in the middle of long business trip. I approached the counter and was greeted by a pleasant young woman with her name emblazoned on a badge affixed to her shirt. It said “Melanie.” Underneath her name was printed one additional word, the dreaded “Trainee.”

I’m very careful to treat novices with the appropriate kid gloves. I have no expectation that a person with limited experience will have the authority or expertise to solve major problems. In this case, I didn’t expect to present any major issues to Melanie; I expected an uneventful check-in.

She greeted me cheerfully by name and took an imprint of my credit card. As she was about to reach for my key, I made the mistake of asking the following question: “Melanie, as I’m a super-duper member of your frequent guest program, do you think I could have an upgrade to the concierge level?”

She stared at me in terror. There was no one else around to ask. I expected Melanie to break out into a flop sweat like Albert Brooks in the movie Broadcast News. After about 30 very quiet seconds, she said, “Well, Mr. Golletz, I don’t know!”

I calibrated my response and tone to suit her inexperience. I didn’t want her to get turned off to a career in customer service, but I did want to teach Melanie a valuable lesson. I proceeded, “Well, who would know, and when will they know?”

I wasn’t improving Melanie’s self-confidence; she stared at me without a sound. I continued.

“Melanie, I can’t do anything with your response. Your ‘I don’t know’ assumes one of the following: that I’ll forget about it and just go to the room you had intended me to get, or that I’ll wait here for someone who can give me a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on my request.

“I could decide the latter, but I’m tired and I’m sure you’re tired of me, so I’ll go to my room. I want you to remember a couple of things, however. ‘Yes’ is a good answer. ‘No’ is also a good answer. Both allow me to do something; they’re complete. ‘Maybe’ is not a good answer because it leaves me hanging. In this case, you could have said, “Mr. Golletz, I’m a trainee, and I don’t have the authority to make that decision. I apologize.” I would’ve been OK with that too.”

I hope Melanie learned something, and that she is in a position to teach others valuable lessons about service.

When dealing with customers or clients, specific requests require specific answers.

2011 Rand Golletz. All rights reserved.

Author's Bio: 

Rand Golletz is the managing partner of Rand Golletz Performance Systems, a leadership development, executive coaching and consulting firm that works with senior corporate leaders and business owners on a wide range of issues, including interpersonal effectiveness, brand-building, sales management, strategy creation and implementation. For more information and to sign up for Rand's free newsletter, The Real Deal, visit http://www.randgolletz.com.