Good Advice Health and Safety abroad

How to cope with... Bad customer service

Sister publication Business Traveller suggests solutions to common travel problems. This month: Liat Clark investigates bad customer service.

Whether on board or at hotel check-in, we are all occasionally confronted by unhelpful staff. It’s a frustrating experience but if you know your rights, and express yourself in the correct way, it’s possible to rescue the situation.

Keep calm

Don’t let frustration get the better of you – getting angry wastes time and won’t get you very far. According to University of Cambridge social psychologist Kevin Dutton, people are more willing to help others when they feel liked, so approach an airline or hotel employee with a good attitude, even if they don’t seem to have one.

“Rude, arrogant people are two a penny in a customer service agent’s day,” Dutton says. Kaye Dengel, senior vice-president at Marriott’s sales and customer care offices, adds: “Try not to make it personal. When a customer attacks the person that’s trying to help them, it makes it difficult to resolve the issue.”

Follow the same ethos when making a complaint. “We need to understand the experience coherently, and your preference for resolution,” Dengel says. “The customer may go on about how they’re disappointed but it’s not always clear enough for us to understand what happened because there’s so much emotion behind it.”

Get connected

Many hotels, airlines, car rental companies and airports now offer real-time customer support 24/7 thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, so start posting comments and tweeting and you might be surprised at the power it has. “We saw lots of opportunities where we could turn experiences around [through Twitter],” a spokesperson for Delta says. For example, after receiving a tweet complaining about delays and a lack of information, the airline contacted the airport and an announcement was made.

Loyalty counts

Don’t be shy about flashing your gold card. “While we treat every customer’s concern on an individual basis, their loyalty is certainly taken into consideration,” Marriott’s Dengel says. Chris Hemsley, director of consumers and markets at the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), says: “There are some brands that make a big thing about looking after their passengers. Frequent flyers and business or first class customers with an airline that prides itself on customer service tend to get looked after.” Make your status clear but don’t be obnoxious about it – a bit of humility can help your cause.

Don’t wait to complain

If you have experienced particularly poor service, there’s little point stewing over it for days and then pouring your frustration into a rambling email at home. “As soon as you have a concern, address it,” Dengel says. “That way, the more options there are to find a solution.” Hemsley also recommends dealing with issues on the ground if something goes amiss at an airport. “Speak to your airline as soon as possible – at check-in, the gate or on the phone. They may be able to solve your problem straight away.”

Stick to the facts

If you’re writing an email or letter of complaint, Hemsley advises: “Provide your personal details and references. Be clear and factual – say if you tried to get in touch with the airline, spell out the information you want back and give reasons why you were acting reasonably and the airport wasn’t.” When the incident occurs, record everything from when and with whom you spoke, to their response or lack thereof.

Being aware of the law can also help – if a company or employee is not fulfilling their end of the bargain, you’re in a better position to complain if you know your rights. See the CAA’s “Consumer Protection” section on to brush up on European Regulation 261/2004, which stipulates what help EU carriers must provide in the event of delays, cancellations or being denied boarding.

Know when to drop it

Reputable companies that prize themselves on good customer service will go further to please you than those that don’t. But if your complaint simply comes down to feeling mistreated, there’s little point wasting energy after exhausting all avenues. Hemsley says: “There’s not a law that stops people being rude. Some airlines value their brand so they may want to do something about it. If it does no good, fly with their competitors.” If this is not an option, sometimes the best thing you can do is put it behind you and remain Zen.

Get what you want

Social psychologist Kevin Dutton gives tips on persuasion

  1. An employee is more likely to help someone they like so be nice, even crack a joke – make the unconscious connection in the customer service agent’s mind between dealing with you and feeling good.
  2. Help them, help you. Have the facts at your fingertips, convey them concisely and be clear in your own mind why you’re not satisfied. Ask questions – it saves you jumping to the wrong conclusion and builds rapport. Be polite but don’t be afraid to convey your disappointment. Be clear about how you want the problem resolved.
  3. Be patient and willing to compromise. An upgrade may be on the cards, but a trip in the chairman’s private jet? Forget it. Make sure you’re speaking to the right person and know the limits of what the agents can do for you.
  • Kevin Dutton’s Flipnosis: The Art Of Split Second Persuasion is published by Arrow, priced £8.99