Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Three lies the travel industry keeps telling consumers (with Qantas, Hilton and Virgin Express examples)

Again and again the travel industry thinks that lying to a customer is the best way out of an uncomfortable situation. As a consumer of online travel (a COOT rather than a BOOT) I have come across three standard lies that the industry keeps telling me. They are:

1. I would like to help you but "the system" wont let me;

2. The flight/hotel/boat/train is fully booked; and

3. The flight/boat/train is on time.

Here are those three lies in action. What is common across each of these lies is that I actually received the service or result I was looking for. In each case the service provider gave me something that I did not by rights deserve and helped me out. But I had to work through the lies to get it. The result is that instead of leaving with a fantastic feeling of "thank you for going the extra mile" I leave with "why the hell did you make s$%t up"

Lie 1 care of Qantas "I would like to help you but the system wont let me"

I was in Melbourne yesterday for work, flying Qantas domestic and my meeting finished early. I was on a very restrictive fare so was owed no favours and did not expect any. On the off chance I went to the counter of the Qantas lounge to ask for earlier flight. Either I was going to get a break with an earlier flight or spend three hours on the lounge wi-fi and drinks buffet.

Here is the exchange with the lounge agent as he was busily typing away in the rez system

Agent - " your fare is an inflexible one. Sometimes 'the system' allows me to make a change but sometimes 'they' wont 't let me"

Note the use of the 'they' and the reference to 'the system'. A strong message to me that if there is bad news, it will not be his (the agent's) fault. He went on

Agent- " I am sorry but I can't change these fares"

My colleague and I were about to step aside when another agent (Agent 2) leans over to the first Agent (Agent 1) and says

Agent 2 - "we are getting reports of very bad weather on the way. You should get them [ ie me] out as soon as you can."

Agent 1 - "OK"

He returns to typing on his screen and thirty seconds later gives us two boarding passes for the flight leaving in 25 mins

In one big respect I am grateful to Qantas. I found out (care of a tripit pro alert) that my original flight left almost two hours late. So by putting me on the earlier flight I was home four and a half hours earlier than if I had stayed on the original flight. My fare type did not give me any right to a change. But why did the agent feel the need to blame the system and 'them' when clearly he had complete authority to make a change. I would have understood it if he had told me that my fare was too restrictive and that he would get back to me on a stand by basis later rather than lie to me about how much influence he had.

Lie 2 care of Hilton "The hotel is fully booked"

Back in Cendant days I found myself at the Hilton in Parsippany. A horrible place at the best of times (not Hilton's fault) made worse during one very cold January visit when the company asked me to stay on for four more days than I planned. I called down to the front desk and here is the exchange

Me - "I am due to check out now, but would like to stay. Can I stay longer?"

Front Desk - "I am sorry sir but we are fully booked"

Me - " that's a shame as I would like to stay another four days"

Front Desk - "oh...that's fine I will adjust the check out date"

Me - "do I have to change rooms?"

Front Desk - "no, that's fine...you can stay where you are"

Clearly when I asked to stay longer the front desk person thought I was asking for a late check out not an extension. Understandable given my choice of words But instead of telling me the truth (that for whatever reason late check out was not available) her first instinct was to lie (we are full).

Lie 3 care of Virgin Express "your flight is on time"

I have told this story before in a post about a time I forgot my passport on a trip from London to Brussels. Here is the short version.

I was running very late for a Virgin Express flight (now Brussels Airlines). Here is the exchange with the reservation centre.

Me - "Is this flight on time?"

Virgin Express - "Yes sir, right on time."

Me - "I know you are supposed to say that but I actually need the flight to be delayed as I am running late. So tell me, is the flight on time?"

Virgin Express - "OK sir, the flight is running about 20 mins late."

Me - "Are you sure. I need the flight to be about an hour late for me to make it."

Virgin Express - "OK sir, I am tracking the flight at about an hour and a half late."

Me - "great. Thanks. I'll make it."

Again I benefited from the outcome (catching a flight I should have missed) but the lie was clearly built into the culture and standard customer response script.

Why does the industry do it

My theory is that the industry has created so many complex rules around pricing and yield management that enforcing the resulting restrictions and consumer segmentation has become more of a focus than serving the customer. The rate complexity requires customer care agents to either be very blunt with customers (I am sorry you can't have that because you didn't pay for it ) or undermine their pricing (ok I will give this to you even though you should pay) or lie (I wish I could do it but I can't). The pricing/product differences are a challenge but the right response is better customer care training, improved customer profiling and trusting that giving a customer a last minute helping hand is not going to do long term damage to your pricing structure. Lying to a customer is not (and is never) the right answer

Any thoughts? Do you have examples of when you were lied to or asked to lie to a customer?

Update - other great "lies" that I have seen in twitter responses include
  • "the hotel is right by the beach";
  • "your flight is boarding now".

thanks to La TĂȘte Krançien's at Flickr for the photo


Anonymous said...

I have had exactly he same experience with Qantas on many occasions.

In an earlier job, I always flew on Qantas restricted fares, and whenever I needed to have a flight moved, I would just go from one Qantas desk to the next until someone agreed to change my flight. Usually, there was no need to ask at more than two desks. But it was always amusing to see the complete disconnect between the consoling statements of impossibility, and the smiling can-do attitude of those who helped me.

Matthew Teller said...

Interesting post - thank you! The hotel example is unforgiveable, I agree, but my take on the airline cases is simply that 'front-end' customer service staff both on the ground and in the air are so hard-pressed, and have to cope so often with aggression or unpleasantness from passengers, that they have simply developed coping mechanisms which are designed to shut down any challenges. The initial shut-outs that you experienced were the verbal equivalent of dimming the lights and closing all the window blinds (even on a daytime flight), or offering (modest amounts of) alcohol inflight - the aim is to do anything and everything to keep the passengers passive and docile.

And, to be honest, who can argue with them? Yes, it was a lie - but airline systems are so impossibly byzantine that if they took the time to explain all the intricacies to everyone who rolled up asking for special treatment it would take all day. So they shut out every enquiry as best they can, until the point is reached at which it is in their (or their company's) interest to make an exception - whereupon an exception is made.

Fine by me. You didn't really expect them to say "well, no, the flight is delayed 90 minutes so far, sir, so feel free to turn up at the airport whenever you like - I'm sure that'll be fine" - did you? ;-)

Tim Hughes said...

@Anon - great tip. Thanks

@Matthew T - You are absolutely right that the staff at airlines are feeling beat up. Staff in almost all US carriers, BA and QF are openly hostile when discussing management and the company infront of customers. Money and time needs to be spent on changing that.

Sam Clark said...

I have to say I think you should give the front desk staff a bit of a break. Anyone in any industry who has been in taht position, will tend to blame the system. I tend to think that is human nature - not to want to be disliked, rather than a fault endemic to the travel industry. And they did you a big favour, through someone using their brain too!

Tim Hughes said...

@Sam C - I absolutely hold the companies more responsible than the staff. Travel companies have to change their scripts and training to stress telling the truth over hiding behind easy outs. I do not give the staff a free pass though because they are over worked and stressed. There are ways to give me the same message without having to catch yourself in a lie.

Mel K. said...

Agree with previous comments re: the source of these lies is discomfort with dealing with customers (in some cases, well-founded given the aggressiveness I'm sure these staff deal with).

I wonder how much these responses come from informal conditioning (e.g., tips from experience co-workers) vs. training from the company. And whether the companies are aware of the effect these lies have on customers: for me, deep distrust of the company. Either way, companies should make a concerted effort to train their front-line staff properly (so they have more confidence in dealing with difficult/ambiguous situations) and setting up policies under clearer principles about how customers should be treated (which should be backed up by more flexibility into the systems etc.). I'm sure that a root cause of these problems in many companies is that, at heart, the company has set itself up to maximize revenue - not to fulfill a customer need. So, you get: complicated pricing policies, rigid systems, nonsensical rules, etc. And staff that are trained in those systems and rules and - as noted - are placed in a difficult position of choosing whether to break rules, lie, etc.

Tim Hughes said...

@Mel K - absolutely agree. It becomes part of the culture rather than a formal training program. I do think there are script (ie training) elements but culturally it comes from no measuring staff on customer satisfaction.

BTW - am missing poker. When can we play again (assuming you are the Mel K that I think you are)

Anonymous said...

I am running around the USA selling our Pots and pans.

It i so funny that i check my bag in and yet i have to pay $5 per bag even thought i have 20Kg allowance.

I went over the weight limit by 5lbs and guess what i had to pay US$50 or take it on as hand carry on.

So i asked the girl, what diff does it make im still taking the weight on board,

she called for her boss and said i was being an ass and to talk to me about the complaint.

Apathy and attitude is no place for the service industry

Stephen Joyce said...

Great post Tim. I think this is an issue with many service based industry, not only travel. The fundamental problem, in my opinion, is a lack of trust for employees within an organization and a focus on punishment rather than reward in dealing with customer issues. By default, most organizations, especially larger ones tend to focus on the punishments associated with breaking the rules, rather than the rewards for satisfying customer complaints or issues. If employees are entrusted with the responsibility of doing whatever they can to help customers be happy, rather than focusing on squeezing every last penny out of them, then the culture would shift away from customer commoditization to customer satisfaction.

As you said, this is definitely a corporate cultural issue that needs to be addressed from the top down. Take a look at the culture at WestJet or Southwest and you can see that a customer centric corporate culture can work and be profitable.

mochilero said...

One of my favourites is "The hotel is full booked" in booking websites, but not when you call or mail them.

Tim Hughes said...

@Stephen J - agreed. The secret to changing the culture is to 1) hire people that are into customer care and 2) measure, track and reward good customer feedback

tlukec said...

I've ALWAYS said "If you don't ask - you don't get". I've often found with restricted fares, late check outs etc, as long as you approach with the attitude that any change/extension is a favour not a right, you'll do OK. Otherwise, one more drink wont hurt while you wait :)