Today’s post is courtesy of Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and author of “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in the Washington Post.
The phone — by which I mean voice communication — puts travelers at a significant disadvantage when it comes to problem-solving. But there’s a notable exception, a time when you should pick up the phone and then maybe hang up. If you understand the difference, you’re well on your way to resolving almost any travel problem.
|When trying to solve a travel problem, a phone |
can sometimes be helpful; other times you should
just hang up and negotiate through email.
A report by Invoca, a call-tracking company, found that 65 percent of consumers would rather use a phone than email to contact a business. A survey by Google showed that on any big-ticket vacation expense, which it defines as a purchase for more than $320, consumers prefer contacting an airline, hotel or cruise line by phone. Attitudes are slowly shifting, but for many travelers, the phone is still the primary means of contact when there’s a problem because it’s convenient and fast.
Travel companies seem to like the status quo, too. When there’s no paper trail, it becomes much more difficult for you, the consumer, to resolve a travel complaint in your favor. That’s because when you contact a company about a service lapse or a delay, you have no evidence of your previous contact, no record of any response. It’s the company’s word against yours.
Travel companies hold all the cards. Bigger travel businesses, such as airlines and online travel agencies, have sophisticated call-center systems that record each customer service interaction. An employee can review the call, but unless you recorded it yourself, you have no access to it. A new federal law giving customers access to these recordings might tip the scales more toward travelers, but that seems unlikely.A quicker fix: Get everything in writing, either on paper or email. “Whenever possible, get it in writing, and document everything,” says Meg Aidekman, co-founder of D.C. tour operator Trip Tribe. But many readers offer excuses like, “I’m not good with technology” or “I’m a senior” to
|Communicate by email and keep all exchanges when |
working through a travel issue.
“.A paper trail can be used to follow up on and hold companies to their terms and conditions and promises made,” Aidekman says.
Customer service expert Chip Bell, author of “The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service,” says putting negotiations in writing can help retrieve facts that both parties can innocently and easily forget: “We all say things that fade from memory as other facts crowd them out. Think of a written record as your reference library of what was agreed.”
|Put it in writing!|
More important, you can store and retrieve Twitter DMs and Facebook messages when you need to remind a company what it promised.
But sometimes a phone call is the best way to reach a company such as when you’re planning a complicated cruise itinerary or trying to book an award seat. In both cases an agent can sometimes offer options in a real-time phone call that you might not know about if you were booking online. Of course, after an airline cancellation, passengers instinctively dial the carrier’s toll-free number to get a seat on the next flight. That’s unlikely to change even if every passenger has a smartphone with the airline’s app on it. The phone still rules.
|Rescheduling flights may still be handled best by phone.|
“When you have a travel problem, call the company, and if you don’t get it resolved, hang up,” says Greg Trosko, an office manager from Princeton, N.J. “Call back later, and speak with someone different. You’d be surprised how often you get a completely different answer.”
Now that integrated caller ID systems provide corporate call centers with information that gets attached to your reservation and loyalty program number, there’s a critical modification. The big companies are on to you, so you can’t just hang up the phone and try again. That’s especially true for travel insurance companies, which document every call.
For smaller companies, though, if you’re trying to negotiate a refund and find yourself talking to someone who is less than cooperative, the hang-up strategy still works. They won’t track you because they can’t, and unless the agent you’ve just spoken with documents the call in your reservation, you can start over. Restate your case, and see if the company changes its answer. It just might.
Whether you’re trying to negotiate a refund on an airline ticket or push for credit on a future cruise, the phone can be your best friend — or your worst enemy. It all depends on how you use it. If you know when to hang up, you might get what you deserve.