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How to get better customer service from travel companies

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During the pandemic, passengers enjoyed some of the best customer service in years. Hotels welcome returning guests with rock-bottom room rates. Airlines have done away with customer-unfriendly charges. The rental cars were cleaner than ever. But now, amid labor shortages and high inflation, the industry is returning to its old ways.

The latest airline quality rating underscores the airline industry’s shortcomings. “Few flights arrived on time, airlines mishandled more baggage, and more passengers with tickets were denied boarding,” says report co-author Brent Bowen. “And we’re seeing a lack of customer service in all segments of the travel industry: understaffing, supply chain delays and lack of management planning.”

So what can you do to get better customer service? Travelers and travel experts say you should double down on proven tactics like persistence, politeness and patience. But amid the pandemic, some things have changed.

For starters, staffing shortages related to the Great Resignation have gutted many customer service departments. If you have a problem, chances are you’ll talk to a bot — if you can even get one. User-generated reviews help consumers identify companies whose customer service has been a hit. But there are other ways.

“Travellers should look for companies that offer round-the-clock assistance and access to important information, even when human support agents are not available,” says Saurabh Gupta, co-founder and chief executive of developer Skit.ai. Artificial intelligence-driven voice technology. You can tell your travel company has this by looking for a “Contact Us” feature on its site that offers 24/7 phone, chat and email support.

With fewer agents available to help, it’s important that you reach out to the right person. Lorena Kurtzian Hernandez, senior director at Medallia, a developer of customer feedback management software, says calling the company’s main service line is a mistake. Chances are you’ll end up in phone tree limbo.

“Instead, carefully check the travel company’s website to find contact information for the specific issue you need help with,” says Hernandez. “If you’re specific about the type of help you need you’re more likely to get help from the right person in the right department.”

There are plenty of ways to communicate with a company, and it pays to communicate with them all. When you travel, experts say, you need to think outside the box. Consider what happened to Chris Michaels, a website editor who lives outside of Chicago, during a recent stay at Doubletree near Houston. When his family ordered breakfast at the hotel restaurant, it took over an hour to arrive and was cold. The server “just” apologized, he said, then handed him a $60 check.

“We walked past the front desk several times to discuss the experience, but each time there was a long line,” he says. So he contacted the hotel through the Hilton app. “That evening, the hotel manager texted me, called my room and called my mobile phone to apologize and remove the charge from my bill,” Michaels says.

It always helps to be friendly. It’s been a long and stressful summer for travel, and your good manners will take you a long way when you’re trying to get great customer service. “I recommend that customers and service representatives be as friendly as possible,” says Dan Schilken, president of TripInsurance.com. “The more positive the experience, the better the outcome.”

He was right. I’ve seen it in my own consumer advocacy practice. Threatening emails that say “I’ll never do business with you again” or “I’m going to sue you” are more likely to be ignored. But friendly requests for help get almost immediate attention. Don’t be too informal, which means go easy on the emoji. But a little kindness can take you a long way — especially now.

Companies know customer service will be a challenge as travel returns to pre-pandemic levels. How they face that challenge can determine their success or failure. Consider what furnished apartment rental company Blueground has done to ramp up summer. BlueGround always provides a fully digitized experience, interacting with guests through its app, which allows customers to stay connected quickly during their stay. But the company was wary of over-automation, so now it ensures a human, not a bot, answers every contact.

“We’ve empowered our support teams to make quick decisions,” says Nessie Ismet, Blueground’s director of client experience. “It enabled a human-to-human experience for every guest.”

The situation is not hopeless. He says the Fla. city is still in “welcome back mode.”

“Some restaurants include service charges or gratuities,” he says. “They’re leaving it up to the guest to do the right thing.” Her takeaway? Maybe — just maybe — the hospitality industry sees its happy customers and wants them to stay that way.

Potential travelers should take into account local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any trips. Travel health advisory information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s Travel Health Advisory webpage.

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