How to extract the best in travel customer service…

Customer service in Asia seems to come in extremes – cloying as in multiple waiters hovering over your table, or non- existent with a side of don’t-need, don’t-care attitude. I succumbed to a McDonald’s meal the other day and was annoyed to find I had to put my order in outside the restaurant then take the paper to a girl with a mobile keypad waiting inside, all before being able to get to the counter to pay for/ pick up my food. On the upside, one of the workers later noticed that the tip of one fry was burnt, and unprompted, she came back with a complimentary order of new fries.

Customer service when you travel (especially in Asia) is much the same, but unless you’re staying in high-end properties (read: properly-trained staff) or are on a more exclusive tour, chances are you’ll find workers who are unable, unempowered or simply uninterested in helping you resolve your issue. I found myself in this situation twice in the last month. First, a friend was booked on an 8:10pm flight to Hanoi on a budget carrier. He received a text message saying his flight had been changed, not to the next available flight, but to the last flight of the day. (In a cost-cutting measure, some carriers will do this if there aren’t enough passengers on a flight.) I advised him to get to the airport early anyway to ask to get on the next available flight to which the ticket agent promptly refused, saying it was full. With a bit more coaxing, she found a supervisor who magically found a seat. Lesson: Always be calm and courteous when dealing with service personnel. They’re likely following a process set by the higher-ups. Do your homework and know what options are available. And appeal when you feel you’ve exhausted all present means. In his recently released book, How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle), consumer advocate Chris Elliott suggests knowing when to complain:

● If it’s something that can easily be fixed in real time, like the wrong food order at a restaurant or a hotel room with a noise problem.

● If you lost a significant amount of time or money because of something that the travel company directly controls, like a reservation system or a staff decision.

● If the problem is so significant that it could affect future guests or passengers, even if it wasn’t a terrible inconvenience to you.

He also advises quick action. “Instead of writing a letter or calling when you get home, mention your problem before you check out, deplane, or disembark. Frequently, the person behind the counter is empowered to fix the issue on the spot. If you leave without saying something, you’ll have to deal with an outsourced call center where operators have 50 ways or more to say ‘no.’” Keeping a paper trail and meticulous records is also imperative.

“When you’re having the vacation from hell, record-keeping is critically important. Take snapshots of the bedbug-ridden hotel room or the rental car with a chipped windshield. Keep all emails, brochures, tickets, and receipts. Print screenshots of your reservation,” writes Chris.

2

Service Fail

In my second customer service snafu, I booked a flight to a bucket list destination at rock bottom prices. AirAsia had just started flying to the Maldives and I snagged a round trip flight from Saigon for mid-May for USD400. In my head, I was already ensconced in an overwater bungalow watching the colorful fish swim by as I sipped on an equally colorful cocktail of some sort. Unfortunately, in early February, a friend (note: not the airline itself) sent me a link to an article announcing that AirAsia was suspending its flights beginning March 1. I quickly sent AirAsia an email with all my flight information, using the contact form on their website. Weeks went by with no communication, much less a refund. My next option was to make a long-distance call to one of their call centers (conveniently, none located in Vietnam). Perpetually on hold and 30 minutes later, as I watched the credits vanishing on my phone, the apologetic agent asked me to fill in the exact same online form as I had before. Fail. It was time to escalate.

I sent out a few tweets to their Twitter account and within minutes had confirmation that my case was being fast-tracked, promising “a more substantive response to your problem and an appropriate resolution within 14 days”. A few days later, I received an apology email and a refund. “First and foremost, we sincerely regret to inform you that effective from 1st March 2014, flights to/from Maldives have been suspended. The withdrawal of Maldives from our route network is due to the challenging business conditions which include the depreciation of Asian currencies against the US dollar and the chronic lack of hotel room supply in Maldives, resulting in cancellation of thousands of bookings by travel operators. This has affected the viability of sustaining our renowned low fares,” it read in part, 27 days after flights had been suspended and presumably months after the decision had actually been made. While in the end, the case was resolved satisfactorily, I still can’t believe the airline never contacted me directly regarding a ticket to nowhere. Had my friend not given me a heads up, I cringe to think what would’ve happened had I made a non-refundable hotel booking, or even checked my flight status the week I was supposed to go.

In my book, I’m marking this down as a customer service fail. Airlines are quick to take your money (literally, in seconds), but have the tendency to drag their feet in giving it back to you. In his book, Chris compares the pros and cons to lodging your grievance via paper letters, emails, social media and online chats. Because I had exhausted the email then call center route, social media worked well for me. Chris says that the pros to using social media are that “the whole world sees your grievance when you post it online with a call-out to the company. Excellent for shaming a company into giving you what you want, but can also backfire when you ask for too much”. The flip-side is that “social media requests generally aren’t taken as seriously, and they may be referred to more conventional contacts, such as a company website or phone number”.

Whatever your grievance, be smart and persistent about finding a resolution that you can live with. After all, travel is supposed to be fun!

Having visited nearly 60 countries as a travel writer and award-winning photographer, James Pham blogs about his adventures at FlyIcarusFly.com.