Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Powerless Employees

I’m used to bank branch employees having almost no power to overrule procedures enforced by their computer systems. Even branch managers can do little to override computer rules other than send requests to centralized bank departments. A recent stay at a Comfort Inn in Laval showed me that this way of running a business has made it to at least some of the hotel industry.

We wanted to stay at the same hotel as others who were attending the same event as we were. We booked online and chose to pay extra to get a king-sized bed instead of a queen-sized bed. When we arrived, they said they had no rooms available with a king-sized bed. This isn’t too surprising. I’ve encountered this at even some high-end hotels when they juggle reservations trying to keep as many rooms booked as possible.

What happened next surprised me. I accepted their apology for not having the room we booked, and I asked that they reduce our room rate to the queen-sized bed rate we were offered online. But the desk attendant said she couldn’t. She said the best she could do was leave a note for a more senior employee to look at it the next day.

The next day we spoke to the more senior employee who said she couldn’t reduce the room rate either; the system just wouldn’t let her. Her tone of finality was designed to make us slink away and accept the fact that we’d pay an inflated price for an inferior room.

Not being the meek sort in such circumstances, I insisted that if she couldn’t fix this, she should call someone who could. She said she couldn’t call because this wasn’t an emergency. After the exchange became a little tenser, she insisted the best she could do was send someone an email, but promised she’d fix it.

Taking the events to this point at face value, the employees were powerless to make any meaningful decisions themselves. It could have been just an elaborate show put on to get us to go away, but I’m inclined to think they really couldn’t do anything on their own.

Within a couple of hours, I got a call offering a 25% discount as compensation for not getting the king-sized bed we booked. I accepted this without further complaint. The morning we left, our bill showed a 25% reduction for only one of the two nights. Nice.

The final price after the partial 25% discount roughly matched what we would have paid if we had booked a room with a queen-sized bed. I chose not to complain any further, but I found the whole affair pointlessly unpleasant. The desk attendant should have been able to adjust the room rate in a case where it was so obviously justified. I won’t be in a hurry to stay at a Comfort Inn again.

Update: My wife received an email from Comfort Inn inviting her to fill out a survey, so she did.  She included a description of our experience.  She got a response with an apology and a promise to extend the 25% discount to the second night's stay.  That takes the edge off our unhappiness somewhat, but reaffirms my sense that front-line staff have too little power to handle routine situations sensibly.


  1. Very little Comfort at that Inn eh?

    Most service employees either claim to be, or are, powerless to do much about anything.

    Bell called me (again) asking how my Cell Phone service was. I said it was mediocre, no response. They told me I could get my phone upgraded with a new contract, I said I had already purchased my own phone, no response. I then asked, "How much would it cost to add my wife to my plan?", the response, "Sorry I can't do anything about that I am only asking about your experience".

    #WTF ?

    1. @Alan: It makes sense that someone who calls you and is likely not a Bell employee can't do much. It gets surprising for me when nobody I can talk to at a given business has the power to do anything meaningful.

  2. Credit card chargebacks are an effective solution. Their finance department will act a lot faster. I don't have to do this much so the bank always makes it easy. Sometimes just mentioning it resolves the problem quickly.

    1. @Richard: Mentioning a credit card chargeback is a good idea. I wasn't sure whether an actual chargeback would have worked in this case because it's clear that I did receive a service, and my bank might have decided that this was a dispute I should settle directly with the hotel. However, mentioning a chargeback to the front desk might have saved me some trouble.

    2. If you didn't get everything you paid for, it's a valid chargeback (at least for the difference in cost). They will have to prove that they did everything they promised. And more importantly it will cost the company a lot more than the refund itself.

    3. @Richard: I've only done a few chargebacks over the years, and only in very obvious cases such as "I've never even visited that city." But, I've heard from people who've had their attempted chargebacks denied. My sense is that banks focus more on how often you do a chargeback than on the merits of a particular case, but I'm not confident in that assessment.