It’s easy enough to complain to an airline or hotel over bad service. It’s quite another matter to do so in an effective manner to obtain the results you are seeking. Here’s my how-to guide on complaining.
A Case Study
Let’s use an example. If you want to get right to my tips, scroll down to the next section. My inauguration trip to Washington, DC was nearly ruined due to a missed connection in Newark. The missed connection–attributed to United–was due to a faulty bus system connecting the A and C terminals of Liberty International Airport. You can read the details here.
My friend John, who is brilliant in his field of expertise, insisted upon calling United to seek compensation for the problem at EWR. I advised him against it, asking him to let me handle it in my way. I’ve had my fair share of complaints over the years and find the worst possible way to deal with a problem is to be abrasive.
But when John makes up his mind, there is no more arguing.
So he picked up the phone and called United, asking to be transferred to customer service. He explained the situation to the agent and asked for a full refund of the flight cost and compensation for the $236 Uber ride from New York to Washington. He then asked for a free ticket back to LA.
The agent, trying to hold back laughter I am sure, politely denied his request. Like negotiating over a rug in a Turkish bazaar, John went volleyed the agent with demands for compensation. Each time, she calmly explained that she had opened a case file and that we would hear from United within 48-72 hours. But there would be no immediate compensation.
Like a comedy show (he had the speaker on), John continued to push for immediate compensation. The agent continued to politely refuse. Frankly, I marveled at her patience: John was never rude, but incredibly persistent and most agents (I would assume) would eventually just hang up the phone. This is not the way to complain.
Of course John escalated to the supervisor and got the same answer. The supervisor also could not have been nicer.
All this time, with the microphone on mute, I pleaded with John to end the call because the miles came out of my Premier Gold account and I did not want any nasty permanent notes affixed to my profile. I explained to John that I would handle it. He wanted to prove me wrong. Ever since he thought he could “outdo” me on miles and points five years ago, he has tried to one-up me in my realm of travel.
Back then, he braggadociously informed me had just redeemed 264K miles via the AMEX Travel Portal for a Hawaiian Airlines first class ticket to Honolulu. I informed him the same flights were available via Hawaiian Airlines for 80K points round-trip and he could have transferred those AMEX points on a 1:1 basis to Hawaiian. You should have seen the look on his face!
Fool me twice…
Before the call to United I told John that we likely would not get any miles back (despite the agent in Newark telling us she had “refunded our ticket”), but we would likely get compensation for our Uber fare and perhaps even an additional voucher. I told him I would handle it via email. Thinking he could outdo me, he picked up the phone to call.
Long story short, United has (thus far) refused to compensate us for the Uber ride even though the agent-suggested solution (Amtrak) would have been four times the price. It has offered a $150 voucher for each of us. Why? Because the agent crafted the complaint, not me. By allowing the agent to word the complaint, key details were omitted and correcting them now is even harder. The agent in Newark did promise compensation for our Amtrak ride or car rental and did promise a full refund of our miles. I don’t think both are a reasonable expectation — one or the other is reasonable, though. I also know better to than to argue with an agent on the phone.
How to Complain to an Airline or Hotel (the ABCs)
Here’s how I would have done it and how you should craft your complaint to an airline or hotel if you want a positive response–
- Accuracy – Stick to the pertinent facts. Don’t exaggerate. Include revelant details like the flight number, your ticket number, and your PNR. Do not be emotional — just state what went wrong as factually as possible.
- Brevity – The most important aspect of any complaint is to be brief. Agents will not read your sob story. I guarantee it. Head over to untied.com (not united.com) for a website that houses a great inventory of United complaints. Most of them are short stories and agents processing hundreds of customer service complains each day simply do not have the time to closely examine a verbose complaint. Your letter should be no more than 2-3 short paragraphs.
- Clarity – I like using bullet points or numbers when I complain. Make it easy to read. Address the problem in the first point. Offer a solution (request specific compensation) in the second, and thank the agent for reading and understanding in the third point. That is all that is needed. The customer service agent does not need to know or care about other details.
An Example of a Well-Written Complaint
Going back to our case study, here is how I would have formed the complaint to United:
While I am thankful you are usually able to get me to my destination, you were not able to on 01/20/17.
- Due to a mechanical issue with the inter-terminal bus at EWR, I missed my connection to DCA. No flights were available until the afternoon. A PM arrival would have defeated the very purpose of the trip.
- An agent notated our record and advised us to rent a car or take Amtrak, submit a receipt, and United would compensate us for the out-of-pocket expense. She also added that we would be fully refunded the mileage used for our ticket even though we partially completed the trip. I am not requesting a mileage refund, but I am requesting that you honor the agent’s reimbursement promise. I have attached the Uber receipt, which proved a cheaper option that either a car rental ($300) or Amtrak ($800).
- Thank you for addressing this issue and please let me know if I can provide any clarification.
Matthew Klint (MileagePlus number)
Note I left out all the detail I wrote about here. The Customer Service agent does not need to know about how we were advised by a United employee to forget the bus and get ourselves over to Terminal A by taxi. Sure, that bolsters our case, but it is unnecessary.
I will send this note to United and let you know you know if it reconsiders its denial of cash compensation for the Uber ride.
The ABCs of complaining: accuracy, brevity, clarity. Follow these three easy steps and you will find that you receive more responsive replies and better compensation for your complaints.
Thanks for this very helpful post!