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How to Get Some Satisfaction: Complain Properly
Thursday, April 5, 2018 -- Given the state of business travel--cramped and crowded flights, stripped-down new fare categories, aging rental vehicles, rising hotel rates--it's no surprise that road warriors have a cornucopia of complaints.
But turning your discontent into a satisfactory resolution with a supplier--and airlines, hotel chains and car rental firms are nothing more or less than suppliers who work for us--takes a bit of work. You can moan on social media or leave a negative review on TripAdvisor, of course. And leisure travelers do that often--and often to media success as the echo chamber turns a random service failure into a national scandal.
But how does that mitigate the underlying problem?
I'm convinced the better approach is a carefully honed letter of complaint. That's where the work comes in because writing a good complaint letter takes some skill, needs to be thoughtfully crafted and must cover certain key points.
I've compiled these dozen tips after dozens of years helping business travelers get restitution for any number of foul-ups. I can't guarantee 100 percent success, of course, but follow this 12-step program and you'll turn most legitimate gripes into a satisfactory resolution.
GET IT RIGHT BEFORE WRITING
The best complaint letter is the one you never write because you have solved the problem on the spot. If you can't get it right with the person with whom you're dealing, speak to someone higher up the food chain. A tweet and follow-up direct message to the company's Twitter handle may also generate timely intervention. Schedule permitting, it's worth investing some time in an on-site, ad hoc arbitration.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
There is a small body of laws specific to lodgings and car rentals, but those transactions are largely governed by standard business and legal practices. Not so with airlines. They literally create their own rules, called a contract of carriage, and you explicitly agree to it when you purchase a ticket. A consumer-oriented look at our flying rights is produced by the Transportation Department. You have more substantial legal protections if your flight originates in Europe and the EC clearly outlines your options.
DOCUMENT THE PROCESS
You're an experienced business traveler so you should have a sense early in the process if something is amiss. Start taking notes immediately. Get times, places, names and as many specifics as you can. Where appropriate, use your phone to get an audio, photographic and/or video record. Hold on to all receipts, tickets, boarding passes and anything else that is part of the paper trail. And think like a businessperson: Keep track of anything and everything you would want to know if it was your job to resolve the situation retroactively.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Don't throw your grievance file in the corner with your expense account. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that you'll get satisfaction. Initiate your complaint as soon as you get home.
CREATE A PAPER TRAIL
E-mail is easiest and fastest, of course, but most airlines and hotels seem unwilling or unable to resolve substantial problems electronically. That's okay since an actual paper trail is to your benefit. Rely on an old-fashioned paper letter. Use company stationery and never send a handwritten note. Attach copies, not originals, of relevant documents and supporting evidence.
MAKE SOMEONE OWN THE PROBLEM
Letters generically addressed to customer service will be handled generically and will yield nothing more than a generic apology. If your complaint is extremely specific--a marketing program, a service failure--google the name of the executive in charge of that department and write to him/her specifically. Otherwise, consider writing to the chief executive. You are unlikely to get a response directly from the top dog, but C-suite executives in the travel industry have staffers specifically charged with handling letters addressed to them. (Alternately, some business travelers have resolved complaints by writing to the firm's assistant general counsel. I don't know why, but it seems to work.)
KEEP IT POLITE AND PRECISE
A long missive that begins with the precedents of Marbury v. Madison isn't a good approach. Think of your complaint letter as a memo to your own boss. Keep it brief, precise and polite. Don't clutter your letter with emotional baggage--even if the topic is lost luggage. Dispense with the small indignities, frivolous grudges or points of personal privilege.
STATUS MATTERS, BLUFFS DON'T
Don't bludgeon the airline or hotel with your clout, but don't run away from it. If you are an elite frequent traveler, put your account number and status on the letter. If the complaint is so serious that you might move your business elsewhere, say so. If you can move your company's account away from the airline or hotel, say so. But don't bluff. Only threaten what you are actually prepared to do. And never tell the company that you'll never do business with them again. If you proclaim yourself a lost customer, why would they care about you? There's no incentive for the company to try to make amends if you have already given them the economic death penalty.
ASK OR YOU WON'T RECEIVE
Surprisingly, this is the key failure of most complaint notes I've seen. If you write a complaint letter without asking for a tangible make-good, you are guaranteed to receive nothing more than a form letter and an unctuous, perfunctory apology. Tell the airline, hotel or car-rental firm exactly what is required to make you happy. If you don't ask, you won't receive. Request your compensation in clear and unequivocal terms.
DON'T BE GREEDY
Be smart about your make-good request. Have a sense of proportion. A one-hour flight delay doesn't entitle you to a refund. A rude front-desk clerk isn't grounds for a free night at a hotel. Asking for hard cash is always tricky, although sometimes a refund is the only fair resolution. However, if you'd be happy with bonus miles or points, upgrades or discount coupons, ask for those. And consider that elevation to the next level of elite status might be the best compensation of all.
PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF
If the airline or hotel's first response is insufficient, tell the person who responded to your letter that you aren't satisfied. (But never return any coupons, discounts or checks they sent.) You'll be surprised how often a second letter and polite persistence yields a better offer.
USE YOUR PLASTIC SHIELD
Never pay for travel services by cash, check or debit card because you have legal protection if you use a credit card. Under federal credit laws, you have the right to contest any charge that you do not consider legitimate. If you're in a row with an airline, hotel or rental firm over a service they didn't provide, contest the charge with your credit card company. No firm likes a "chargeback" because it carries hard-dollar costs. Involving the credit card company is often your last, best recourse if the company refuses to negotiate with you in good faith.
This column is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.