The AC unit in the hotel was noisy, throbbing in the main room, rumbling in the bathroom. I reported the problem and was visited by a facilities engineer.
As I had surmised, the problem was not unique to my room. It was an issue with the type of unit and its location, both matters characteristic of the property generally.
The front desk offered me a different room, but I knew the difference would be modest at most and said I was fine with what I had.
“Ok, sorry again. Is there anything I can offer you for your inconvenience?”
This is, of course, standard practice in organizations that pride themselves on customer service and/or demand of their employees that they secure “excellent” or “totally satisfied” ratings from their customers.
Defective products will occasionally get into a customer’s hands: an overdone steak, a hotel room that wasn’t properly prepped, a tire with an uneven tread. If it’s an isolated event, compensating the customer makes up for their personal inconvenience.
But in this case, the offer made me vaguely uncomfortable. My “inconvenience” reflected a problem that was systemic, not an isolated failure. I wasn’t the only one being inconvenienced . . . but I might be one of only a few who were being “compensated” because I knew what to do.
I felt like I was about to negotiate the price point of my integrity.
Would a free drink at the bar make up for the “inconvenience”? How about two? Would that be enough for me to say that I was “totally satisfied” with my stay, even though, without the “compensation,” I would have been dissatisfied (as undoubtedly were other guests who expected a quiet room)?
I’m making much more of this incident than is warranted, I’ll grant. The offer of some “compensation” was generous, demonstrating the property’s commitment to customer satisfaction.
But the AC unit still rumbles like a freight train.
Systems, whether HVAC systems or management systems or potable water systems, play a critical role in our daily lives. Every system will have isolated failures, disappointing some users. The disappointment may take the modest form of a less peaceful stay, or the serious form of a debilitating injury or illness, emotional scars, loss of income or even death.
When the event is an isolated failure, the service provider should offer compensation and we should feel comfortable accepting it.
When, on the other hand, the event represents a potential or actual system problem, then no personal compensation for our “inconvenience” should be considered enough to satisfy us.
This isn’t about hotel stays. This is about our experiences of things gone wrong, in our public services, in our communities. Isolated failures, poor choices, bad days . . . we’re human, and these are human events to be treated humanely.
But when a pattern of failed service begins to emerge, those of us with the power to make our voices be heard must speak. We should point out the problem and insist on change. And we should refuse to put a price on our devotion to telling the truth.
It may be inconvenient to do so, but it also is what we owe our citizens as their servants.