Monday, August 24, 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 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

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