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How Can I Make My Complaint Work Better?

The travel industries—especially airlines—get pretty low marks for customer satisfaction. Certainly, with the airlines, a lousy product doesn’t help, but I’m reasonably sure that failure to respond to legitimate consumer gripes is another big part of the problem. Few, if any, follow Marshall Field’s classic mantra, “The customer is always right.” So it should come as no surprise that I often hear tales of woe from travelers whose complaints have fallen in deaf ears. A typical recent question is par for the course:

“How can I get this company to give me the refund I’m due.”

The short answer is, “Advance contingency planning gives you much better odds for success than after-the-fact arguing. But to cover yourself adequately in advance, you pay the price of additional paperwork and hassle every time you travel. It’s a trade off with no easy one-fits-all answer.”

Over the years, I’ve written extensively about the process of complaining, in general and with some do’s and don’t’s, where to find some outside help, and giving a supplier a black eye.

Here, I’ll try to fill out the field with some recommendations about what you can do—from the start of the process—to increase the chances of winning any complaint argument you might have to start. I often hear directly from a lot of dissatisfied travelers, and I follow the few “ombudsman” systems available to travelers. A majority of cases seem to fall into one of two situations:

  • Disagreement about exactly what the supplier promised and what the traveler thought he or she had bought.
  • Disappointment with the travel experience, as finally provided.

In either case, the best way to avoid subsequent difficulties is to document as much as you can of any transaction involved in your trip.

When You’re Negotiating the Deal

A primary rule of travel is that if it isn’t specifically in the contract, you probably won’t get it. Many of the problem cases I see result from a commitment made by some agent to include something that wasn’t in the basic deal or to make a general promise more specific. Your best bet to support your side of the story is to be as thorough as you can:

  • Print or save to a file any relevant contractual material—and especially any emails that you send or receive that in any way modify, augment, or “clarify” the contract.
  • On phone calls with agents, record the names of any agent you deal with and the time(s) of all calls. Take notes of any specific promises you got, especially if the agent promised something more than the base contract. Examples would include such commitments as “you can get a full refund,” “that’s included in the price,” or “we’ll make sure you get an ocean view room.” If possible, confirm any such phone agreements by email.

After You Arrive

Whenever you run into a problem on a flight or in a hotel or resort, do as much as possible to document that problem:

  • For problems like poor maintenance, machines that don’t work, bedbugs, you name it—take a picture if possible. That’s especially easy now that so many of our ubiquitous wireless phones include a camera capability.
  • On matters of poor service, bad meals, and such, where you can’t take a picture, get the names and addresses of a few other travelers caught in the same situation. Where appropriate, ask a few of them to prepare brief notes about the problem.

Keep Pushing

As I’ve suggested before, the content of your case is much more important than the person to whom you present it. True, when you’re facing a dispute with a travel supplier, some people recommend that you send return-receipt-requested mail or express delivery to the supplier’s CEO. In my experience, that doesn’t help much: No matter what sort of delivery you arrange, your complaint is likely to wind up in the same place: the customer service office or equivalent. And the folks there are much more likely to do something positive with a well-documented case rather than one that devolves to “he said, she said.”

Yes, I know, all that stuff about keeping records, taking pictures, and such is a hassle. And, in somewhere between 9 out of 10 or 99 out of 100 cases, all that tedious work is totally unnecessary. The point, however, is that the better you’re prepared for a possible problem, the more likely you are to find a satisfactory solution.

Look at it this way: Assume you’re Alan Shore (or Perry Mason if you’re older) and that you’re preparing for a case. The more evidence you can muster, the stronger your case will be. You don’t necessarily plan to go as far as small claims court, but it’s useful to have the mindset that you are preparing for a court case. And if the supplier continues to stonewall you, go that final step of heading for court.

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