The Culture of Complaint | TravelResearchOnline


The Culture of Complaint

There may be no more difficult decision for a business than how to handle an unhappy client. When the situation has a clear cause and effect, e.g. you forget to make a booking and the price increases, the solution is equally clear: you messed up and now must make amends. However painful, there are times when we must take responsibility for our mistakes and go above and beyond mere apologies.

Then there are those other times, when the customer is not right and we have to decide our response to a circumstance, sometimes under force of threat.

Unfortunately, we have engineered a culture of complaint. Any inconvenience, unexpected circumstance or unforeseen event becomes grounds for not merely a complaint but the threat of ruination. No matter how unfounded the complaint, businesses quail at the thought of tweet and re-tweet as a situation goes viral and shoots into the blogosphere to expose the situation to hundreds, thousands, millions of clients and potential clients. 

Agents in the TRO Community recently heard the story of a client who booked a trip via a channel that did not permit frequent flier points to accumulate due to the terrific discount off published fare. The rules are clearly stated in the airline’s Terms and Conditions. (Editor’s note – certain elements of this story are being altered in this public telling.  For the real story, log into TRO’s Community). When the client discovered frequent flier points were not a part of her booking, she pulled out the “big guns” turning to Twitter and taking her complaint to the 16,000 followers of the airline. Almost immediately, the airline relented and provided the client with the points and the discount.

Many of the travel agents commenting on the story pointed out that the frequent flier points relinquished by the airline cost almost nothing and the airline thereby easily solved a public relations problem and made a customer happy.  Others saw the airline’s capitulation as a perversion of customer service, essentially training the client, and 16,000 others to complain, loudly, to get their way, even when unjustified in their complaint.

I’m with the latter group.  The airline made a mistake in their rush to make a client happy.  Their actions devalued the good behavior of every other client who had previously booked with them whether paying full price or obtaining the discount. Those who paid full price paid too much and could complain, legitimately, that they should have been made aware of the discount and the availability of the points.  Those who followed the rule when booking the discount can now legitimately request their points since the airline has demonstrated their willingness to provide points regardless of the booking channel. 

Legitimate complaints need to be taken up and recourse to a public airing left for the most obstinate of businesses.  We all know that United Breaks Guitars, and few better examples of justifiably taking a company to task exist.

But the client is not always right.

There are rules that preserve our integrity, rules governing our pricing models and our overall client relations. Without them, we stand for nothing. Those rules provide not just a fundamental promise of fairness but are also an inherent guarantee of the value of our brand.  Yet, out of fear of the perceived libelous power of social media, too many companies feel compelled to capitulate to every ill-informed consumer complaint. Why is it not enough to consider fully the complaint from the client perspective, to determine if in some manner the particular circumstance has resulted in an unfairness? Why reward behavior that is fundamentally unfair to all others who follow the rules?

It is important to train your clients. However, train them to be good clients, not complainers. A sure way to make yourself miserable is to surround yourself with people miserable enough to resort to extortion to obtain some slight edge in their business dealings.

No doubt you will encounter these clients in your own practice. They will make unreasonable demands, use unkind language and threaten your business prospects because it rained while they were on their vacation. They will promise to undermine you with “everyone they know“. 

Don’t train your clients poorly. Here’s what you do.  Tell them you are sorry they are unhappy, and that your policy is to do whatever possible to accommodate the client. In some circumstances, however, fundamental fairness has to prevail and, in this instance, there is nothing you can do for them.

Take comfort. Chronic complainers are a type we all have seen before.  They are pretty easy to spot and understand.  And – remember this – “everyone they know” knows them as well. People of good will usually possess a pretty good radar for complainers.  They will know where to file the complaint.  So should you.

  One thought on “The Culture of Complaint

  1. Ray Harbaugh says:

    Thank you for this article on handling complaints. “Legitimate complaints need to be taken up and recourse to a public airing left for the most obstinate of businesses.” I agree, and you can read below my recent experience using travel coupons.


    My wife and I recently attempted to use some travel discount coupons for a hotel in Ridgeland, MS, near Jackson. I really didn’t appreciate the comment from the desk attendant that “we can’t use the coupon anyway, it is a printout”, so I sent a complaint to their corporate office via their online form and posted it to my travel site.

    Please note, I never mentioned the hotel/motel name on my site, and guess what, they have not yet responded. I’m a bit disappointed, as I believe the my experience could be happening in their other locations as well.

    I never asked for anything from the hotel/motel in my complaint.

    I hope to use my experience as a way to inform coupon users that they might have a challenge or two when trying to use discount travel coupons, one being you are ‘cheap’ or using ‘fake coupons’.

    I’m also trying to alert this very large lodging chain of the fact that they are offering travel discount coupons from several online sources, and those coupons need to be printed out. In fact they specifically encourage you to print them out and use them at the hotel/motel, but their employees might not be aware of it.

    I also posted what happened, with what I wrote to the company, on our web site:

    Free Trip Planner

    I would appreciate any observations or comments as to my complaint letter or thoughts on using travel discount coupons.

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