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.