A few secrets about asking you probably don’t know

Dan KosmairShutterstock
Dan KosmairShutterstock
Although Vivian Olds’ customer-service problem is pretty common, the solution isn’t.

This spring, she made a reservation at an independent motel in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. If you’ve ever been to this part of California, you probably know that it’s beautiful, but that the quality of accommodations can be variable.

Olds reserved a room at a hotel that was on the not-so-good side of that variable. She prepaid $148 for a motel that, once she tried to check in, she discovered was “totally unsuitable.”

“It was dirty,” says Olds, a teacher from Wadsworth, Nev. “The lobby was a mess. Stale pastries were on a dirty counter. None of the amenities were available.”

Parenthetically, there’s no excuse for running that kind of hotel. None at all. Olds quickly concluded she couldn’t stay at the property with the two other members of her party, so she told an employee working at the front desk she would take her business elsewhere. And the employee, a man name Ralph, assured her she’d get her $148 deposit back.

A month later, Olds contacted me through my consumer advocacy website. Seems her refund was missing in action. Could I help her retrieve it?

Did you ask?

My immediate response: Did you get that promise in writing?

Turns out she only had Ralph’s verbal assurances, made as she was hastily leaving the hotel, to go on. That meant something to her and to me, but unless she had a written promise, it would be meaningless to the hotel and to her credit card — and that mattered. (A written promise of a refund can be interpreted as a credit memo by your bank, and may be useful in the event of a credit card billing dispute.)

“I would strongly recommend that you start a paper trail,” I told her. “Resolving this will be much easier if you have a written record.”

By the way, none of this should be necessary. If a business promises you a refund, you should get it without any further efforts on your part. Fortunately, that’s usually what happens. But not always. In Olds’ case, the hotel was operating under bankruptcy protection (gee, I wonder why?) and for all we know, Ralph might have been fired the next day.

Asking … and receiving

You know the saying: Ask and you shall receive? When it comes to customer service problems, people forget. You have to ask if you want to receive something. And by “ask” I mean ask in a way that can be verified, using a letter, email or online chat that can be saved.

Talk is cheap.

Here are a few “asking” secrets that are often forgotten by customers:

Get it in writing. When Olds received a verbal promise of a refund, she might have politely asked Ralph to offer her something in writing. Even a handwritten note on the hotel’s stationery would have been helpful. (Even more helpful: A receipt for $148 to her credit card). No one should assume that the business won’t do what it says, but it’s nice to have a backup, just in case.

Follow up with a polite witten message. Make sure you get names, titles and addresses when you have a refund request. Then, follow up with a polite email, reviewing the conversation. Some larger businesses, for example, will offer a confirmation for a refund. It’s important that you get that soon, and a polite email is the way to secure that information.

Ask your bank, too. If it looks like the business is dragging its feet, you’ll want to call your bank. You have important rights under the Fair Credit Billing Act, but only a limited time to file a dispute. Having an email or letter from the business makes fixing this far easier. Also, if Olds had waited too long, the hotel may have gone under, and she’d never be able to collect a penny from it.

By the way, after Olds contacted me, she followed my suggestion and sent a letter to the hotel. A manager contacted her and processed her refund, just as Ralph had promised.

I love a happy ending. Sometimes, all you have to do to get one is to ask.

Do you trust a business when an employee makes a verbal promise?

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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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  • Bettina

    Trusting a business with a verbal promise? In general – no! However, I have done business with some people for so long, that I would trust them, based on my own experience with them.

    But building that kind of trust takes time. And it depends on who I have the contact with. If it is a small business and the contact is the owner – then yes, I would trust them once they have proven to be trustworthy.

    Big name company where I only know the receptionist (like chain hotel) or a sales person, then unless I have it in writing I wouldn’t count on anything.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    +1

    Small businesses where I’m dealing with a trusted person, sure. But in general, absolutely not. Large businesses work on paper. If someone won’t put it in writing, they’re just shining you on to get you to leave.

  • EdB

    A verbal promise isn’t worth the paper it’s not written on. I’m fighting with a business right now where I did get several verbal promises on a refund they didn’t follow through on. Paper trail going now, but it is just one way. Next stop is probably small claims. *sigh*

  • BillCCC

    I voted no, not because I believe that businesses lie but a verbal promise does not mean a lot especially when it comes from someone who might not have the authority to speak for the business. In the post, although Ralph might be a very nice person he might not have been in a position to promise anything.

  • TonyA_says

    The words prepaid and refund are very rarely used together.

  • Deborah Orth

    We volunteer with a non-profit Greyhound Rescue and Adoption Group Greyhounds only. The woman who is in charge of adoptions will remind us to never Promise Things that the rescue group might not be able to deliver. For example telling a potential adopter they can have their new Greyhound in their home in 2 weeks, when we know that the normal adoption process takes sometimes 4 to 6 weeks. If more business would practice this they would have a happier customer base. Much better to under promise and then over preform!

  • emanon256

    My wife watches Law and Order and gets so frustrated when the detectives promise the victims everything will be okay. She
    used to work with Police (She is a Psychologist) and that is one thing
    they are never supposed to say, in fact, they are specifically trained
    to not make promises. But that’s just TV I guess. Its good to know real life organizations are working on expectation management.

  • ambrothe

    I own a small cabin rental company, and I can see room for confusion/error on both sides of the survey question regarding verbal promises. As a customer, I would always want written proof of a promise since I have encountered situations where I was told one thing and later told something else. A verbal commitment means nothing when it comes to challenging a decision later.

    On the other side, though, customers sometimes make mistakes or try to take advantage of a situation. For example, yesterday I had a customer who had stayed in one of our cabins 2 weeks ago call and ask for the refund they were promised when they called to report a power outage during their stay (a major storm knocked out power for one night of their four night stay, so the backup generator only powered the essentials in the cabin until the power company restored service). The customer told me that the employee they spoke with promised a refund of a night due to the power outage – not knowing that I was the person they spoke with during their stay. I reminded the customer of the conversation that we actually had and of my referral to the rental policies they agreed to as well, which specifically address the loss of utilities/amenities that fall outside of our control. The customer thanked me for my time, but I have to think they were trying to pull one over on my company.

    Sometimes it’s not so cut and dry, and the travel company isn’t always the bad guy.

  • ambrothe

    This type of situation is why we have all customers sign that they have read and understand our Rental Policies before staying with us; we’ve successfully fought a credit card challenge in the past when a customer tried to make an invalid claim after their stay by having their agreement in writing. Having something in writing protects both sides of the arrangement:)

  • emanon256

    I am glad she got her refund in the end. I commend her for addressing it up front and actually leaving, rather than staying, grumbling, and wanting a refund later. I believe an uninhabitable hotel does violate the warranty of habitability and should allow for a refund of a non-refundable pre-paid hotel room. The hard part is, there is a very big grey when determining what is uninhabitable.

    As a side note, I just got stuck with a new hotel fee I have never heard of before. Wife and I are staying at a hotel, mom is staying at the same hotel. I called and asked for the rooms to be close together and was told there is a $75 pre-paid non-refundable fee to request rooms close together, and a $50 per night fee if we get rooms close together. This is a full service Hlton no less. Never heard of this fee before, told them to forget it.

  • emanon256

    Reminds of my days as a University Bursar. I can’t tell you how many times I or my staff spoke to someone on the phone, only to have them come in in person and tell me that the person they spoke to told them something completely differently. We documented every phone conversation, which usually helped. And of course, we remembered the trouble cases.

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

    That’s insane. You have to pay to ask now?

  • EdB

    What’s next? A fee to check out?

    hums, “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave” (Unless you pay a fee)

  • Daddydo

    When I enter a hotel, they charge my credit card. When I leave my hotel, I get the credit of the hold back. Why did she not get the credit right there on the spot. THINK! First, call your travel agent second, and THINK again. People with problems while traveling generally panic. Stay calm and THINK.

  • Deborah Orth

    Our rescue group has a responsibility to make sure that the Greyhounds in our care go to the best possible homes and sometime that takes more time. To learn more about Greyhounds and adoption go to http://www.greyhoundsonly.com

  • emanon256

    I wouldn’t be surprised. Now I have Hotel California stuck in my head :)

  • TonyA_says

    Hey it is PREPAID.

  • MarkKelling

    I usually don’t mind paying for something extra, but only if I get what I am paying for. Being charged just to be on a list to possibly get the requested extra — ain’t gonna happen.

  • TonyA_says

    Why not identify the motel. You probably will do a great service to the traveling community so they can avoid an UNSUITABLE property.

  • Cam

    Hard to vote here. Depends on so many variables. For example, the kind of business, the situation, my experience with that business, the nature of the promise, and so.

    At a minimum though, I would get the name and title of the person making the agreement with me.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Probably worried about being sued.

  • BillCCC

    I find that hard to believe. Which Hilton was this?

  • Daddydo

    And being pre-paid makes what kind of difference. I can issue a credit any time I wish too with the proper justification. It’s a computer and it adds $$$ in and it credits $$$ back. It is up to the manager on duty to make this decision. I don’t see pre-paid being a problem unless it is pre-paid through a 3rd party.

  • emanon256

    Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. Wife called first and I didn’t believe her either, thought they were selling her a load of garbage. I called and was told the exact same thing, they said they are under new management and this is their policy. I respectfully declined. Its a huge property, so we could easily be 15 minuets away from each other now. But I was not willing to pay for something I might not get.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    You beat me to it. As @emanon256:disqus said, now that song’s stuck in my head. Better than “Call me Maybe”, I guess.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    @Christopher Elliott, just how many articles have you written that spotlighted a customer who was promised one thing in person, over the phone, etc. but did not receive the promised benefit because the promise was contrary to company policy? Certain airlines and overseas call center employees come to mind . . .

    I think there should have been a 3rd choice on the poll today: {mild profanity} NO!

  • MarkKelling

    Being pre paid makes a difference because the charge has already cleared. It is not the same as a hotel putting a hold on your card which expires after a few days when the final clearing doesn’t come through.

    I do agree that the credit should have been posted immediately. However, the person on duty may not have that authority on pre paid reservations. IF it was one where they simply hold the funds on your card, then the clerk could have adjusted the bill to zero and nothing would have posted.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Still trying to wrap my arms around that one… So, by their policy, they could theoretically still not get you anywhere near each other and still keep the fee for the request? That’s insane. What’s next? Charging people for requesting a room when they’re full?

  • emanon256

    Yep, that’s the jist of it. It’s a fee so that they might do something.

    I did some sluthign and found out that the hotel was recently bought out by a multinational private equity and investment bank firm called The Blackstone Group who recently started buying up hotels. They are an industry leader in “re-structuring” companies to reduce cost while maximizing additional revenue in order to turn a profit for their investors. When I hear that I think of reducing cost by no longer cleaning the pool, and maximizing revenue by charging all customers a pool use fee. Lower costs, more revenue.

    I wonder if they actually have a room full of people who’s job is to sit around and think of new fees.

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    I’ll echo Bettina’s and Carver’s comments – no, I would not trust a verbal promise, unless I’m a long-time customer and know the business well. Interestingly enough, I actually had a business volunteer to give me a refund promise in writing. My dry cleaner accidentally overcharged me once, and said he’d give me a credit on my next order. I go there all the time so that was fine, but before I walked out, he told me to give back the credit card receipt so he could write down the credit amount. He then said something to the effect of “If I don’t write it down I’ll forget!”. So sometimes, a business will do the smart thing without even being prompted. But yes, if they don’t, try to get something in writing before you leave.

  • $22654045

    Not sure that I would have “respectively” declined.

  • $22654045

    Damn spell checker: respectfully

  • emanon256

    Nooooooo!!!!! Now that one is stuck!!!

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    OK, next time!

  • ploughmud

    “not worth the paper it is written on”

  • y_p_w

    I’ve stayed in the area many times. My preference is almost always one of the large casino hotels in Stateline, but in a pinch the Motel 6 South Lake Tahoe is reliable, basic accommodations. However, once I was really in a bind (tired after getting lost hiking and finding my way back) and didn’t want to spend a fortune when I wasn’t in shape to drive home. I actually booked an independent motel for a $50/night walk-up rate. Maybe I should have been wary because it was a stereotypical independent motel with a South Asian front desk clerk. It was a bit older, but it had clean and fairly new carpet, clean sheets, quality toiletries, etc. It was well worth $50 even though a lot of people would have taken a look on the outside and left. Of course it was a Sunday (weekend summer rates shoot up up up) so the price I got may not indicate what a peak rate would be.

    However, there’s a lot of sleazy motels in the area, including some franchise locations of big chains.

  • Sam Petersen

    Wow, that is one long adoption process. For our kittens/cats once the application is in, it’s generally completed within a day or two, depending on how fast we can do a home check and call references, even that can sometimes be done same day. The only time someone has to wait any lenght of time is if they fall in love with a kitten who is still several weeks from adoptable age. We don’t let them go before 12 weeks.

    That being said, I wouldn’t trust anyone’s word alone in this day and age. The age of a hand shake sealing the deal is long over. Get everything in writing. Get pictures for documenation when needed.

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    Just a small clarification – Hilton Hotels as a whole was bought out by Blackstone in 2007, not just this particular hotel. I have heard anecdotal evidence from others that service and quality at Hilton-branded chains has gone downhill since the Blackstone takeover. I frequent Hiltons and haven’t personally noticed this, aside from several devaluations of the loyalty program, though I guess your mileage may vary based on location.

  • Cybrsk8r

    The simple fact is that Helen Waite is in charge of refunds at many businesses.

  • Deborah Orth

    4 to 6 weeks is from the time you send in your adoption application. After the application is approved, you are given a kennel adoption date to select your new best friend. Usually the greyhound you pick has not been spayed or neutered yet, after that is done he/she is sent to a volunteer foster home for about 7 to 10 days. At the foster home they get their first lessons in being a pet vs. a race dog. Once that is done the greyhound is brought to your home by the foster mom and an adoption rep from Greyhounds Only for the final adoption to take place, this is when you pay the adoption fee. Since we are an ALL VOLUNTEER Org. these steps do take some time. Racing Greyhounds have been bred and raised like no other dog and require special owners.

  • Daddydo

    There is a distinct difference between a guarantee where the hotel has your card against you no showing, and a deposit – I agree. Example – Wyndham hotel has my client deposited for a non-smoking room. When they checked in, there were no non-smoking rooms available.The room was deposited by the early bird non-refundable price. I found another acceptable hotel and has an immediate refund of the deposit from the front desk staff. They can do it if they want or get call a supervisor to make the refund. It takes on-site immediate action when a hotel disappoints you. But it can and should be taken care of on the spot. I can never think of 1 client ever being ripped off by a hotel that got away with it in 50 years at this office.