Every travel agent has his or her own collection of good “water cooler” stories to tell. We have all dealt with our share of picky clients, cheap clients, and those who just don’t know what they want. However, once in a while, we find ourselves in situations where the client’s expectations are simply unrealistic.
Regardless of the specifics of a given situation, we as agents are stuck deciding how best to handle it. I don’t think there are necessarily any “right” or “wrong” answers, but the dilemma always tends to revolve around the same few issues:
- You want to keep the client happy, but you can’t let one client’s situation jeopardize your or your agency’s relationship with the vendor.
- Sometimes you know that the client is asking too much, but they will accept nothing less. Educating the client and trying to reach a compromise may not always be an option.
- When you did nothing wrong, but the client has some reason to gripe, they often think the situation is either your fault or that it is up to you to resolve, even if the issue isn’t with your agency.
- Above all, you have a brand to uphold and a business to protect no matter what.
One of the best examples of a client with unrealistic expectations is something that happened to me not long ago:
I started my agency with an initial focus on adoption travel, through which we set out to serve the unique needs of adoptive parents traveling to receive their new children. With this in mind, we were used to dealing with jittery, emotional clients, many of whom had never traveled internationally.
One day a lady whom I know peripherally in adoptive parent circles called me. She needed tickets to India, but was all over the place, throwing out ideas and trying to cram far too much activity into a short trip that involved picking up a new infant. After weeks of feeling like I was being forced to give her consultative advice via email, she told me that they had received the approval to travel and were ready to book. Knowing that she was price-conscious and specific about the flight routing, I took that into account when compiling her a quote. In the quote, I specified in bold, red type that the tickets are non-refundable, and spelled out the penalty for any changes. The client chose to ticket that same day.
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The next morning, the client called back, saying she was just notified that those travel dates won’t work due to an unexpected delay in their adoption process. I told her that the tickets were non-refundable, but since the tickets had been issued less than 24 hours prior, I would see if there was anything that could be done. I made sure not to promise anything. I immediately called my contact at the consolidator’s office and explained the situation. The consolidator agent was someone I work with frequently, and she felt so bad for the client’s predicament that she offered to call the airline’s sales office on my behalf. She asked if the representative could allow the clients to pay a penalty to cancel the tickets, in light of the situation. Amazingly, the airline representative’s answer was “yes!” He allowed the consolidator agent to cancel the tickets at a penalty of $300.00 per ticket (for a total penalty of $900.00), and the remainder of the fare was refunded to the client’s credit card. I was relieved that things appeared to be working out, and that I didn’t have to tell the client she was going to lose the entire cost of the tickets. When I explained everything, she seemed happy, thanked me, and said she would let me know when the transactions came through on her credit card statement. End of story? So I thought.
Two weeks later, I received an email from the client. Her family was urging her to ask the airline to remove the penalty charges for cancelling their tickets, and she wanted to know exactly who had kept the $900.00 in penalty money. I responded cordially, explaining that the airline had generously allowed her to pay a penalty to cancel the tickets, when in fact, they were non-refundable. Since she mistakenly thought our consolidator was holding on to the $900.00 as a fee, I explained that the penalty charge was paid to the airline because it was their charge, not the consolidator’s. I went on to tell her that if she was intent on getting the penalty refunded, she would have to speak to the airline directly, and that there was nothing further I could do to assist her. I thought I had finally put the issue to rest because I didn’t hear anything back after I emailed her that essay. As a precaution, I called my E&O insurance provider, and they asked me to file an incident report in case the situation were to result in a claim.
A month later, I got a call from my contact at the consolidator’s office. Two people from their accounting office had approached her, asking if she knew anything about a $900.00 airline charge. When she said “yes,” they said “She’s on the phone.” The agent’s immediate reaction was “Who, Adrienne?” As she leaned toward the phone, they stopped her, saying “No, it’s the passenger. That lady has been calling all over here yelling at everyone because she wants her $900.00 back.” Apparently the client had found a phone number to the consolidator’s office in the fine print of the ticketing confirmation. The agent collected her thoughts and proceeded to take my client’s call. She admitted to me that she was not nice to the client because she wanted her to understand that we all tried to do her a favor by voiding those tickets, and that if we hadn’t done so, she would have lost $4,300.00, instead of only $900.00. I told the agent that not only was I fine with what she had told the client, but I was glad she did because I was tired of dealing with it.
Later that day, the client emailed me again, saying that she had spoken to the consolidator. (Of course, she did not know the consolidator had already told me about the whole episode.) She was still trying to figure out what happened to the $900.00, and complained that she was having trouble getting through to anyone at the airline. I had no choice but to reiterate the exact same thing I had told her previously, emphasizing that my agency and I could do nothing more to assist. Trying to make her go away for good, I scoured the airline’s Web site for the phone number to every department that might be willing to listen, and hit “send”.
I then typed out a detailed explanation of all the events that had occurred from my vantage point, including all my interactions with the client and consolidator, and sent it to the consolidator agent. I asked her to review the information, send me back any other information she thought should be included, and keep everything on file in case the client were to cause trouble later on. My E&O provider also received a copy of this.
Sensing my trepidation, representatives at the consolidator’s office called the client’s credit card company and were told that the client had never called them about any of the airline charges, contrary to the story the consolidator and I had both heard from the client. They called the airline and forwarded a copy of my written account to the sales representative, in an effort to make sure that everyone was on the same page about this client’s debacle. The consolidator agent gave me a courtesy call back to relay this information, and told me not to worry. Their office felt reasonably assured that the client wouldn’t initiate a charge-back. She went on to say that she is supposed to demerit my agency in the unlikely event of a charge-back, but that she wouldn’t do it because she knows what really happened. I thanked her wholeheartedly, feeling relieved and lucky that I had such an understanding and competent agent in my corner.
The client actually called back a few weeks later, asking for a quote on completely revised travel plans for her trip to India! On top of that, the last line of her email read “We are also going to price some other agents because we didn’t realize the pricing you get depends on the consolidator you use.”
Mad as could be, I wrote back “I am not interested in competing for business which I have already worked very hard to earn. Best wishes for your future travels.” In my mind, that is as blunt and final as it gets. But apparently the client didn’t think so, because she wrote back four more times begging me to help her. The best part about it was that at one point, she actually apologized for the mess she created with the consolidator. No matter what she said, my answer was stil a politel “no.” Finally she wrote “Thanks, Adrienne” and that was the last I heard from her.
Some clients you cannot afford to keep.
Adrienne Mitra is the owner of Celebrations International Travel, Inc., an independent agency focused on serving a number of niche markets, including culinary travel, cruises, tours, and group travel.