Five ways to spot awful customer service

When I think I might have problems with patience, my wife is always happy to confirm it for me. Since I hate to wait in line, expect employees to know what they are doing and always be having a good day (at least as far as I can see), my standards are sometimes ridiculously high – and my moods similarly foul. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to a bit of mercy. Sometimes, in a fit of sanity, I realize that I may be overreacting. When this happens, I usually give an inept service provider a pass.

So, how can you tell? You don’t want to be unreasonable with gate agents, concierges and taxi drivers, but you also shouldn’t have to be a pushover. When is it okay to leave a shitty tip? When should you stand up for yourself when a driver doesn’t arrive at your door on time? It can be harder than you think to navigate these areas of travel ethics. So, after the jump, take a look at 10 ways to spot genuinely awful customer service. Even if you are more patient than I am, these are of a caliber that will guarantee you’re not out of your mind for being pissed.

1. You are greeted with some variation of “not my fault”
This one is in the top spot for a reason. There is nothing worse than having a driver, flight attendant or any other travel industry employee use those three words. Why? There very utterance implies that there is a problem. Would someone give you a comp’ed spa treatment and say, “Not my fault?” Of course not! Further, the phrase actually puts you on the defensive. You’re mad because you didn’t get what you expected, and the service provider is telling you that what you feel is inappropriate.

Remember: when you pay for a service or item, you are entitled to what you paid for. There’s no way around this. If there is any deviation from that standard, the company you are paying should be singularly focused on making it right – even if the person who is stuck with that burden didn’t play a direct role in creating the problem.

I know that sometimes the person who receives your anger may not deserve it. In the case of my customer service disaster with Carmel Limo over the summer, the driver probably got screwed up by a dispatch department that wasn’t paying attention to detail. But, he needed to remember that he’s in the customer service business. If he had accepted my attitude and tried to make the experience better, Carmel would still have my business … and he would have had a fantastic tip. Instead, both lost.

2. You are told to be happy with what you get
When an airline “comforts” you over a delay by saying, “It could be worse,” or some form of that, you have every right to be angry. When a hotel employee tells you that you should be happy to have a room at all – even if it doesn’t meet your standards – because the hotel is booked or for any other reason, you should be alarmed about the service you’ll receive for the rest of your stay. And, when you are told to live with whatever problems you face in the service for which you have paid, you’re getting screwed.

Any deficiency should be met with a remedy. Ideally, this would entail fixing the problem (e.g., moving you to a room with hot water, to choose a particularly painful example). If that’s not possible, related measures to make your experience better in other ways (from free stuff to upgrades) should be brought to the table.

The more remote the remedy is from the problem, the bigger the incentive should be. I remember staying at a small mid-town Manhattan hotel back in 2003 (can’t remember the name – I stayed in close to 20 in a period of six months). I was only there for a night, and that morning, there was no hot water. None. And, I had to spend most of the day in meetings. Since I booked the room through, the manager said she couldn’t refund me. To make the situation right, all she would say is, “I’ll make it very ‘comfortable’ for you next time you stay.” Did she mean a lower rate? A free night? Two? I have no idea. After persevering 30 seconds in a cold shower before giving up, I didn’t care.

3. You’re not the only one to complain
If you complain to the service provider and hear, “Several of our guests have brought that to our attention, we’re working on it,” be patient. It may be a big problem that requires time and people to address. Yet, as time passes and the number of complainants increases, you’re dealing with a situation that’s unlikely to involve a swift resolution. The longer you wait, the greater the effort the provider should make to appease you. Also, they should do something to make you as comfortable as possible in the interim. If this isn’t happening, you’re getting shafted.

Airlines are the most egregious violators of this rule – and usually combine it with the first point, above. They will tell you that you’re not alone, do nothing to make the experience more comfortable for you and then claim it isn’t their fault. Of course, these companies will tell you that they’d love to help, but airline economics are such that they just can’t afford to. What does this mean? Well, read between the lines: it is a conscious commitment to lousy customer service.

4. You get attitude
Regardless of how big an asshole you may become, there is no reason for a hotel, airline or other travel employee to get visibly irritated or angry with you unless you go too far – which includes physical threats, excessive use of profanity or a voice loud enough to imply a physical threat. If you are in a bad mood, ask firm questions and demand straight answers, you aren’t doing anything wrong. The only appropriate demeanor on the other side of the counter should be to smile and be helpful.

Now, the travel industry folks will claim that the rest of us don’t know how hard it can be. But, I’m pretty sure that the average accountant, attorney, consultant or investment banker – along with many, many other professions – has had to cope with an upset client. The abuse that these guys receive can be incredible, and they sit down, shut up and take it … because of the fees involved, probably. I’ve been there, and most of the people I worked with in my consulting days have been there. When you have an upset (or irate) client, you have to assume that the situation is your fault – even when it isn’t. If your travel-related service provider doesn’t share this belief, you’re right to get angry.

5. Excuses, excuses
When you are given reasons for a particular turn of events but no remedy, you are certain not to be satisfied. Shit happens, as we all know, and it’s incumbent upon every human being to find a way to life with it. Yet, when a situation does go south, the provider should start to find ways to fix the situation. A problem with a reason but no resolution is an excuse. A problem with a reason and a remedy – or at least a way to minimize the pain – builds customer loyalty for a lifetime.

Five ways to get to the airport

Your bags are sitting in the hallway, and you’re ready to go to the airport. How to get there involves a tradeoff between cost and hassle. A sacrifice is always necessary, and it’s significant: you’ll have to give up something important. But, this is the nature of travel, so the best you can do is understand the good and bad associated with each.

1. Drive
Take yourself to the airport, and you don’t have to rely on anyone else’s schedule. You own your time. But, you may have to deal with traffic, and parking can get expensive. Choose a long-term parking lot to trade convenience for savings.

2. Taxi
This is more an urban option. It’s cheaper than a town car but can still become costly, especially with tolls and tip. If it’s early in the morning or raining, you might have trouble finding a cab.

3. Public transportation
Public transportation is generally the cheapest alternative, but leave lots of time (especially if you live in the suburbs); it can take hours. How much is your time worth?

4. Town car/limo
You’ll pay to play with a town car or limousine, which can be the most expensive (unless you drive to an airport that charges a small fortune for parking … and you’re taking a long trip). But, your car should arrive early and be ready to wait for you (no honking or phone calls until you’re a little late), and it will be clean and comfortable.

5. Find a friend
Convince someone to drive you, and you save a fortune and win some convenience. Do this too often, though, and your friends will hate you.

Five tips for booking a better town car

There are many ways to get to the airport, from public transportation to sitting behind the wheel yourself. My preferred method is town car. I don’t have my own vehicle, and I don’t like having to hope I’ll find a cab – especially early in the morning or in the rain. Also, I got used to town cars during my stint as a management consultant. Choose wisely, and your trip to the airport will be downright pleasant. But, a bad experience can cause you anxiety when you’re leaving (rushing, missed flights, etc.) or impatience when you arrive and just want to go home.

It pays to do your homework. You do have the power to improve the odds. So, here are five ways to make sure your town car trip is exactly what you need.

1. You get what you pay for
Discount services will send beat up cars sometimes, and the drivers can be a bit unhelpful. But, you can wind up with a great car and excellent service. The problem is that there’s no sure thing. An extra $20 can usually get you better service and a cleaner, more comfortable ride.

2. You see the same mistakes
Everyone has shitty days, so it’s unfair to judge from one error. If you do, you could miss out on years of great service. But, if the drivers are routinely late or go to the wrong terminal too often, it’s time to call another company.

3. Your voice isn’t heard
Any company that makes it easy for you to complain wants feedback – this is important. If you call with a complaint and can’t get anywhere, find a service that will appreciate what you spend. I recently had this problem with Carmel Limo (which also violated #2), and the customer service team provided little help. I e-mailed the corporate office about customer service problems … and was told to contact customer service. That was my cue to move on.

4. Find a good small company
You may have to hunt around for a referral, but it’s worth the effort. You’ll have someone who can vouch for the car service, and the personal touch of a small business will be evident. Also, smaller companies will be more likely to give you the occasional upgrade or other surprise perk.

5. Spring for inside pickup
At some airports, you have to call when you land to have your car sent to you. Usually, you can pay extra to have the driver meet you inside: do this. Not having to wait when all you want to do is get home is priceless.

Remember: tip well for great service. It will be remembered and, as a result, is an investment in future treatment.