I have long extolled the benefits of customer databases, which help travelers and travel providers build mutually beneficial relationships. By tracking their best customers' preferences and purchases, providers can reward them with upgrades, special pricing, personalized service and other perks that make travel more pleasant.
But there is a little-known downside to the system: A disgruntled employee can wreak havoc on your record -- and your reputation -- and you usually won't know a thing about it.
It happened to me last month.
I was in Budapest, Hungary, trying to change my return flight when I crossed paths with a very disagreeable airline representative. She called herself Ms. Jones. I assume she made this name up. She certainly made up most of the things she wrote about me in my airline file. These customer files are meant to be kept secret from the customer, but I was inadvertently shown her comments. Ms. Jones called me rude, demanding and several other things that I am not going to repeat, and presented a self-serving version of our unpleasant interaction.
Here's what actually happened.
I called the reservations center from my international cell phone, which charges me $1.29 per minute. After waiting five minutes for Ms. Jones to answer my call, I politely informed her (yes, I was polite) that I was in Budapest using my cell phone at a rate of $1.29 per minute, and if she could expedite my call by changing my next flight, I would appreciate it.
You'd think I'd demanded her firstborn child.
She told me, tartly, that she didn't know how she could help me because she didn't have my flight information. This, despite that fact that she had addressed me by name when she answered the phone. I've been around this airline long enough to know that when an agent has your name on the screen, they also have all your pending reservations in chronological order right there in front of them. When I repeated that I needed to change my reservation, she again denied having any information, and declared, angrily this time, "I don't know what you want!"
When I finally made my wishes clear, she told me the flight I wanted was sold out.
"How can that be?" I asked. "The Web site shows 26 seats available in coach and 21 seats available in first/business class."
"Sorry, the flight is sold out," she said.
When I asked if she could check again, she put me on hold. She would return periodically, only to say, "Please continue holding."
Which I did -- for 40 minutes. (Let's see, that's $51.60 plus tax.) Finally, I hung up and called my assistant in the states (something I should have done in the first place) and asked her to change the reservation for me. Result? Five minutes later I was booked on the "sold-out" flight. By that time, presumably, Ms. Jones had already entered her invective into my file.
There are a number of lessons to learn here. For one thing, if you are overseas on a by-the-minute phone plan, don't waste your money on an expensive call if other means of communication are available.
But the most important lesson is that employees in dicey situations will attempt to cover their backsides. They will annotate your record with a version of events that is favorable to them. It's their way of protecting their jobs should the customer later complain.
If you find yourself in a situation like this, there are a few things you can do to protect your good reputation.
- If a call or interaction is not going well, bail out as soon as you can.
- Don't waste your time with someone who doesn't want to help you.
- Don't argue with an unresponsive representative.
- After you disengage from the difficult employee, call back immediately, ask for a supervisor and explain the incident.
- When speaking with the supervisor, never blame the employee, even if he is at fault -- it will only make you look bad. Just state the facts and explain what you need.
- Stress that you want to build a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship with the company.
- Ask whether the difficult employee annotated your file; if so, request that any inappropriate remarks be deleted or amended with your version of events.
- If you feel the incident was inexcusable, call the executive offices of the company and explain your position, again stressing your desire for a long-term relationship with the company.
Don't get branded as a black sheep by a renegade employee. Understand the difficulties all travel employees face, sympathize with stressful circumstances, work hard to build a mutually beneficial relationship with companies you like. But never accept less than stellar service from insolent travel employees. After all, they work in a service industry.