Can you guess who made our 2017 company watchlist?

For years, readers have asked me to publish a warning list of companies that receive too many complaints. And for years I’ve hesitated — for a number of reasons.

For example, how do you determine when a complaint is legitimate? How do you weigh the size of a company against the number of complaints? What about repeat submissions?

But in 2016, I finally did it.

Before I get to the expanded list I promised yesterday, a few words about how we reached these conclusions.

In late 2015, I set up a complaint intake form that required readers submit detailed information and to grant our advocates permission to mediate their case and to write about them. The form separated less serious complaints, which were usually emailed, phoned in, or submitted as forum posts, from the “Mission: Impossible” cases my team and I are known for.

Still, we received 3,534 cases for the year.

After a lengthy internal discussion, we decided not to weigh the numbers. (If you’d like to do that, the comments are open, and please include your math.) We also decided any complaint willing to go through our lengthy form was indeed serious, figured out a way of eliminating obvious duplicates, and we were off to the races.

Here, then, are the 20 most complained-about companies of the year. I’m a little uncomfortable with calling it a “watchlist,” although I’m sure some readers will start referring to it as one.

Rank Company Complaints Percent
1. American Airlines 396 11.21%
2. United Airlines 185 5.23%
3. Expedia 156 4.41%
4. Delta Air Lines 95 2.69%
5. Enterprise 93 2.63%
6. Hertz 77 2.18%
7. British Airways 67 1.90%
8. Southwest Airlines 62 1.75%
9. Avis 61 1.73%
10. AT&T 47 1.33%
11. Viking Cruises 44 1.25%
12. Spirit Airlines 43 1.22%
13. Fareportal 31 0.88%
14. NCL 28 0.79%
15. Airbnb 25 0.71%
16. Lufthansa 24 0.68%
17. Priceline 22 0.62%
18. Allianz 21 0.59%
19. HomeAway 21 0.59%
20. Royal Caribbean 21 0.59%

What to make of this list?

The big story is the airline industry’s dominant performance — specifically, American’s.

As I noted yesterday, American came in first by a wide margin. United Airlines, the number-two company, had nearly half the complaints.

Complaints to this site are a lot like those filed to any federal agency, like the Department of Transportation or the Federal Trade Commission. For every one grievance, there are probably hundreds — if not thousands — of others.

Other trends worth noting:

  • Expedia, at number three, was the highest-ranked non-airline. We grouped companies like Hotwire and Orbitz with Expedia, since they are all owned by the same company and operate in the same industry. Expedia’s customer service problems are systemic, although there’s some evidence the company is trying to change that.
  • Enterprise is the most complained-about car rental company (number 5) followed by Hertz (6) and Avis (9). Enterprise continues to struggle with overly aggressive damage claims, although the situation is getting much better. If we’d done a comparable list in 2010, Enterprise might have ranked much higher.
  • Viking is the most complained-about cruise line. That’s no surprise to readers of this site, who are used to regular complaints about cruises that turned into bus tours. Speaking from a writer’s point of view, I’m always intrigued when Viking forces a customer to sign a non-disclosure agreement and then can’t tell us the resolution. Guaranteed story!

While I feel customers should be warned about any company garnering more than one percent of our complaints, those ranking lower (13 and under) are being let off with a slap on the wrist. I don’t necessarily recommend avoiding them, but I’d urge you to read the fine print and disclosures carefully and to keep as much of your interactions on email or online chat (and save a transcript).

One more thing: You’ll find several supporters of this site on the list. Becoming a corporate underwriter means something to us. It means that the company is serious about providing better service and always working toward a goal of zero complaints. But their support doesn’t get them off the list or buy them any special consideration. If we didn’t publish this list as is, how could we call ourselves consumer advocates?

And that’s the goal, of course: To get off the list. This site offers a way. We publish the list of every customer service contact in corporate America, and we urge readers to contact them before filing a formal complaint. If those customer-service contacts ignore the help requests, they will have to deal with us — and with being on this list.

In coming weeks, it’s my intent to have a personal conversation with representatives from all of these companies to figure out how to get them off the 2017 list. I look forward to an honest and productive exchange.

(By the way, you’ll want to save your angry emails until tomorrow, when our Reader’s Choice results are released. The results might surprise you. Stay tuned.)

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