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Do the right thing

Of course, with almost 15 years in the industry, I have heard my share of client complaints and issues—thankfully not too many. However, I pride myself on the way we have been able to handle all of the complaints to the satisfaction of the client, the supplier and the agency. I try to set realistic expectations for the clients when things go wrong—and they will at some point. For the client who complains that it was too hot in Mexico in August and none of the people spoke English—they know exactly what they will get. Over the years, I have been able to pretty much know what the supplier can and cannot do in terms of remuneration and in turn the suppliers know that when I send a complaint to them, it is a legitimate one. I have never been stumped as to handle a client complaint until last month.

We had organized a small group of single parents for my agency, Single Parent Travel. It was a 7 night cruise on Carnival’s Pride from Baltimore calling in Grand Turk, Half Moon Cay, and Freeport. My client calls two weeks prior to sailing and through a series of well times calls to Carnival, I was able to secure a cabin for her on a sold out ship two minutes past the expiration of a courtesy hold.

As soon as she was paid in full, the problems began. For some reason, she felt entitled to an upgrade from an interior cabin to a balcony cabin because she had cruised with Carnival 10 years ago. When I advised that it was not going to happen, she called Carnival. They advised her it was not going to happen. Then she called me asking for $210 because she did not want Carnival adding any tips to her account. I explained she could adjust it and she did not want to listen to me. She called Carnival and being the helpful people they are (yes, that is sarcasm) they advised her that the agency would have to do that. She called back and I explained that no one was going to refund her anything for a cruise that she had yet to take. She was not happy, but said she would take care of it on board. However, she admonished me that if they did not take off any charges for tips, she would expect me to reimburse her. Seeing where this was going, I advised that they add a tip to all bar drinks and those are non negotiable. I was informed that she would be bringing whatever beverages they needed on board.  Finally, she is calmed down and looking forward to the cruise…until I receive “the call”.

At 11pm the first night, I receive an emergency call from the ship (likely sailing past my window at the time). She went to dinner and could not find the rest of the group. I called Carnival in Miami and the ship directly to verify that the seating arrangements did materialize. They had. I verified that she was included. She was. After speaking with the Maitre’d, I ask to be transferred to my client. I advise her to contact the Maitre’d and arrange to get at the correct table tomorrow. Then she advises that she does not want to dine early with the group and wants to dine later and that I need to find some other single parents to sit with her and her sons. I explained that since we had younger children, our group dining was at 6pm and she was welcome to join the group or dine on her own later. She hung up in a huff.

I heard nothing until she was off the ship. I received the call at 10am on Friday and learned that the entire thing was horrible. The ship was old. The line to embark was long. There were not enough seats for her to eat near the pool. The hallways were dingy. And then they zinger—there were too many black people on board. She felt unsafe and like a “prisoner” in her cabin and feared for her children in Carnival’s Club O2 for teens. Mind you, her children were 17 and 19. In all my years, I had never been confronted with a complaint such as this. I was stumped for a response.

I spoke with the others in the group and they did not indicate that there was anything out of the ordinary and racially they estimated it was 50% Caucasian, 30% Black, and the rest a mix mash of ethnicities. No one had any problems with safety and one mother even commented how safe she felt letting her 4 year old daughter have the run of the ship on sea days. I called Carnival who was mum; so I went another route and had a friend who was currently on the ship (the next sailing) talk with the Hotel Manager. The client never complained to anyone on board about dinner, safety, food, or anything. He could not confirm the ethnicities but said the percentages I had given from the other guests were about right. He also indicated that to his knowledge there were no incidents on board that were out of the ordinary.  I began to wonder is this client got on the wrong ship.

When I contacted her to discuss this, she kept telling me that she saved money for a long time to do this trip and did not expect to have it ruined and that I needed to “do the right thing”. When I asked if she had complained at all, she said she hadn’t because she did not want to cause a scene. When I asked her to detail her safety issues, she could only say that her son said there were a “lot of black kids” in the Club O2 and when she walked into the disco, she saw a “lot of blacks”. When I asked if there were any confrontations, she said no, but she felt uncomfortable and spent most of the time in the cabin. I was truly at a loss.

As I figured out my game plan, I realized what this was really all about. She promised her kids a trip that she likely could not afford. She booked the cheapest cabin and hoped for an upgrade and was hell bent on not tipping those that served her. She booked at the last minute and a credit card bill she couldn’t afford was likely waiting for her when she returned. So, what do you do? Try and get some of it back in any way you can.

I ultimately decided to be forward with her and told her that I was concerned that her claims were unfounded. I cited her tipping issues and the information I had received from the ship and the other guests. She was not happy with me and went on again about the safety and being on the ship with “so many blacks”. I finally asked her what color she expected people to be in Grand Turk, Half Moon Cay, and Freeport? She did not understand where I was coming from and I point blank told her that any issues she had were likely a result of her own fears and prejudices. If there were some operational issues with the cruise, she should have brought them up at the time, but I would be happy to follow up on those directly with Carnival. As to her decision to not dine with the group and her own prejudices, I explained that those were issues she needed to deal with on her own and as far as “doing the right thing”, I have.

She was not happy and ultimately hung up on me. And I immediately went into ClientBase and flagged her profile with a large “DNS” in the remarks.

Have you had any nightmare clients? How do you handle them? How would you have handled this? Please leave a comment.

John Frenaye is the owner of Single Parent Travel based in Annapolis. He has been in the industry for nearly 15 years having owned several brick and mortar agencies. John has written consumer travel columns for MSNBC, TravelMuse and other consumer websites. Additionally, he is the Editor for Travel Research Online.

  12 thoughts on “Do the right thing

  1. Carol says:

    Unfortunately we have had a few clients who have complained about everything looking for refunds and credits. One man threatened to bury me alive if l didnt give him his pre nights in Cad dollars even though the cruise was in Us Funds. One man booked a airfare only with us and booked his cruise directly afterwards. When he was told he would have to rush to Airport he wanted to cancel the flight. He also threated to drive his tractor trailor through the front window if we couldnt refund his flights.I have numerous clients who book early to secure space for weddings in the caribbean,when they view prices just weeks prior they call wanting price reductions. screaming we have ruined their wedding due to the last minute reductions they cant get due to booking a year ahead. They call us everything and have our agents in tears with all the slanderous remarks. Some people just dont think that we are the middle man and dont control everything.

  2. Ginny says:

    We use to have a great deal of exposure to these type of customers, which when we changed our business model, eliminated 99% of the issues. We now do business by referral only, upscale leisure and cater to a well traveled clientele. With the recent commission cuts (which is what they are) we will refer 3,4 and some 7 day cruises to other agencies – simply because the liability is not covered by the commission earned. We truly don’t deserve to be treated this way – so while I may loose that $37.00 per person cruise commission, I can spend more time developing those clients who appreciate our wisdom and advice!

  3. shirley says:

    You did more than enough, but should have done what I did at the end: simply removed my impossible client out of Client Base and planned to refer her to any other local agency should she ever call again. This person had multiple trivial complaints about a last-minute FIT booking to Europe and demanded our consulting fee be returned. When I checked her travel history, I realized that this was her M.O. because every time she had booked (simpler trips than the big FIT) she had said we booked wrong dates or flights, etc, demanding money back. Quoth the agency: “Nevermore!”

  4. JESS Kalinowsky says:

    There is an old saying in travel “Often the cheapest trip turns out to be the most expesnive” especially in the age of DIY on the internet. [A] if you did not sell her cancel for any reason insurance, you should have! [B] I would have cancelled the cruise. Refunded her money and simply said I am sorry we are not able to accommodate your wants, needs, desires or expectations. And politely as possbible asked her to never call again! Cut your losses and run from this sort of client! They simply are not worth the aggravation!
    You went way way way above the call of duty for her. Smart to never do business with her again!
    Cruiseships with thousands of people have a mixture, you take the good with the bad, or you charter your own yacht and pick and choose with whom you travel!

  5. Brad says:

    As a travel student and someone who is still working on opening their home based agency, I have been dealing with a travel agent. As a consumer I have made a few requests of the travel agent that I did not feel were unreasonable, seeing as this is my first cruise, and I simply made requests that shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes for the most part, with the exception of a change of booking. My agent complained about me making a request. I think in this business complaints go both ways, and while I still believe a majority of travel agents are competent people that want to focus on customer service, there are still many that aren’t. Having said that, I am well aware that there are many consumers who feel entitled when they book a cruise, and they really need a reality check. Personally, I think both sides of the equation can sometimes use a good hard kick in the pants. I am building a company on good customer service, and I will give that, within reason, to my clients. I was speaking with someone at Carnival the other day and even they thought that travel agent should not have been short with me as a consumer. While a travel agent should field realistic and honest complaints and requests, and a consumer should be realistic, I still feel the industry as a whole would benefit from fewer unfounded complaints on both sides.

  6. Jerry Tapp says:

    John,

    We spoke before about a fellow named “Bill A.”, and you had him pegged for sure.

    You have earned a gold star and service medal for your customer service with this total dingbat. Most of us live on repeat and referral clients earned by great customer service, and according to my boss/wife I provide customer service to a fault. You have me beat!! We all have “PITA” clients, but this one is the champion. Even I would have not done as much as you did trying to please a client who will never book with you again.

  7. Mary Ellen says:

    I was a tour escort to Kenya and Tanzania. Right at the airport, a member told me she forgot her visa’s, although she had her passport. She was hysterical and ran around phoning everybody she could think of. I called the wholesaler in NY and they said, “no problem.” that did not satisfy her. She continued to create a scene, drawing a lot of attention to herself. As the trip commenced, she continued to ‘act out’. by the time we were to head to Tanzania, she demanded all of her money back and screamed and made a terrible scene. The other members of the group wanted nothing to do with her.
    She was a typical splitter. She would get people to listen to her and then tell everyone that “they” agreed with her. She was manipulative and demanding and knew exactly what she was doing in order to get a refund. I don’t know what the wholesaler did, but she did leave the group and had to fly back to the US and pay the penalties. Our agency refused to deal with her and she directed her energies to the NY wholesaler. I later found out that she is a notorious “sue” person and had many outstanding nefarious lawsuits pending. She is blacklisted! I don’t think any agent is equipped to deal with these people because they really do have personality disorders, untreated.

  8. Lucy says:

    Clearly, this person was not “right for the product”, and at the point where she wanted to deline paying any tipping in advance of her cruise experience, she should have been “re-qualified”. When I have a client with complaints or expectations above reasonable, I simply begin to repeat back to them what they are saying to me. (i.e. you want me to refund $210 which you haven’t yet paid?) Often, when they hear their own words coming back at them, they calm down and sometimes become embarassed. One of the most common demands is a special seat aboard an aircraft, already occupied. I have had to tell people that it just isn’t possible to unseat someone for my client, and that usually stops the conversation. She should have been advised that tipping is customary/usual for this type of vacation, and she maybe should consider something different. There are brands which include tips in package price, and she should have received a quote for that too. If you give examples for unrelated industries, sometimes they can step back and see the bigger picture (i.e. if you buy a KIA, you wouldn’t expect it to be a Mercedes – you are in the KIA). Regarding her upgrade, I would have said there were hundreds of people who booked this cruise a year in advance, they are much more likely to get the upgrades since they had paid much earlier. I would have also let her know that there are clients aboard who have cruise 10+ times with the line.

    An industry veteran of 29 years, I rarely see these kinds of issues anymore. Many, many times I have moved clients to products/destinations they do NOT ask for in the beginning. When they resist me, I reduce myself to stating; “OK, but I am almost ALWAYS right. You’ve been warned.”

    Sounds like you are a very well organized travel agent, and very service oriented advocate. Now become a “tailor” and read a few pages from the “book of Nordstrom”.

  9. John Cooper says:

    Interesting comments, however, if this is such an unique situation for you, in 15 years of travel, then why bother to bring it up?
    Deal with matters that are of a repetitive nature and ignore these once in a million cases.

  10. janet says:

    I don’t deal with these types of clients anymore.
    After 30 years my clients are all referral.
    Remember this quote ” the bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten”.
    I was recently asked by someone why they should use me as a travel agent? I said because I have been planning travel longer than you have been living on this planet.
    DNR this client and any others who exhibit these characteristics. Not worth 1 minute of your time.

  11. In regard to John Cooper’s comments (above), the context of this web posting needs to be taken into account.

    In my experience the TRO (Travel Research Online) blog posts made by John Frenaye are intended to foster discussion. Also, many of the TRO entries appear to be intended as instructional for newer agents who are entering the field. Those are, in my opinion, the reasons the entry was made.

    Readers who found this 9/18/09 TRO article entry through the 9/23 ASTA SmartBrief may not be familiar with the TRO article series.

  12. Dennis says:

    unfortunatlyl this seems to be a weekly occurence in south beach from most people i know that also work at hotels. a mind set of complaints to get your money back or a portion. I have seen this and to be honest the black issue has come up and I have actually told the guest i am insulted that your using black as a reason to get a discount, and please do not come back to our hotel again. Mr Cooper, i think you are missing the point. or maybe raceism, or do you think by complaining you should also get a refund.

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