Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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12 Tips to Craft the Perfect Complaint Letter
July 23, 2015 --Given the state of business travel — cramped, crowded flights, aging rental vehicles, rising hotel rates — it's no surprise that road warriors have a cornucopia of complaints. But turning your discontent into a satisfactory resolution with a supplier — and airlines, hotels and car-rental firms are nothing more or less than suppliers who work for us — takes a bit of work. You can moan on social media or leave a negative review on TripAdvisor, of course, but how does that mitigate the problem? The better approach is a carefully honed letter of complaint. That's where the work comes in because writing a good complaint letter takes some skill, needs to be thoughtfully crafted and must cover certain key points. I've compiled these dozen tips after dozens of years helping business travelers get restitution for any number of foul-ups. I can't guarantee 100 percent success, of course, but follow this 12-step program and you'll turn most legitimate gripes into a satisfactory resolution. Get it right before writing — The best complaint letter is the one you never write because you've solved the problem on the spot. If you can't get it right with the person with whom you're dealing, speak to someone higher up the food chain. A tweet and follow-up direct message to the company's Twitter handle may also generate timely intervention. Schedule permitting, it's worth investing some time in an on-site, ad hoc arbitration. Know your rights — There are some laws specific to hotels and car rentals, but those transactions are largely governed by standard business and legal practices. Not so with airlines. They literally create their own rules, called a contract of carriage, and you explicitly agree to it when you purchase a ticket. A consumer-oriented look at your flying rights is produced by the Transportation Department. You have more substantial legal protections if your flight originates in Europe and the EC clearly outlines your options. Document the process — Experienced business travelers should have a sense very early in the process if something is amiss. Start taking notes immediately. Get times, places, names and as many specifics as you can. Where appropriate, use your smartphone to get an audio, photographic and/or video record. Hold on to all receipts, tickets, boarding passes and anything else that is part of the paper trail. And think like a businessperson: keep track of anything and everything you'd want to know if it were your job to resolve the situation retroactively. Timing is everything — Don't throw your grievance file in the corner with your expense account. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that you'll get satisfaction. Initiate your complaint as soon as you get home. Create a paper trail — Email is easiest and fastest, of course, but most airlines and hotels seem unwilling or unable to resolve substantial problems electronically. That's okay since a clear paper trail is to your benefit. Rely on an old-fashioned paper letter and snail mail. Use company stationery and never send a handwritten note. Attach copies, not originals, of all relevant documents and supporting evidence. Make someone own your problem — Letters generically addressed to customer service will be handled generically and will yield nothing more than a generic apology. If your complaint is extremely specific — a marketing program, a service standard — google the name of the executive in charge of that department and write to them specifically. Otherwise, consider writing to the chief executive. You probably won't get a response directly from the top dog, but most C-suite executives have staff specifically charged with handling letters addressed to them. (Many business travelers have resolved complaints by writing to the firm's assistant general counsel. I don't know why, but it seems to work.) Keep it polite and precise — A long missive that begins with the precedents of Marbury v. Madison isn't a good approach. Think of your complaint letter as a memo to your own boss. Keep it brief, precise and polite. Don't clutter your letter with small indignities, frivolous grudges or points of personal privilege. Status matters, bluffs don't — Don't bludgeon the airline or hotel with your clout, but don't run away from it. If you are an elite frequent traveler, put your account number and status on the letter. If the complaint is so serious that you're thinking of moving your business elsewhere, say so. If you can move your company's account away from the airline or hotel, say so. But don't bluff. Only threaten what you are actually prepared to do. And never tell the company that you'll never do business with them again. If you proclaim yourself a lost customer, there's no incentive for the company to try to make amends. Ask or you won't receive — Writing a complaint letter without asking for a tangible make-good is guaranteed to generate little more than a form letter. Tell the airline, hotel or car-rental firm exactly what is required to make you happy. If you don't ask, you won't receive. Ask for compensation in clear and unequivocal terms. Don't be greedy — Be smart about your make-good request and have a sense of proportion. A one-hour flight delay doesn't entitle you to a refund. A rude front-desk clerk isn't grounds for a free night at a hotel. Asking for hard cash is always tricky, although sometimes a refund is the only fair resolution. However, if you'd be happy with bonus miles or points, upgrades or discount coupons, ask for those. And consider that elevation to the next level of elite status might be the best compensation of all. Persistence pays off — If the airline or hotel's first response is insufficient, tell the person who responded to your letter that you aren't satisfied. (But never return any coupons, discounts, or checks they sent.) You'll be surprised how often a second letter and polite persistence yields a better offer. The last resort — Never pay for travel services by cash, check or debit card because you have legal protection if you use a credit card. Under federal credit laws, you have the right to contest any charge that you do not consider legitimate. If you're in a row with an airline, hotel or car-rental firm over a service they didn't provide, contest the charge with your credit card company. No firm likes a "chargeback" because it carries hard-dollar costs. Involving the credit card company is often your last, best recourse if the company refuses to negotiate with you in good faith.
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