You call this consumer advocacy?

Is it about you -- or them? / Photo by Give away boy - Flickr
Do you ever strike out?” readers of my syndicated newspaper column often ask me. They see my Q&A feature in their travel section, and every week the good guys win.

To which I reply: “All the time.” Just read my site.

Case-in-point is the email I received from Susan Mintz a few days ago. She’d been trying to secure a refund from Continental Airlines after being rushed to the hospital with a cardiac condition before her scheduled flight.

“I need advice please,” she wrote. “I’ve sent all my documentation to Continental and received a request ID on Feb. 15. Its refund policy states 20 business days. We’re way, way past this. I have sent five letters and three faxes. Nothing!”

I get hundreds of emails like this in a week, and I usually try to get to a resolution by asking and short series of questions.

Me: I’m sorry to hear about this. Could you send me some of the correspondence? I’d like to review it.

Mintz: Attached is the original letter.

Me: (After reading the email). Did they agree to a refund? Normally they only issue a ticket credit for these situations.

Mintz: I have only received a “request number” and nothing else since February.

Me: You might want to get United to clarify. Have you tried calling?

Mintz: Are you serious! Of course, I tried calling. Have you read the refund policy? There is no need for clarity. It is very simple. I am entitled to refund.

A ticket credit is acceptable as well. Anything. But my request is being ignored.

I contacted you because your web site states to do such when reaching a dead end. I sent you a copy of my letter asking for advice and you ask if I called them. This is advocacy for travelers?

Ouch.

I tried to explain that Continental (now United) would probably only issue a ticket credit, but that a refund would be unlikely – and yes, I am trying to help.

I haven’t heard back from her.

Something tells me I’m not going to make her holiday card list this year.

My exchange with Mintz is a useful exercise, and it comes at an interesting time.

Earlier this week, I learned that a well-known investigative reporter is working on a story about the “best” consumer advocate in travel. Several commenters who belong to a certain newspaper’s reader panel forwarded the email questionnaire.

My first thought was that ranking consumer advocates makes about as much sense as rating your priest or rabbi.

How can you assign a value to someone who is there to help?

And my second thought was, who cares? I haven’t been a pure-play travel advocate since 2010, although I did help start a nonprofit called the Consumer Travel Alliance, which advocates for travelers (I currently serve as its volunteer ombudsman).

Some of my readers suggested that the results of the survey are a foregone conclusion. They say the writer has a special relationship with one popular advocate for air travelers, and wants to give her a boost by discrediting the competition.

Nonsense, I said. I know this guy’s work – he’s always seemed honest. Besides, if he really cares about helping consumers, he’d understand that having more people advocating for travelers is better than fewer. Or just one.

But the Mintz letter and the leading questionnaire made me wonder: What makes a good consumer advocate?

Mintz probably thinks I’m a fraud.

I think she wanted me to contact United on her behalf immediately and demand a quick payment, even if technically she wasn’t entitled to one. I’d like to be able to do that, but I can’t. My United contact will call me and ask if I’m familiar with the airline’s refund rules.

I’ll say “yes.” And then he’ll say he can’t help Mintz.

Should United help her? Absolutely. The passenger was in the hospital. How about a little compassion? But I’m pretty sure I know what United’s final answer will be.

My job isn’t to get customers what they want every time. It’s to get them what they paid for — and indeed, what they deserve.

If Mintz notified United of her hospitalization before her travel date, she’s entitled to a ticket credit. I can help her with that.

If she waited until after her flight, it would be up to the airline to decide what to do, but actually, it’s allowed to keep her money. Those are the rules.

I suspect she waited until after her flight to tell Continental of her condition.

Who’s the real advocate?

Here’s the thing: There’s no bar or certification agency for consumer advocates. Anyone can call themselves one, and a lot of people do.

So what separates a real advocate from a poser?

I think it all comes down to motives. If you’re in it to help consumers, then everything you do will reflect that desire.

You’ll respond immediately when someone asks for help. You’ll work tirelessly at educating buyers. You’ll push for them to get what they paid for. And you’ll have the integrity to tell them when a company is right, and they are asking for too much, which can happen from time to time.

Above all, it’ll always be about the customer – not the advocate.

Posers use consumer advocacy to build their personal brands. Right and wrong don’t really matter as much as the next travel scandal that will score them a soundbite on CNN, helping increase their visibility.

For them, victims of incompetent travel companies are nothing more than props that can be leveraged to raise their profile, so you’ll find these fakes pushing for folks who don’t deserve any advocacy. Like thieves.

For posers, it’s always about them, not you.

That kind of behavior may be a big turn-off to consumers who truly need help, but I think even posers have a place. They may not be able to do much for you, but they often shine a light on some of the more unsavory practices in the travel industry.

(It could be worse: The clueless producers booking them could ask company representatives to offer their spin on the evening news. How enlightening would that be?)

Losing “Miss Consumer Advocacy” 2012

I re-read the reporter’s questions and considered who he’s sending them to. They’re mostly business travelers. You know, the kind on folks you’d encounter on a certain online forum for frequent travelers that I’m fond of criticizing and that shall remain nameless in this post.

And yeah, a lot of these people hate me because I’ve referred to them as entitled elites, criminals, and crybabies in numerous online commentaries. Because some of them are.

Soliciting nominations for “Miss Consumer Advocacy 2012″ is like like asking the College of Cardinals to vote on the one true religion.

My frequent-flying friends will happily denounce me as a heretic. They’ll say I’m in the latter category, that I’m nothing more than a media-savvy poser.

Thanks, guys. I love you, too.

It doesn’t take much to close the loop. Any cub reporter can Google me and find enough dirt for a juicy hit piece. He can track down more unhappy travelers like Mintz, of which I can assure you, there are more than plenty.

If that doesn’t turn up enough, just read my book. Maybe throw in a conflict of interest accusation or two while you’re at it.

Bring it.

When the dust settles from this silly popularity contest, it will be my email exchange with Mintz that troubles me the most.

I think I could have helped her. I’m sorry she wouldn’t let me.

Update (May 7): The story is out. Can’t bring myself to link to it. Just not gonna go there …

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    Unbelievable !!!  Are you suppose to starve? I wish I could do the same thing when I am in a grocery store or at Costco.

    Can anyone here explain how these people think? What gives them the right to think they are Charity cases?

  • bodega3

    We have encountered this with our family business too.  We actually have a doctor that hasn’t paid because he didn’t think what we did was worth what we charged which is less than what he charges for an office visit.  Get real!

  • Bruce Burger

    Chris, you do a few great things that most consumer advocates don’t: 1) You try to suggest what the customer could have done to avoid the problem in the first place. 2) You try to suggest how the customer could have solved the problem without your intervention. 3) You ask your most dedicated readers to help you decide which cases to work on. I hope you keep doing what you’re doing.

  • TonyA_says

    With all due respect, I have shopped around a bunch of forums where I could have fun and maybe feel I can contribute something. This is the best. I know of no other consumer travel advocacy site that bats for shortchanged travelers. Don’t stop. Keep on Truckin’, Chris.

  • TonyA_says

    My sister is married to a doctor. She is a businesswoman and told me that lawyers and doctors are her worst deadbeats.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/2NZAJ6KPWUWJV23TTE3TNBMJZI Trudi

    I firmly believe that I am my own best advocate. Going into a situation calm and well informed is the best tool for any advocacy situation. However, sometimes it just isn’t enough. A little advice, a little ‘there, there, it’ll be okay,’ a little support from someone who understands the ins and outs of the travel industy is so helpful! When I was cheated by a home renter, having you there to at least listen to my story and offer me support made me feel so much better. I’m still poorer, but I learned an expensive lesson, and you get my vote for consumer advocate of the year!

  • y_p_w

    What about the TSA?

    Still – I know of people who complain that if they had a product that failed catastrophically from a certain manufacturer, that they would never purchse from said company ever again.  Of course sometimes the industry only has three or four players, and eventually they’re going to get burned and have no product to buy if one failure is enough to mean never buying from the manufacturer ever again.

  • Daves

    Like everyone else here, Chris, I think you’re doing a fine job anyway. I just thought of a few things.

    I don’t recall how you worded things like this on certain sections of your site in previous versions:

    “If you’re having trouble with a business – any business – and you’ve reached a dead end, maybe I can help. Send me an email and I’ll look into it for you.”

    On the surface that looks fine. Not saying you’re doing anything wrong, but the phrase “I’ll look into it for you” might be a possible culprit.

    Just imagining as if I’m the most (heh) entitled consumer around, I will honestly get the impression you can indeed do something for me. Worse, I might even think (rightly or wrongly) you can even solve that problem for me.

    I know that’s crazy, and it’s sometimes amazing what certain words used in certain contexts can do. I can also understand if you’re trying to keep things simple, less is more, stuff like that.

    Personally, I’d “test” that by rewording it to something like “Send me an email and let’s see what can be done”. Heck, I’d add it with “no promises, but…”.

    Off-topic a bit, do you use some kind of “heat map” to see what portions of your site gets clicked on the most? There are free and paid services doing that, and I can recommend you a few (no strings attached) if you’re interested. (if you’re using one already, disregard…)

    Anywho, keep up your passion, Chris. We love ya. :)

    Dave_Z (formerly DavidZ who foolishly deleted his profile when trying to merge stuff, arrrgh…)

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Hey Chris:

    I just saw your blog listed as one of the top 24 Best Travel Blogs and Websites by Fathom. Kudos!

  • LZ126

    I work for an agency that enforces consumer rights, and I get lots of calls from people who think they’re entitled to a particular outcome, rules and regulations notwithstanding.  An advocate can press your case for you, and explain the situation for you, but can’t guarantee the outcome you’re expecting.  What she really wants is a miracle worker. 

    Thanks for all the work you do, Chris!

  • TonyA_says

    I like your post. I’m not sure how many impartial facilitators there are for the travel industry. Personally, I only know of one – Chris Elliott.

    In this industry where the supply chain is getting more and more disintermediated, customers have lost their typical advocates – the travel agent(s). So when trouble occurs from a D-I-Yed  purchase, who are they gonna call? Who else but Elliott?

    Even travel agents nowadays are becoming more and more frustrated with their travel suppliers and are finding it harder to advocate for their customers. Case in point, the recent United-Continental merger. If you are put on hold for several hours just to get a change done or to get a waiver code, then how successful can you advocate for your customer? You feel like you are just standing in line for someone in front of an Apple store waiting for the iPad 4 to come out.

    Sometimes I wonder how much [enhanced] travel protection there really is. If one reads the articles in this site, it appears that airlines, hotels, cruise lines, can rental companies can do whatever they pretty much want to do and get away with it. It certainly behooves consumers to support and defend endangered sites like this one.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I like that idea. I’ve changed the text based on your suggestion.

  • Daves

    You’re welcome, Chris. Should be interesting to see if the wording makes a difference after. :)

  • Chasmosaur

    It’s basically severe cases of entitlement.  They want something nice, but feel it should be given to them.  Because they are, obviously, awesome.

    My favorite clients are the ones who ask why I don’t send them bills until I’m done with the project – they know I need paying.  *sniff* I love those types of clients.

  • Chasmosaur

    Did she ask you if you wanted $300 worth of biofeedback services?  I love when they offer barter, thinking their services are EXACTLY what you need in your life.  (As opposed to the antique jeweler I frequent – I would happily barter for her site ;) )

    My favorite attempt at barter has been aromatherapy candles.  What I would do with several thousand dollars worth of candles that smelled strong enough to set off my allergies, I have no idea.

    Oh, and any time someone tells me they aren’t in their business to make money? I say “Well, I am.” With my favorite Evil B****h Stare of Death. That usually ends the conversation ;)

  • Chasmosaur

    I’m actually still trying to figure out what a “hobby rate” is. 

    I do have a reduced non-profit rate for certified agencies.  But the last time I checked, if you take money for services or goods, you’re a business.  You may be operating it at a loss, but that’s not the same as a non-profit agency.  And you still have to pay me. 

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Thanks again for all of your comments. After a lot of thought, I’ve revived my FAQ section to address some of the issues raised by this post: http://www.elliott.org/frequently-asked-questions/