Innocent Until Proven Guilty

The importance of believing your guests–even when you don't want to.

The concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” comes from the American legal system and a foundational principle of criminal law procedures. How does this pertain to working in hospitality? At a recent conference, I heard examples of property management companies that assumed their guests were lying to them when they had a complaint. Topics included guests complaining of mold, cleanliness, and bed bugs.

Rather than assuming guests were innocent until they could be proven guilty, these property managers jumped straight to guilt. They assumed guests were trying to scam them out of money, free stays, or other services.

I understand that we, as humans, can get jaded in service industry where we encounter so many challenges on a daily basis. And yet, becoming jaded or not trusting our guests can do more damage to our business than refunding the cost of a guests’ stay.

What would you do?

Let’s take the example of bed bugs. A guest calls up from the rental home and states they have found bed bugs in their property. How do you respond?

If you’re as jaded as some property managers, you may assume the guest is lying. You know an exterminator was at the property the previous week. It couldn’t be possible, could it?

Here’s what could happen if we assume guilt

We could tell them that it isn’t possible since an exterminator serviced the home the previous week or confess that there aren’t any other available properties we could move them to.

When we react immediately out of fear because we’re concerned with financial risks or our own ego, we risk losing something we can’t recoup: a guest. Of course, that guest isn’t just one guest; they are one guest and all opportunity that may have come from them. That one guest we assumed was guilty is going to tell other people that they had a bad experience.

I like to take it back to the 5% rule: only 5% of your guests are lying or out to create problems. Let’s not punish 95% of the guests because the 5% has made us jaded.

Here’s what could happen if we assume innocence

We give the guest the benefit of the doubt because it’s the right thing to do. When the exterminator visits the home to investigate, they find that bed bugs are, in fact, present.

I worked with a company at which the reservation sales agent asked the guest to take a picture of the bugs that they saw and text it to her. Being an educated hospitality service provider, she confirmed from the photograph that they were bed bugs and moved the guests to another home right away. She believed her guests and acted out of love, not fear. Everyone benefited: the guest felt heard, their needs were addressed, and the property manager preserved their relationship with the guest.

Helpful Tools

One of my favorite books on customer service is Knock Your Socks off Service by Ron Zemke. He talks about three ways to make the customer right:

  • Assume Innocence
  • Look for Teaching Opportunities
  • Believe Your Customer

In our bed bug example, the reservation sales agent believed the guest, assumed they were innocent, and asked for a photograph. If the photograph hadn’t been of a bed bug, the agent would have sent a picture of a bed bug back to the guest and explained the differences. They took advantage of a teaching opportunity

I add in another step: empathize before teaching the guest. If we don’t empathize with the guest, they’re less likely to listen to teaching. I often hear calls where empathizing didn’t take place and, at the end of the conversation, the guest is still upset.

A great tool for developing strategic empathy is 7 Phrases That Convey Empathy by Myra Golden. Here are her seven phrases:

  • I can understand how frustrating it is when…
  • I realize how complicated it is to…
  • I cannot imagine how upsetting it is to…
  • I know how confusing it must be when…
  • We want to get to the bottom of this just as much as you do…
  • If I were in your position I would feel just as you do…

Of course, keep in mind the importance of tone and being truly genuine when using these phrases. Relationship building with guests occurs naturally when you empathize and come from a place of showing belief, trust, and love with our words and our actions.

Ali Cammelletti has more than 28 years of experience in the hospitality industry. She has served in many capacities, from the front lines of restaurant and lodging services to the creation and management of a successful event planning business to running a consulting company. She currently coaches and trains front-line staff as well as managers to grow their leadership skills. Visit for more details.