If you think consumer advocacy is easy, then read this

By | February 28th, 2016

One of the most enduring myths about the advocacy work you see on this site is that it’s easy.

It goes something like this:

  • In 2006, a leading syndicate picked up my Q&A column. Overnight, the feature appeared in hundreds of newspapers and the cases started rolling in. I never had to lift a finger.
  • I have a system where I simply forward the worthiest cases to a media relations contact at a company. Et voilà! Problem solved.
  • The advice I offer along with my advocacy is either common sense or flat-out incorrect. How dare I call myself an expert?

Who’s saying this?

Normally, the criticism oozes out of a small group of loyalty program fanblogs whose owners are offended that I occasionally write about their millions of dollars in ill-gotten commission checks from credit card affiliate programs. You know, where they tell you how awesome a points-earning credit card is and then their disciples mindlessly sign up for the plastic en masse, delivering a huge paycheck. But sometimes the myths are perpetuated by a well-meaning colleague.

I have a policy of not engaging the credit card shills, but I care about my valued co-workers. I want them to know the truth.

The big easy?

First, this is not easy. A decade ago, my column wasn’t just “picked up” by a syndicator. It had been in self-syndication for years, starting with the Miami Herald and the New Orleans Times-Picayune back in ‘02. These were hard-fought sales, made on the basis of personal relationships.

When your column goes into syndication, you immediately surrender half of your meager income to the syndicator, but with the promise that the sales team will be able to land you in more outlets. It took five years to go from 10 publications to 50. And although the sales team helped, nothing was automatic. I still flagged prospects and closed deals.

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Subscribing newspapers don’t run a column like the Travel Troubleshooter every week, and when they do, they sometimes omit the tagline with my contact information. So the cases didn’t just start rolling in. They trickled in.

If you’re a regular reader of this site, then you can only imagine the quality of the incoming cases. We had a lot of consumers with unrealistic, pre-deregulation expectations, and I found myself in the awkward position of having to tell them “no.” About 10 percent of cases were legitimate, and less than 1 percent resulted in a resolution and an accompanying column.

Pretty easy, huh?

Flashing the media card

But surely, getting a quick resolution is a piece of cake. Right? Not really.

When I began advocating for customers back in ‘99, I knocked on a lot of doors — from customer-service agents to company presidents — to get resolutions for readers. After several cases, a company representative would often contact me and say, “Hey, Chris, could you send these to this person at our company from now on?” Sometimes, that person would be in PR, but not always. For example, my insider at a well-known retailer is an administrative assistant for the customer-service VP.

Do I “play” the media card? No, I downplay it. My queries start with a simple request: “I have a question from a reader and I was hoping you could help me answer it.”

I’ve never, ever threatened anyone with a negative story. The insiders I work with know about that 100-to-1 ratio, so they’re usually more than happy to assist. They care about good service as much as I do.

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In the end, companies work with me because I have a relationship with them. They know that I try to be fair, and they get it. But in the end, it’s the human connection with an employee that makes this work. It is not blasting through the front door with cameras running, 60 Minutes-style.

Bad advice

The final misunderstanding, and perhaps the biggest, relates to the advice I offer readers. You don’t have to look far to find a fanboy forum posting that ends with, “Chris is no expert!” Yet I’ve been in the advocacy business for more than two decades. How can I be that ignorant?

The critics who arrive at these conclusions have made several false assumptions. The two biggest ones: This is a travel blog, and that I claim to be a travel expert.

I’ve said it many times before: This is not a travel blog. It’s a consumer advocacy site, and we handle cases from all industries. And I’ve never claimed to be an expert about anything, except maybe consumer advocacy.

My advice isn’t tainted by my participation in loyalty programs or by spending half my waking hours flying. Instead, it’s swayed by the many painful cases I receive every day from readers like you.

I ask myself: How could that agony have been avoided?

And that’s where my somewhat unorthodox positions on government regulation, marketing and loyalty programs originate. It starts with the consumer’s pain and asks: What could have prevented this?

Some of my well-meaning readers say I have no business writing about any of this unless I’ve worked as a travel agent or a flight attendant or started a successful loyalty program forum. They claim only an “expert” who has memorized all the airport codes or knows how to redeem your points for a first-class flight should offer advice, both online and in a reputable print publication.

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That’s nonsense.

If this is the wrong way of doing it, then let me be wrong. I’m not burying my head in the sand — I have my eye on what really matters.

I have my eye on the consumer.

Consumer advocacy is ...

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  • Peter Varhol

    Chris, I have said it before, and I am happy to shout it from the rooftops. I respect the heck out of what you and your team do. I may not always agree with your opinions, but you do some serious good. Please keep it up; someday I may personally benefit. I may already benefit indirectly from you and people like you.

    And I seriously doubt that you make a lot doing it. For someone like you, this is not a job; it has to be a calling.

  • Rebecca

    There should be a third poll option – both.

    Of course it’s hard. But then again, it’s easy in the sense that you’ve done it long enough that you know where you stand. No constant second guessing yourself, even if your opinion is questioned. I usually agree with you, but even when I don’t I definitely respect your opinion

  • The Original Joe S

    “Some of my well-meaning readers say I have no business writing about any
    of this unless I’ve worked as a travel agent or a flight attendant or
    started a successful loyalty program forum. They claim only an “expert”
    who has memorized all the airport codes or knows how to redeem your
    points for a first-class flight should offer advice, both online and in a
    reputable print publication.”

    That’s like saying a doctor can’t be a pediatrician unless he has given birth.

    Pronounced by consummate jerks………

  • joycexyz

    No good deed goes unpunished! Apologists and advocates for companies that put customers last will always badmouth you. Keep up the good work. You’re on the side of the angels!

  • Carchar

    Of course it’s not easy. If it were, we’d be doing it ourselves and we wouldn’t need you!

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