Let’s hear it for the travel heroes!

Marie Robertson can’t stop doing good.

Two years ago, the Houston airline agent held a United Airlines flight for a passenger visiting his dying mother. Her compassionate act became a feel-good story that resonated among airline passengers – partly because her industry had a reputation for sometimes being less than caring.

It turns out she wasn’t done. Robertson contacted me recently because she’s working on a new campaign to put the brakes on distracted driving (you can learn more about it here). She says most “don’t text and drive” efforts fail because motorists quickly forget them. But Robertson wants to change that by placing “don’t text” warning stickers inside car windshields and reminding drivers that their actions affect other people.

“Our goal is to reach everyone,” she told me.

I’m happy to help. I spend too much time dissecting the failings of the travel industry, and particularly of airlines like United. But you can’t encourage selfless behavior without first acknowledging it.

Here’s the problem: Some travel companies believe it’s the grand customer service gestures, like holding an aircraft at the gate, that impress us. And they do. But not as much as the little things, like taking care of an ailing passenger even when no one is looking, or a smile and, “Thank you for your business” when you check out of a hotel. Or handing out stickers that make the road a little safer.

Those small things can make a big difference on your next trip. And you’ll rarely read about them in a column, except today.

When word got out I was working on a story about travel companies that offer excellent customer service, I heard from people who thought going the extra mile would set them apart, and maybe inspire a favorable mention. One property was proud of a worker who had fulfilled a dying wish for a terminally ill guest. A luxury hotel in Chicago told me about an employee who offered a guest his suit for a business meeting after that guest had lost his luggage.

A Miami Beach hotel shared the tale of “Bubu the Bunny,” a young guest’s favorite stuffed toy that a family had left behind on its way to an Orlando theme park vacation. An employee volunteered to drive four hours to reunite the rabbit with its owner.

These are heartwarming stories, and exceedingly rare. You might travel a lifetime and not experience one of these special service moments.

Of course, passengers have their own ideas about excellent service. Nicole Greason, who works in the marketing department of a college in Tempe, Ariz., recalls a recent flight from London to Phoenix on British Airways. She had a debilitating migraine headache. A flight attendant noticed her pain and brought her ice packs, water and medication from his private stash.

“I have not forgotten how well I was treated on that flight and I have become a fan of British Airways,” she says. “I can’t wait to fly across the pond again — on British Airways, of course.”

The flight attendant’s actions won’t earn him “Employee of the Month” and on any other day, no one except Greason would give them a second thought. But today, on behalf of all passengers who brace themselves for a “you-get-what-you-pay-for” attitude when they board a flight, I say: Thank you. Mr. Unnamed Flight Attendant, you are a credit to your profession.

There’s evidence travel companies know the little things are important. For example, if you e-mailed a hotel with a question two years ago, the response would take anywhere between 48 hours to 5 days, according to OwnerListens, a mobile customer service platform. “Today, average response time is less than 48 hours,” says CEO Adi Bittan. A prompt reply seems like such a minor thing, but Bittain says guests rate these companies higher because of it.

You probably don’t need a study to tell you small acts of service make the travel experience better. It’s common sense. People like Robertson, the United Airlines employee known for holding a plane, know that as well. She says she was just doing her job then, and wants to continue helping. Robertson notes that she’s not alone. Many of her colleagues in Houston care deeply about service. They try to help passengers every day, despite airline policies that often make it difficult.

Travelers love stories about customer service heroes. But mostly, they just want a little courtesy and compassion when they’re away. Is that asking for too much?

Is good customer service recognized enough by travelers?

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Where to find better service

Every travel company is capable of offering excellent customer service. Here’s how to find and encourage it.

Look for special training. Companies like Ritz-Carlton and Disney have such well-known reputations for service that they offer hospitality training to other companies. That’s a good sign.

Recognize the little things. If an employee helped you, take a minute to contact the company and compliment that person. Send a brief e-mail via their website. Over time, the commendations will ensure these quality workers are rewarded.

Patronize the best brands. The American Customer Satisfaction Index recognizes the best airlines and hotels. Marriott and Hyatt, for example, rank highest in the latest survey. Stay with them, and avoid substandard companies.

What they don’t want you to know can hurt you

Filipchuk Oleg/Shutterstock
Filipchuk Oleg/Shutterstock
For several years, I’ve operated a customer service wiki, an underground website which contains the names, emails and addresses of company executives who can help consumers like you.

In the early days, I researched and published these names alone and at considerable risk, but now I’m lucky to work with a team of volunteers who make sure every name and address is up-to-date. (By the way, you can see the entire list of customer service executives here.)

And that brings me to today’s cautionary tale about customer service, which may inform your next buying decision.
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How to stop the customer service apocalypse of 2014

When you spend most of your waking hours advocating for consumers, it’s easy to lose your sense of perspective. Complaints pour in, often hundreds per day. I can’t help but feel like the customer-service apocalypse is imminent.

My New Year’s resolution is simple: Stop Servicemaggendon by putting what really matters in my consumer advocacy crosshairs and keep the discourse civil and fair.

What matters? Well, from my point of view, it’s obvious that we’re halfway down a long slide into the customer-service toilet, with only a little pipe to go before we’re flushed out to the sewer. How we approach this precipitous decline matters. It requires a clear-headed, well-reasoned and polite discussion — otherwise the problem could get worse.
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The real reason legacy airlines are awful

Because they can.

That’s my conclusion after finishing the missing emails from April and May. America’s legacy airlines are awful because they can be awful, and because we let them.

The graph (above) comes directly from data provided by the authoritative American Customer Service Index. Don’t confuse it with one of those incomprehensible charts posted on an airline fanblog. This is the real deal — it’s the last decade of service scores.
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3 reasons social media matters more than you think


It’s true, social media fatigue is starting to set in across the Internet.

Consumers say they’re tired of receiving useless information through the latest and greatest social network and wary of giving up their personal data. A recent Pew survey, for example, says as much as 38 percent of Facebook users plan to use the service less this year.

But here’s one good reason you shouldn’t delete your Facebook or Twitter account yet: Companies are paying close attention to what you say.

Closer than you can imagine.
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The art of persuasion: 5 things you can say to get better service

It isn’t the horse that makes the wagon go. It’s the carrot you put in front of his nose.

That’s an old Russian proverb, and it reminds me how customer service people sometimes won’t go out of their way to help you unless you persuade them to.

Sure, a true professional will always do the job as required. But don’t you want better service? Here are some time-tested phrases you can use to get it.
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Are you being fed a line? 5 secrets for breaking through the script

Talk to me.

That’s all customers like you want when they call a company. They want someone to talk to them.

But corporations don’t always talk back. Last week, I mentioned the second-generation form letters many consumers were getting. Turns out there’s a little more to the story.

For the better part of the last decade, large companies have scripted many of their most common call-center responses. What does that mean? Well basically, when you contact a company with a question, the agent can type in the issue into their computer and receive a “scripted” response that will answer the question. Then they read it back to you.
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Is your complaint being “form lettered”? Here are three ways to tell

It was just a matter of time before corporations created the perfect form letter, capable of fooling a veteran consumer advocate. Or you.

You know what I’m talking about: those emails that say “we’re sorry you feel that way,” but offering you nothing for a customer-service failure.

Spotting a form letter used to be super easy, which was helpful, because you could quickly appeal the boilerplate rejection to a supervisor. In the early days of email, when low-level agents didn’t understand the difference between text and HTML, you could actually see the cut-and-paste responses, because they were rendered in a different font. You knew you were being fed a line.

Now? Not so much.
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What makes you happiest? Your TV — and here’s why

Jessica Beeman paid $779 for her 50-inch TV, a purchase she was pleased with, until one day “it just stopped” working. And then she wasn’t.

“We didn’t do anything to it,” she says. “It won’t turn on. The red power button light blinks over and over.”

At the time, I had no idea how rare her complaint was — and how fleeting. I asked her to send me the documentation on the busted household appliance. But within hours, Beeman reported back.

“They fixed it,” she told me. “All for free.”
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“I never forgot how kind this hotel was to us”

Kimberly Palmer/Shutterstock
Kimberly Palmer/Shutterstock

I’m researching an article about hotel cancellation policies for the Washington Post, but one of the stories shared by a reader resonated with me so much that I just had to pass it along. It’s another heartwarming, almost too-good-to-be-true tale of customer service.

Last winter, Lauren Staley and her husband were driving from Colorado back to California, where they live. They’d planned to spend the night at the halfway point, in Elko, Nev. But they never made it.

“A huge snowstorm caught us unaware,” she remembers. “We ended up stopped on the Salt Flats [in Utah] for several hours due to an accident, and by the time we got moving again the sun had gone down and the roads were completely iced over.”
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United Airlines holds plane so passenger can say goodbye to his dying mother

Photo courtesy United Airlines.
Photo courtesy United Airlines.

Kerry Drake’s mother was dying. She’d suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for decades and the drugs used to treat her condition had decimated her immune system. One morning his brother called him to say her time time had come.

Drake caught the next flight from San Francisco, where he works for the federal government, to Lubbock, Texas, via Houston.

“I knew this itinerary was a risk because the stopover in Houston was only about 40 minutes, and my connecting flight was the last flight to Lubbock that day,” he says. “But I needed to get there as soon as possible, so I took the risk.”
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Is this British Airways flight bad enough for you?

britishArthur West’s 50th anniversary trip to Venice was “extremely enjoyable” — except for one little issue: the British Airways flights. All of them.

He’s so unhappy with the way he and his wife, Eileen, were treated that he’s written the airline several times with a long list of grievances. And he’s unimpressed with their response.

I’m writing about West’s case because I’m not sure if I should ask British Airways to review it. Some of the problems are minor and others are outside the control of the airline. Add it all up and they make for a very unpleasant trip, no question about it. But I’ll let you decide.
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Can airline customer service rise to new heights?

delta5The experience of passengers like Nina Boal makes me optimistic about the future of air travel.

An information technology specialist for a government agency in Baltimore, Boal ran into trouble recently when she flew to her mother’s funeral in Chicago. Her fibromyalgia and severe arthritis made it difficult to board the aircraft.

Delta Air Lines staff bent over backward to make the flight as comfortable as possible, she says. It switched her seats to accommodate her mobility challenges, and its agents helped lift her into the seat. They even apologized for the difficulties, even though “there was nothing for them to apologize about,” she says. “Because of their assistance, I was able to get to my mother’s funeral.
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