Are you an impotent traveler?

The endless people crowded at gate areas over the next week or so will probably feel what it means to be an impotent traveler. When you’re at the mercy of the airlines, there’s little you can do to affect change. Sure, they can’t control the weather, and legitimate problems do arise from time to time (no business is perfect). But, when you want information, have a legitimate grievance or would just benefit from some solid customer service, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed. Expectations for airlines are so low that there’s really little incentive to change.

Of course, it’s not just the airlines, according to the Daily Mail: “Along with airlines, this group includes train companies, mobile phone and computer suppliers, broadband providers and cable and satellite TV firms.” The article adds, “The normal rules of the marketplace do not apply in their case. They know they have become indispensable.”

There are times when we’re just not in the driver’s seat, and there is little we can do about it. If you need some ideas on how to overcome travel impotence, check out our tips on how to be effective in making your voice heard.

[photo by nesnet via Flickr]

U.S. legacy carriers grab top spots in “worst company” chart

Ask anyone what they consider to be a “bad company”, and most of them will mention their bank, their regular airline and their cable company. Because of this, U.S. airlines tend to score pretty bad in the monthly report from the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Business Insider collected the most recent data, and lists the top 18 worst companies in America – and it’ll come as no surprise that four of the top ten companies are airlines.

In fact, Americans think so little of the legacy carriers, that the ones that made the list even managed to score lower than the biggest banks.

When customers think United Airlines scores worse than banks that have been in the news due to mortgage fraud issues, you just know they suffer from a customer service problem. In the top ten, here are the worst airlines in America:

#7 – American Airlines
#6- Delta Airlines
#5 – US Airways
#2 – United Airlines

The one thing these airlines all have in common is baggage fees – and sure enough, the common complaints mentioned in the research all point to baggage fees being a reason for customers to rate them so low. Delays are of course also a big factor in how passengers rate customer service. None of the low cost carriers made the list, and no carrier with free baggage allowances is mentioned either. Bottom line; if an airline is going to charge for baggage, they’d better make sure the rest of their service is top notch or they’ll be stuck in this list forever.%Gallery-64688%

United plans for new image overhaul

After coming in last among large airlines in customer satisfaction surveys for two out of the last three years, United Airlines has been overhauling its operations in an effort to increase on-time performance and win back customers. Now the airline is working on the physical appearance of its planes and crew.

Every single one of the airplanes in United’s fleet will be getting a make-over. The grey with black and red stripes interiors (knows within the company as the “tequila sunrise” scheme) will be replaced with blue leather. The 1980’s-era overhead bins will be updated as well. The airline also announced that fashion designer Cynthia Rowley will be creating more stylish, updated crew uniforms.

With a reputation for poor customer service, delays, cancellations, broken guitars, safety violations, and lost luggage, can United really overhaul its image with a few aesthetic updates? Probably not, but airline officials hopes they can continue to address the issues that have led to its poor satisfaction survey rankings and eventually turn things around. Apparently, they just want the airline to look good while they do it.

Greyhound customer service delivers after bus heads wrong way for more than 70 miles

When the five people who ranged from an R& B singer moving to NYC to seek her fortune– to a young man trying to get to Hartford, Connecticut and his sick grandmother as quickly as possible, sidled up to the Greyhound ticket counter in Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan, they weren’t itching for a fight. What they wanted was some compensation for their Greyhound induced travel woes.

See, the bus they had taken from Cleveland had arrived two hours late. It’s not unusual for a bus to be late. Traffic, weather and a bus breakdown can occur. Their bus’s lateness was due to driver error. The driver, after a scheduled rest stop, had headed the bus back towards Cleveland for more than 70 miles.

What made this snafu feel worse is that they would have arrived earlier than the scheduled arrival time if it wasn’t for the driver’s mistake. If you’ve ever been on a road trip that has been lengthened by the wrong way, perhaps you’ll recall that jumpy nervous twitch that ensues–the kind of feeling where any moment you could LOSE YOUR MIND.

As written in the previous post, Gadling knows these details because Gadling was there. Here’s the rest of the story. What happens when a passenger does complain? Airlines take notice.

First, as these five people found out from the helpful ticket agent, the place to head to file a complaint is the Greyhound customer service office near the ticket office in Port Authority.

In this non-descriptive office without so much as a plant to pep up the ambiance, was one lone man. Let’s call him John. John, who looked up from his desk several feet from the counter where he was typing at a computer, pleasantly informed this band of travelers who had vowed to complain together while still en-route that the person in charge–let’s call her Rachel, had stepped out for a moment but would be right back.

Indeed, John was not fibbing. Rachel appeared in minutes. Yours truly, this Gadling blogger, taking on the initial spokesperson role, explained our situation to Rachel who lent a sympathetic, concerned ear, looked us directly in the eyes, and passed out complaint forms. As she explained, she’d have to get back to us about any monetary compensation after she reviewed the story. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe us, but there’s protocol.

This is what she was able to do in the meantime:

Hurry off with one of the passengers to help him make an immediate connection to another bus. As they hustled out of the office, she asked the rest of us to please wait since she could offer him help right away.

When Rachel returned, she offered to store the R&B woman’s luggage for free until the woman could get friends of hers to come and help her carry it to her new apartment. They had been at the bus terminal earlier but had to leave to go to work.

As for the man trying to get to Hartford, I’m not sure what Rachel was able to do for him since we left before his problems were resolved. Hopefully, he was able to take the train, something he was vying for.

There was one young woman who started to leave the office in a huff once she heard there was not to be immediate compensation and she’d most likely be stuck for a couple more hours in Port Authority before a connecting bus could get her to her final destination. I cajoled her to fill out the form, explaining that she deserves some compensation for her inconvenience and that she’d most likely get something. She agreed to stay and picked up the pen.

With complaint forms filled out, off my daughter and I went to enjoy our Halloween weekend in Manhattan.

Within eight days, we each received a wonderful letter from Greyhound customer service with a $40 ticket voucher that can be used within a year. (That’s $40 a piece.)

As the letter says, “We want to apologize for the recent inconvenience you experienced while using our service. At Greyhound, we strive to make every trip fast, affordable and convenient…Again, we value your business and thank you for your service. We look forward to seeing you on the road.”

Rachel personally signed the letter.

Is this Greyhound bus rider satisfied? You bet. I’m hopping on a Greyhound with my son in December. With a 21-day advanced purchase and my voucher, the trip for the two of us will only be $172. That’s what I call affordable. And unless the driver heads the wrong way, it won’t take much longer than driving to Manhattan ourselves.

As for my daughter, I may send her to Pittsburgh on a solo trip to visit her cousin who’s going to college there–something I wouldn’t have thought to do otherwise.

Greyhound’s actions made sure we’d keep coming back. It seems to me, that makes good business sense. It doesn’t take a lot to make customers satisfied. Really.

Travel professionals: stop going the extra mile

It sounds counterintuitive, right? Normally, customers expect that extra effort, and we complain constantly that we don’t get it enough. What we sometimes don’t understand, though, is that the extra effort is at the root of many of the customer service problems we encounter. Going the extra mile at the wrong time can be a disaster.

I remember a case presented at a conference I attended back in 1999 (yeah, it made an impression), when I was a consultant in the hotel industry. Some customer service guru was teaching us how to better serve our clients – which was pretty important, since our clients, the hotels, were in the service business. She discussed with us a bank teller who spent extra time with a customer – going that extra mile” – even though there was a long line waiting. The guru couldn’t summon enough praise for this teller. Even though everybody else was waiting, this teller put forth more than was necessary to make a customer happy.

Almost as soon as the story was over, people in different parts of the audience barked almost in unison, “What about everyone else?” The service aficionado spent several minutes ducking and dodging as a growing number of attendees hurled the lines of “I’d be pissed,” “That’s not good service!” and “Do you really believe that stuff?” She eventually recovered and finished her session, but the discussion at the bar that night was all about whether to please the one at the expense of the many.

Just about everyone has seen this problem from the three perspectives involved. I know I’ve had to serve the idiot, wait in line behind the idiot … and, of course, been the idiot. The last time I was the cause, I inadvertently looked over my shoulder and noticed the line behind me. Immediately, it dawned on me. The person helping me – because of my stupidity – was screwing everybody else.

That’s what prompted me to dig into this issue. I realized that, on occasion, going the extra mile for one customer can alienate many others.

If you’re on the service side of the desk, instead of rushing to help, consider the following criteria before committing plenty of time:

1. Is the problem legitimate?
If the customer/passenger has been wronged somehow, do everything it takes to fix the problem. If this isn’t the case, go to #2.

2. Can the situation reasonably be resolved?
A problem with no solution isn’t worth everyone else’s time. At some point, the madness has to stop.

3. What was the customer’s role in all this?
Is this a situation of the customer’s own creation (e.g., late for a flight)? If so, take this into account. Personal responsibility should be considered.

Speaking of personal responsibility, we have some obligations as customers, too.

1. Admit when you screw up
Don’t try to shift the blame and extract the best outcome reasonably possible. Confess, make it as easy and fast as possible to remedy the problem (that you created) and accept whatever alternative can be supplied.

2. Know when it’s time to quit
Don’t push for the answer you want when it’s clear you won’t get it. When defeat is obvious, move on.

3. Use other resources
Complaining at the airport, for example, is a waste of time after a while. Instead, call customer service, write a letter to the CEO (they are read) or turn to social media. Facebook, Twitter and blogs can be great ways to spread the word. Many companies monitor these environments, and the good ones will respond quickly (props to OGIO and Babies “R” Us).

We all love the thought of doing everything possible to help a customer, but sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense. “Reasonable” can do a lot to keep the lines moving and make everyone much, much happier. The best customer service, from time to time, is as little as possible.

[Photo by Larry Myers via Flickr]