“You are running a scam”

by Christopher Elliott on July 12, 2013

Karen Roach/Shutterstock Karen Roach/Shutterstock

 


Maybe I should have said “no” to the case.

All the warning signs were there. The complaint involved an experienced hotel guest who checked his luggage at the front desk of a chain property in Irving, Texas. One of the bags had gone missing, and the traveler filed a claim for thousands of dollars above the property’s legal limit of liability — one clearly disclosed on his receipt and written into Texas lodging law.

Worse, the emails between the hotel and the guest showed that the customer quickly turned hostile, threatening to sue if he didn’t get more.

But the brightest flashing red light was the first sentence of his email, which boldly declared: “I am a Platinum member.”

Playing that card right up front is usually a sign you’re dealing with a dreaded “entitled” elite.

And yet I’m glad I tried to mediate his complaint. Because even though it led to a heated email exchange on a recent Saturday afternoon, I think it made me a better consumer advocate. And you’ll want to read the details, because they offer a riveting case study for how to not complain to a company, or to anyone else, for that matter.

“Let me check with my attorneys”

But first things first. Although I have written permission to name the hotel and the guest, I’m not going to. I don’t think the property deserves the bad publicity, because it handled this complaint by the book. And I suspect the guest will at some point realize how bizarre and irrational his behavior was, and will regret what he said.

(Let me note that, apparently, English isn’t this customer’s first language. I will try to represent what he said in a respectful way.)

Last October, the guest had checked the bags during his stay.

“When I was leaving my luggage at your hotel, front desk didn’t indicate that I am leaving my luggage totally at my own risk and hotel won’t be liable in any case of theft,” he wrote in an email to the property after his belongings went missing. “Had they would have told me I would have made arrangements to secure my belongings at some other place.”

After several exchanges, the hotel’s general manager apologized, issued 50,000 hotel loyalty points, referred the matter to the hotel’s insurance company and offered to help the guest pay his insurance deductible.

But with each subsequent message, the customer appeared to become more aggressive. Finally, the exasperated guest fumed: “I thought your side will be baseless. Let me check with my attorneys what can be done and will get back to you.”

Normally, when someone threatens to litigate, the case gets forwarded to a company’s legal department and it’s more or less outside my ability to mediate. But the guest seemed to back off, instead contacting me for help.

Our first several exchanges were polite. He said he’d seen my website and my offer to help, and wondered if I could push for more compensation. I promised to review his case and asked if I could write something about his complaint.

He readily agreed.

Two weeks later, he asked about the status of his case. And that was my first mistake. I always try to reply to an email promptly, but I didn’t know what to tell this reader. A cursory review suggested he didn’t really have a case. Texas state laws and the hotel’s own agreement with the guest were not on his side.

I write a feature every week called Is This Enough Compensation, in which I ask readers to tell me if the compensation from a company was adequate, and was considering it for one of those posts.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

A few weeks later, I received an indignant email from the guest.

“Looks like you don’t intend to reply any further and really doubt if you could be of any help,” he sniffed.

He added that my offer to “help” consumers was bogus.

“I think you are interested in stories to be listed on your website for which you collect some basis from the individuals and mainly you are helping yourself,” he said.

“Well,” he added. “Good luck!”

On the case

I didn’t take his email personally. Sometimes, customers transfer their anger toward a company on me, even though I’m trying to help. But in retrospect, I probably should have let this one go. That was mistake number two.

“I’m still working on this,” I emailed him. “I have a backlog of thousands of cases. I apologize for the delay.”

I thought maybe I’d missed something in the correspondence that would favor the guest. I decided to share the emails with my hotel company contact.

That’s when things started to head south. Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Guest: Is there any particular reason you didn’t reply to my last email?

Me: This may help. (I enclosed a link to my frequently asked questions, which explains why I can’t respond individually to the hundreds of messages I receive every day.)

Guest: Looks like you attract readers by gathering stories from individuals like me who approach you with a hope to get substantial help. You publish such stories on your website after gathering basis and authorization on emails to back the published story on your website. Further, you might be enjoying business revenues that you secure from commercial advertisements on your website.

(Hmm, my consumer advocacy website offers a free service that’s supported by advertising. That’s how most publications do it. I wondered: Am I missing something? At this point, I was still fairly certain the guest was projecting his frustration on me without realizing it. I decided to take the high road, but that was mistake number three — I should have ended it there.)

Me: I’m sorry you feel I haven’t addressed your question. I’ve looked at your case and I can tell you that the hotel has been contacted and that it is reviewing your complaint. I’ll let you know if I hear anything. Thanks for your patience.

Guest: If you contacted the hotel in my case, then why didn’t you keep me in loop? Please forward me all the communication that you did related to this issue of mine. You must keep me in loop regarding any communication on this issue of mine.

(I must? Actually, I consider the conversations between a company and myself to be private. But he made a valid point. My FAQ section never explicitly said that. In fact, it didn’t address the resolution process in any meaningful detail. It just assumed that readers would know that I’d try to help.)

Me: Unfortunately, the emails and calls between the hotel and me are private. I will update you when I have something to report. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Guest: That is not reasonable, if the issue is related to me, you don’t have any authority to communicate without my approval on my issue. If you have made any communications related to my issue, I have full rights to know what you communicated, please forward me all those communications and going forward keep me in loop on any communication related to my issue. Are you bluffing here? I don’t think you will ever have anything to report.

Me: I can assure you that I’ve contacted the hotel on your behalf. I will let you know when I have something to report.

(At this point, I suspected the customer wasn’t playing with a full deck. Time to back away … slowly.)

Guest: Why you contacted hotel on my behalf without my approval and consent? If you have contacted share all the communications.

Me: I’m sorry for any misunderstanding. You contacted a consumer advocate for help. That is what I do — I mediate consumer disputes. I would be happy to contact the hotel and ask it to drop the matter, if you are more comfortable with that.

Guest: First I need to know all the communications you did on my behalf. You can’t keep that private at your own wish without informing me. Share all the communications you did on this issue first then I will give you any further instructions.

(That did it. The guest didn’t have a firm grasp of reality, and engaging with him further wouldn’t make sense. Can’t believe it took me so long.)

Me: I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I’m afraid I’m going to have to close your case. I wish you all the best.

I contacted the hotel and said I was no longer in a position to advocate for this customer. It quickly dropped the matter.

But the guest couldn’t let it go.

“Ha ha,” he said. “You are a consumer advocate as you mentioned yourself and tell me in what legislation and law being a consumer advocate you are allowed to communicate on behalf of a consumer in private with the business without keeping that consumer in loop of all communication related to that issue. That stand of yourself possibly indicates that you are running a scam.”

He added, “You are doing this totally for your own benefit.”

Ouch.

Actually, the consumer advocacy I do has a long and established tradition in this country. My right to publish is protected by a little thing called the First Amendment. I’m not sure how anyone could twist a good-faith effort to help customers into something that is done “totally” for my benefit, but if anyone can do it, it’s a reader with chronic entitlement issues.

He has a right to my private emails? He deserves more than 50,000 points? I owe him a prompt response to every message?

Gee, if it only worked that way.

Am I running a “scam”? I think my body of work — the thousands of cases I’ve resolved on behalf of aggrieved consumers — answers that question better than I could.

But if you ever wanted to know how not to behave when you have a complaint, this would be Exhibit A.

I’m actually grateful for this case. Seriously. Thanks to the guest’s furious emails, I updated my FAQ section to address the mediation process, and what you are — and aren’t — going to get when you ask me for help. This reader’s hot-tempered email exchange with me will probably help countless other consumers.

Who ever said bad customers aren’t good for anything?

Print Friendly
Be Sociable, Share!

  • BobChi

    Sounds indeed like someone who saw you as his personal errand boy, not as an independent journalist. But do you really have a backlog of thousands of cases? Might need to screen a little more closely to keep it reasonable.

  • Geoff G

    Good for you Christopher. You’re more kind than I would have been. I would have told him to take a long walk off a short pier long before you finally called it quits. I guess that’s what makes you a good consumer advocate. Keep on keeping on!

  • Charles Smith

    Seems that with a possibility of English not being his first language, the operative word was Advocate. Advocate is often found to represent Lawyers and the guest may have assumed that as a Consumer Advocate, you were, in fact, a Consumer Lawyer. Thus, addressing his case in a legal setting.

    You should send him an invoice for the number of billable hours working on his case.

  • John Baker

    And you wonder why businesses occasionally fire clients…

  • JohntheKiwi

    While I agree wholeheartedly with the end result, I’ll play devils advocate here – I’m curious, DOES he have a legal right to documents sent on his behalf? Wouldn’t that be similar to one having the right to access their own medical records?

  • Tim Shuman

    Good Job. Very interesting story, and I think you handled it well.

  • DCTA

    You know, I spent years as a Hospital Patient Advocate. I feel your pain. BUT I would never take on a “case” from someone who threatened to sue. Period. End of story. AND I have advised travelers over and over again never to use or even hint at the “s-word”. That’s when you stop getting any help.

  • DCTA

    Nope. He asked for a free service and he freely supplied all his details/data.

    When I advocate for a client with a cruise line or tour operator or airline, I never, ever disclose my conversation(s) with the vendor to the client or vice versa. I am starting and independent, third-party conversation with each. What I do send the client is a summary of the outcome, which I am pleased to say in 17+ years has been positive in every single situation but one.

  • James Penrose

    “..it handled this complaint by the book…” A book that was written by and for the sole benefit of the hotel by the assorted hotel lobbyists and trade groups that write most of the legislation used to defend themselves from claims by “guests” and most of whom consider it an annoying aspect of life that they actually have to provide a room and service now and then once they have your money..

    Now, that being said, I think you got someone who thinks he “hired” you to handle his affair instead of paying his “attorneys” which probably live on the same planet as Puff the Magic Dragon.

    Wash your hands and walk away from this one. Even if he is right (and he may well be, not withstanding “disclaimers” to the contrary by the hotel over not being responsible in any way for stuff they took in charge for the benefit of a paying guest even if they throw it out on the street with a sign saying “Free Stuff!”.) You are in a no-win situation and nothing you do will please this guy or cause him to not treat you like an Alabama field hand in 1858.

    You’ve no obligation to assist someone even if it is clear they are completely right if they do not treat you with respect and dignity.

    You are offering a free service and your good offices and you are the sole decider of who to help and how much help to give and under what terms.

Previous post:

Next post: