How to avoid a customer service nightmare: 5 tips

How to avoid a customer service nightmare: 5 tips
By | November 1st, 2009

Ask Bonnie Friedman about her worst customer service experience, and she won’t hesitate to tell you about the time she checked in for her flight from Venice to Frankfurt.

An agent at the counter, who appeared to be on a personal phone call, ordered Friedman to return 15 minutes later.

“She never lifted her head,” she remembers. “She was just plain nasty.”

And that was only the beginning of an ugly series of exchanges between the two, in which Friedman repeatedly tried to check in and the agent ignored her. With her flight about to depart, she pleaded for help, and finally, the agent angrily issued a boarding pass, but not before informing the American that she was rude.

“I realized that arguing or losing my temper would be of no use whatsoever, so I thanked her for her help and wished her a good day,” she says.

Stories like Friedman’s are shockingly common. As the industry wraps up one of the most difficult years since the invention of the wheel, it’s taken a visible toll on the people who work in travel. You don’t have to look far to find an agitated gate agent, a surly flight attendant, an indifferent hotel worker or a mean car rental agent.

Bad service is everywhere.

The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index finds that airlines score a failing 64 percent. Hotels? Guests give them a gentleman’s “C” (75 percent). Ditto for car rental companies. Even though there aren’t any reliable customer service surveys, the one or two I’ve seen suggest no one is particularly happy with the way they’re treated at the counter.

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Friedman, a fellow writer who lives in Hawaii, made her flight to Frankfurt, but others aren’t so lucky. Some are denied boarding, or removed from their flight, refused a hotel room or a car — all the while being treated worse than cargo.

I know. I had the misfortune of being on an international flight where the flight attendant had me in her crosshairs. My carry-on bag was “too big” (it was regulation size) my laptop needed to go in the overhead bin, not the seat pocket, and no, I couldn’t have the whole can of sparkling water, it was against the airline’s policy. Oh boy. At some point, I felt certain the crewmember would open the cabin door and kick me off the flight. I think she wanted to.

What do you do when you run up against a brick wall like that?

1. Don’t provoke an angry service employee.
If you’re faced with someone who is unpleasant, try to avoid a confrontation. Instead, do whatever is necessary to ease the tension — even if it means agreeing with someone who is obviously wrong. CeliaSue Hecht, a media consultant in San Francisco, recently had a run-in with a hotel manager, who forced her to wait several hours for her room and didn’t seem to care. Rather than rant against the hotel employee, she wrote a-n email complaining about her treatment. “This got me a complimentary stay, which I appreciated,” she told me.