I don’t know how we lost it. But if there was one thing I could fix about the travel industry, it would be to bring back the compassion that once defined it.
Compassion – real compassion — doesn’t mean giving away the store. It doesn’t even mean the customer is “always” right.
Compassion means putting yourself in the customers’ position, regardless how much they paid for their ticket or the color of their loyalty card.
I’ve been writing about airlines, car rental companies, cruises and hotels for most of my career. In the early ‘90s, even after a recession and airline deregulation, the travel industry as a whole still seemed to care about customers. Complaints were rare, and I struggled to find cases to write about.
Oh, how times have changed. Today, new complaints land in my inbox every minute. They come from everywhere: parents and grandparents, widows and orphans, disabled vets and single moms on fixed incomes. Many are on a tight budget. They’re all looking for just a little compassion as they try to reach their weddings, funerals or vacations.
The customer service scores reflect that trend. The only travelers who seem to like the system today are the elite-level customers, the top spenders who are lavished with perks.
Some might blame the shift on the computer algorithms, often referred to as yield management systems, that separate the very best customers from the rest. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But travel companies removed the basic necessities from the “unimportant” customers and then tried to sell them back to them as options. And when consumers had the gall to complain, they got a “you-get-what-you-pay-for” response.
I think we lost something then. Something important.
Perhaps it was the new ways they were training customer service agents. When I started covering travel, outsourcing a call center was considered experimental. Now, most service calls are recorded and scripted by agents thousands of miles away who may not speak English as a first language.
How can those agents be compassionate if they don’t know what’s being said? Or if they can’t understand the customer?
Even in a face-to-face interaction, the compassion has been drained away by restrictive policies. Airline, car rental, and hotel block their agents — sometimes literally — from doing something compassionate, like zeroing out a fee or offering a voucher to a needy traveler.
There are exceptions, of course. There will always be exceptions. But there are not enough of them.
It would be too easy, too simplistic, to merely point the finger at management. Yes, in a lot of cases management just over-maximized revenues in an effort to increase shareholder value, to the point where they completely forgot the fact that they are in the hospitality industry.
But I think something else is going on. On the one hand, I believe many travel companies have trained their employees to stop thinking of their customers as people. And on the other, we, their customers, have stopped expecting them to treat us like people, and oftentimes we’ve even stopped acting
As customer service ratings have fallen, so have customer expectations.
Travelers don’t even expect their plane to take off or land on time anymore. Will their “confirmed” hotel reservation mean there’s an actual room available? Maybe, maybe not.
To bring back the compassion will require travel companies to stop the freefall and for customers to demand it. The free-market can’t fix this, because in many of these industries — most notably, airlines – there is no free market. The barriers to entry are high and the airlines hide behind fortress hubs and predatory pricing practices. Bankruptcies, mergers and bad policy decisions have drained away meaningful competition.
Fixing this problem means a few brave companies have to stand up and say “enough.” It means travelers need to throw their support behind such companies and to say, “We’re paying attention — and we care.”
There’s really only one thing that’s missing: a catalyst.
It could be a person or persons or a new law or even a new administration. But something is needed to motivate an entire industry and many of its customers to do something simultaneously before anything can be fixed.
I hope it happens soon. I’m ready.