Travel complaints that fail: 5 kinds of emails you should never write

by Christopher Elliott on August 30, 2010

What kind of a complainer are you?

Maybe you’re the squeaky wheel — the guest who keeps writing back over and over, even after you’ve been told “no” in a dozen different ways. Or maybe your grievances fall into the “special circumstances” category — you’re sick, you’re broke, you’re having a bad year.

Perhaps you’re a name-dropper, copying a vice president or CEO on every customer service inquiry to ensure it receives the proper attention.

You could be the litigious type: “Give me what I want, or I’ll sue.”

At the right time, these are all perfectly reasonably ways to complain to a travel company. At the wrong time, they can doom your customer service request to failure at the hands of a dreaded form response.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals’ annual conference in Atlanta. After my speech, I witnessed a surprisingly lively and candid discussion among the participants, all of which were customer service managers in the travel industry. The topic? How to value your customer. Specifically, how do you prioritize requests from customers based on their elite status?

During our debate, the audience referred to the kinds of complaints they get, and much to my surprise, I found I had categorized them in a similar way. You need to know about these groupings, because being in one or another can make a big difference in how your grievance is handled.

The squeaky wheel

These gripes are easy to identify because the correspondence runs on for pages and pages. Also, look for phrases like, “This is my fifth attempt to contact you,” or “I called you a dozen times yesterday.” Squeaky-wheel queries usually have no more merit than garden-variety inquiries, except that they are repeated endlessly until the aggrieved party gets its way. (“I don’t know what to do about the squeaky wheel,” a manager for a cruise line confided. “Except maybe to give them what they want.” Neither do I.)

This is an effective tactic — if you’re two years old. Adults should try the squeaky wheel strategy only if they plan to never ever do business with the company again. Why? Because this infraction will go on their record, and believe me, companies keep track of difficult customers. You will pay for it down the line.

The special circumstances

Every traveler’s circumstances are unique, maybe even special. But there are a few words that really hurt your chances when you’re filing a grievance. “We are seniors on a fixed income,” probably tops the list. Not to be insensitive, but in a way, everyone is on a fixed income, and if you don’t have the money, you shouldn’t be spending it — at least that’s the view of the travel company you’re complaining to. “I’m an elite-level customer” is another. Also popular: A relative got sick or died, I lost my job, I got a new job, my son’s soccer team made it to the finals — you get the idea.

Look, these are all perfectly valid excuses, unless you’re holding a nonrefundable ticket or room reservation. If you can’t afford to lose those, consider insurance or book a room that can be refunded. Travel companies don’t want to hear about you as much as they are concerned about your experience. If you had a bad flight or hotel stay, they want to know. Are you retired? Did you just have a death in the family? Not so much.

The name-dropper

Sometimes, in order to underscore the seriousness of their complaint, a traveler will copy everyone in the world on a grievance: The VP of customer service, the CEO, the CFO, the Better Business Bureau, the cleaning lady and even yours truly. Also, they’ll mention that their uncle happens to know the company’s president. Well, big deal. Carpet-bombing, as it’s frequently called — particularly on the first run — actually hurts your chances of getting a successful resolution.
Instead of making you out to be a serious customer, it paints you as a crybaby. Instead of turning up the volume on your first try, give the system some time to work. Then, appeal to the powers that be. The string of e-mails in the “cc:” field isn’t making you look good.

The laundry list

A careful inventory of every single problem on a trip confuses folks in the customer-service department. I see a lot of these on cruises. “We didn’t get the 8 p.m. dinner seating we requested.” Then, “Our shore excursion was canceled because of bad weather.” And then, “We missed a port of call,” or “We heard engine noise in our room.” Save it for the next dinner party. Why don’t laundry lists work? Because it makes you look petty, and it makes it difficult for a customer-service professional to identify an issue they can effectively address in a response. You’re better off sticking to one problem and then telling the company what it can do to fix it. But long lists almost never further your cause. If anything, they could set you back.

The break-up

This complaint comes in two flavors: The one that ends with “I’ll never do business with your company again,” and the one that concludes with “If you don’t do exactly what I want, I’ll sue you.” Both are to be avoided. If you tell a company you’ll never do business with it again, then why should it even bother responding? If you threaten to sue, your letter will get forwarded to the legal department, where it could languish for months before being answered. (By the way, you don’t have to use the “s” word to be threatening. Someone just copied me on an e-mail to an airline that promised, “I will use every tool necessary, including Facebook and YouTube, to make sure that everyone knows that you lose people’s luggage.”)

Break-ups — real and imagined — are almost always completely unnecessary. Instead, tell the company how disappointed you are, and that you’re looking for a reason to do business with it again. Turning a negative into a positive gives the airline or hotel the incentive to make things right. Threatening it doesn’t.

Of course, there are times when you’ll want to employ some of these tactics, which is a topic for another column. But until then, my advice is to stay away from threats, name-dropping, lengthy complaints and sob stories. And don’t be annoying.

These grievances almost always hurt you more than they help. Take it from someone who spends all day reading complaints.

(Photo: Pedro K lien/Flickr Creative Commons)

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  • laura

    Listen, I’ve fired off my share of hasty – and therefore badly composed – complaints, and I think I’m over that now.

    One of the things I try to do, along with you suggestion of narrowing my comments to the one item that was most troubling, is to point out at least one thing the company did well – that way they know that I’m not just a whiner. As in, the bathroom was never cleaned to our satisfaction during our visit, but the concierge was most helpful and steered us to a restaurant we loved.

    Think about how you react – when someone is complaining, don’t you like to hear that you can do at least one thing right?

  • dcta

    I have taught classes on how to write a complaint letter. The most important things to remember:

    1. keep it to one page. Just state the facts…

    2. tell them exactly what you want/expect. They can’t read your mind but if you tell them what you want at least they’ll have a good idea of where to start…

    3. do not ever, ever, ever use the “S” word – “sue”. The minute you use the “s” word, a smart person will absolutely shut down on you. You will get NOTHING even if you have a good case. If you think you have a case and your complaint/issue remains unresolved – just go ahead and sue – any lawyer will tell you not to telegraph that intention. Your target will know you are suing him/her/them soon enough.

    I spent years as a hospital administrator when my only responsibility was to deal with VIPs and complaints. I’ve read just about every kind of letter you can imagine. I promise you that if someone sent me a one page letter, told me what s/he wanted – they almost always got it. If someone threatened to sue – they got nothing from me/hospital, but they almost always got a lawyer telling them that they had no case or it wasn’t worth the cost to file – and we saw less than 1% of these people actually turn around and sue. In fact during my tenure and that of the Risk Manager at that time, we saw almost no law suits at a major university hospital – almost unbelievable….

  • Annette

    I have to make a comment on the Break-up complaint: What if you really don’t want to do business with a company again? I have sent complaint letters to companies that I don’t have any intention of doing business with ever again. I send the complaints not because I’m expecting to gain something from it, but because I’m a firm believer that if you don’t know that a problem exists then you have no opportunity to fix it. It’s of no benefit to me, but maybe it’ll improve conditions/service for other people. When I send these letters I always make sure to state that I’m not looking for compensation or freebies, I’m just letting them know they have a problem.

  • dcta

    I think Chris is talking about the “threat” of a break-up being positioned as “blackmail” – “…If you don’t do X, I will never do business with you again” or “…If you don’t do X, I will sue you.”

  • Rich

    On the flip side of complaint letters are the “Good job” letters. I will always, after a great travel experience, write a letter to the company thanking them for the great service we received. In many cases, I have received extra perks upon utilizing the particular company again, whether it be room upgrades, seat upgrades or in one case, upgrade to a great suite on a cruise. Not only that, I get a personal satisfaction from knowing that the employee that went out of his/her way to make a great experience, will be recognized for their work.
    Everyone is so quick to write complaint letters, understandably so, but how many are quick to write the “great job” letters? I don’t think that the number will be very high.

  • http://leftcoastsportsbabe.com Janice Hough

    Watch your language too. Okay, maybe the flight attendant really was a word that rhymes with witch. Okay, maybe you were to the point that expletives seem like the most appropriate adjectives. Save them for your friends and family in the privacy of your own home. They won’t work in a business letter and will get the rest of your letter written off. (And believe me, as a travel agent I deal with a lot of airlines behaving badly. But when you commit thoughts to paper or an email, take the high road, or at least the clean one.)

  • Chuck1

    And the complaint letters that work????

  • Lyn G

    The best set of articles on how to complain effectively was written by David Rowell (The Travel Insider). Go to:
    http://thetravelinsider.info/info/howtocomplain.htm
    for his tips.

  • dcta

    Chuck1 – the ones that work most often are once again: short and include a sentence or two about what you expect back from the offending business.

  • http://[email protected] HJA

    Absolutely threaten to sue – if you have a case, but not in the first letter. For example, in Europe, airlines are legally obliged to refund expenses inucrred during delays and as a result of cancellations, and to pay compensation for some cancellations. Your intitial letter should be a request for reimbursement supported by receipts. They have (by law) 14 days to reimburse you. If you hear nothing after 14 days, threatening to sue usually works. And if it doesn’t, you will win the court case.

  • summerbl4ck

    Unfortunately re the “squeaky wheel”, concerns or complaints are too often ignored and you have to be persistent to get resolution. How often does Chris himself recommend continued follow-up with service providers in order to resolve issues in his ombudsman column? Maybe the real problem is being a squeaky wheel over very minor issues?

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