Frequently asked questions about Christopher Elliott
Who are you?
I’m a consumer advocate and journalist. Here’s more about me.
What’s this site?
Elliott is my personal website.
What do you do?
I advocate for customers who have an intractable problem with a business, a role sometimes also referred to as the reader advocate, problem-solver or ombudsman. Basically, I try to help when no one else will.
What kinds of cases do you consider getting involved in?
Any dispute between a consumer and a business.
Do you charge for your advocacy services?
No. The advocacy work I do on behalf of consumers is and always will be free. But if you ask for help, I may write about your case. Your full name will be published.
How, exactly, do you mediate a case?
When you contact me with a complaint, I will review it as soon as possible. If it’s something I believe I can help with, I will get in touch with the company on your behalf. Please note: By contacting me you are giving me permission to be your advocate. I may use your correspondence with the company as background material, share it with the company at my discretion, or publish it.
What do you say to a company when you act as an advocate?
Typically, I politely request a review of your case. If I have a question about the circumstances of your problem, I’ll also ask. Most of the correspondence between a company and myself on behalf of a customer is private, which means I’m unlikely to share it with a reader.
Do you publish guest posts?
How do you make a living?
This site is supported by individual and corporate underwriters. If you’re interested in joining them, here’s how. However, there is no obligation to become a supporter if I help you.
Do you mediate every dispute?
I wish I could. Some cases are not solvable. But I give every complaint serious consideration.
I’m about to send an email to a company, asking it to address a complaint. Would you review it for me?
Because of the volume of email I receive, I can’t offer personal advice on how to write a complaint letter.
I wrote to you weeks ago asking for help. Why haven’t you responded?
I try to acknowledge every email I receive, with one or two exceptions. If you sent a large attachment, it may have gone to my spam filter. Please send your message again without the attachment.
I did. Still nothing.
I generally can’t reply to emails with gratuitous profanity or written in ALL UPPERCASE. Try toning things down just a little, please.
I did, and you’re still not answering.
Did you address the email to me? Sometimes, readers copy me on emails, but don’t send them to me directly. I answer to Chris, Christopher, or even Elliott. Emails sent to “To Whom it May Concern” or simply “Hi” don’t always get a response, because I can’t be sure they’re meant for me. Also, sometimes I’m just overwhelmed with emails and can’t answer. Please don’t take it personally.
I tried to call you. I keep getting voice mail.
Please email me. I need a written record of your grievance in order to mediate a case.
I don’t need help, but I’ve sent you an email asking for advice. I haven’t heard anything yet. Are you ignoring me?
I get a fair number of requests to help plan a vacation or offer advice on buying one product versus another. I wish I had the time to answer those in detail. But I can’t.
I didn’t like one of your recent articles. I though you were unfair and I strongly disagree with what you wrote. I sent you a point-by-point rebuttal. Why haven’t you responded?
I’m sorry you didn’t like my story. I believe you have the right to say what you want about my posts, which is why I have a fairly permissive comments policy. I would suggest you leave your critique as a comment on my site.
Ahem, your comments policy isn’t that permissive. Your moderator team often deletes comments and has even banned a few users. So much for free speech!
I have a staff of volunteer moderators who ensure a level of civility is maintained in the comments. As for free speech, this is a personal website. I’m under no obligation to publish every comment.
What’s your comment policy?
I see you all over social media. Is that really you, or do you have a staff?
It’s all me. Every post, every comment and every tweet is mine. Also, I don’t game the system in any way — I don’t buy followers or try to rig my pages for better SEO. I believe important content will eventually rise to the top of the search results.
What does “OP” mean?
Original poster. In discussions, it refers to the person with the grievance.
Is the customer always right?
No. But the most common reason for turning down a case isn’t the rightness — or wrongness — of a customer, but insufficient documentation. Keep those receipts and contracts, folks. Get everything in writing.
I saw a story in the news about someone who could use your help. Why don’t you offer your services?
I only help if I’m asked by a victim. I have a pretty strict policy against injecting myself into a dispute, and especially one that has already generated some media attention. I’m not doing this to become famous, but to help people like you.
What kind of a consumer advocate are you, anyway?
I try to focus my efforts on customers who are genuinely wronged. I also help people help themselves by offering advice on how to navigate the system. That’s why I’m here.
Wait, I thought you were a travel blogger?
I’m not a travel blogger. This is not a travel blog, it’s a consumer advocacy site.
How can you be a journalist and an advocate at the same time?
Everyone has an agenda, and maybe I’m just a little more open about mine. I don’t claim to be a news reporter — you know, the kind that requires complete objectivity — but have always referred to myself as a journalist and an advocate. I’m hardly alone. The journalism world is filled with people who wear two hats, like that.
In other words, you know what the story will say before you do your research?
I make every effort to do my homework and decide what the story is after I’m done with my interviews. Drives my editors crazy. But I think you can be an advocate and also be fair to all sides.
Wait a second, aren’t you the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance? That’s a conflict of interest if I’ve ever seen one.
I’ve started a lot of things in my life, but few that I’m prouder of than the Consumer Travel Alliance. As a journalist and advocate, I’ve been criticizing the system from outside my entire career. In 2009, I helped create something that can work from the inside and to promote real change. I currently serve as CTA’s unpaid, volunteer ombudsman. That’s not a conflict with my day job; it’s a complement.
How did you get involved in this kind of work?
I didn’t choose consumer advocacy — it chose me. I started as a business reporter and began to mediate consumer disputes because no one else was willing to help.
This may sound idealistic, but I’m focused on making the world a better place, one case at a time.
I’m not a lobbyist. I have no political ambitions. I don’t even care if people recognize my name. (Actually, I rather prefer the anonymity of working behind the scenes.)
If you’re such a do-gooder, then where’s your Pulitzer?
I don’t submit my work for awards or fellowships. Helping consumers is enough reward for me.
Parenthetically, when’s the last time a consumer advocate won any kind of award? This isn’t the kind of journalism that wins anything — except the scorn of advertisers. I’m fine with that.
Come on. I’ve seen you on TV and I heard you even hosted a radio show.
It’s true, I hosted a cable TV show on travel for one season and I co-hosted a radio show. Both were major career mistakes, because they took me away from what I do best, which is — you guessed it — to help consumers.
But you’re no Mother Theresa. I understand you have a checkered past.
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t have a few scrapes with the authorities. Anyone who tries to advocate for consumers is going to get into a little trouble — whether it’s a subpoena from the Department of Homeland Security or a libel lawsuit. I’ve been there.
And when you trust your sources — and I almost always do — you’re going to get the story wrong a time or two. I’m actually proud of my combat record. I haven’t won every battle, and haven’t always been right, but I’m still here, fighting for what I believe.
You’ve done a lot of travel writing. Ever taken a free trip?
I used to work for a travel trade publication, and I spent years as a freelance travel writer. Do the math.
I’m a professional, and I find your level of knowledge of my industry appalling. Please stop writing about my business.
I’m the first to admit I’ll never have the deep insight into any industry that someone who works in it does. But your industry is not my subject; it’s customer service. That’s where I’m an expert.
If I happen to get something wrong about your industry, please let me know. I’m more than happy to fix it. But I’m not going to stop writing about it.
I belong to a popular site for frequent travelers, and most of us think you’re a hypocrite. We know more about the industry than you ever will. By offering people a shortcut to getting their problems resolved, you’re encouraging them to remain ignorant about the rules. Also, your implied threat of writing about an unresolved dispute amounts to nothing less than extortion. What do you have to say for yourself?
That’s an interesting perspective. First, as I’ve already mentioned, you may know more about your industry than I do. If journalists had to be experts on every subject before writing about them, there would be no media organizations.
Second, I write this site to inform consumers, not to make them ignorant. If you read only a few posts, you would see that. I struggle with reader problems every day, and there’s often a spirited debate in the comments about whether I should mediate a case. I frequently refuse to get involved in a complaint because, well, rules are rules.
Finally, regarding the bullying: Ouch! But I can see how it would look that way. I wish I could show you the emails between company representatives and myself, in which we work together to find the right resolution to a problem. And don’t forget, I only write about a fraction of the cases I mediate, so most companies know that when I contact them I’m just trying to help a customer.
But in the end, I doubt I’ll be able to convince you that I’m doing the right thing. You’ll just have to believe what you want to.
I’ve read your work. You spend almost as much time criticizing consumers as you do companies. Whose side are you really on?
Look, it gets messy out there in consumerland. I’m interested in a fair outcome of a dispute. I want people to get what they paid for. I’m not here to stick it to any business and I don’t have a hidden anti-corporate agenda.
Well, what is your agenda?
When every consumer reads their contract carefully, asks all the right questions, patronizes only ethical, customer-focused businesses and knows how to resolve any disagreements in a polite and productive way, I’ll fold up my laptop and ride off into the sunset. My work will be done. Until that time, I’m here to help.
You like to throw around the phrase: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” a lot. Please explain what you mean.
That’s an old journalism adage. I see myself as being a voice for the voiceless: comforting the afflicted, in other words. Many consumers have knowledge, attorneys and money at their disposal, and they don’t need me. I’m fine with that.
Sometimes, when you stand up for the little guy, you realize that the people who have everything — the “preferred” customers with the gold cards sitting in the first-class lounge, are part of the problem. If they’re offended by my sometimes populist rhetoric, then I feel as if I’m doing my job. That’s what “afflicting the comfortable” means to me.
I have a PR question. You’ve sent us an email asking about something we’d rather not talk about. What are my options?
I would answer the question honestly — but also, let me know about your misgivings. After all, I’m here to make things better, not worse.
Ignoring my inquiries, or claiming you never received them, usually backfires. So does saying that you decline to participate in a story.
Will you speak to my group or convention?
Yes, I do lots of public speaking. But I limit my topics to customer service and consumer advocacy issues.
Please don’t ask me to talk about travel writing, making money as a travel blogger, or travel and social media. I think I’ve said all that I’m going to say on those topics.
Do you attend trade shows or conferences?
Not if I can help it. I avoid crowds unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Do you belong to any trade organizations or associations?
Sorry, I don’t play well in groups. Nothing personal.
Do you do any product endorsements?
My email newsletter is supported by corporate underwriters, just like NPR or PBS. I do not sell links on this site. Underwriters support my consumer advocacy. I used an affiliate link to track the sales of my last book on Amazon. I’m a terrible shill (trust me, I’ve tried it). I feel compelled to tell the truth, always. I think I make a much better consumer advocate.
What about your other sites? Doesn’t having ads compromise what you do?
I’m involved with several other sites that either accept ads via Google AdSense or that have paid sponsors. But there’s a wall between the business operations of those projects and the editorial decisions that get made on this site, just as there is at any large news organization between advertising and the news department.
There are a lot of other consumer advocates out there. What makes you different from the others?
I love the other consumer advocates. Most of them do great work. The world needs more people like them.
I became an advocate to help you — that’s my only cause.
My services are completely free. I read and answer every email I get personally. I work every case myself. And I don’t just write about the problems I successfully resolve. Instead, I openly discuss my failures, too. (Often, you can learn more when you strike out. Trust me on that.)
Another thing that makes my advocacy practice different is my emphasis on fairness and self-sufficiency. I try to let all sides speak before making up my mind about a case. Wherever possible, I also help consumers help themselves. Indeed, in a vast majority of cases, I quietly remain in the background, advising consumers on how to resolve a conflict.
Put differently, consumer advocacy is not my career — it’s my calling. Just knowing I could help is enough recognition for me.
Do you have any weaknesses?
Sure! I have a thing for tabloid headlines and online polls that ridiculously oversimply an issue. My stories aren’t always fair (even though I try to be) and I sometimes lose my objectivity.
Also, in order to make ends meet and support my family, I sometimes do freelance work for businesses. I’ve written speeches, press releases and made appearances on behalf of corporations in the past. These relationships are always disclosed. But as someone with a traditional journalism background, I wish they were not economically necessary. It would make my life so much less complicated.
I’m a professional photographer, and you’ve used my images on your site without permission. What gives?
All images on my site are derived from Flickr under the Creative Commons license. I also have an agreement to use images from Shutterstock. If you believe I’ve used one of your images without permission, please contact me directly.
I’m just about done reading your smug answers. You wrote a blog post that has cost me business, and I’m going to sue you. I’ll see you in court.
Why, thank you. I used to have an editor who said if you aren’t being threatened with a lawsuit, you’re not doing your job.
Before you file your complaint, why don’t you let me put you in touch with a long list of others who have either threatened to sue me or have done so? If, after that, you still feel like wasting your money on an expensive lawyer, be my guest. I’ll even write a blog post about it.