Ridiculous or not? Form letters that fail

I‘ve waged a long and lonely campaign against mindless form letters sent to customers by uncaring corporations.

It looks like I finally have some company.

Ana Maria Roqué booked an airport transfer and tour through Priceline. But when she arrived at the airport in Rome, her tour guide was nowhere to be found.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso. The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit Virtuoso.com.

“No one was waiting for us,” she says. Finally, she tracked down the tour company, but a representative rudely insisted they didn’t have a reservation and that Priceline was “fraudulently” using the tour company’s name.

So Roqué hired a taxi and took the matter up with Priceline when she returned. She sent a brief, polite email to Priceline, asking for a refund.

“I finally got an email response from Priceline, in which they said they had researched my complaint and had confirmed the tour in question had been taken without problem,” she says. “The reference number they gave me was different form the transfer voucher. I have sent several emails after that one. All have been ignored.”

Ah, the thoughtlessly-sent form letter! Every company does it, to one degree or another. Some are simple cut-and-paste jobs that “apologize” for making a customer feel disappointed, but rarely for the actual infraction that led to the disappointment. Others are hybrids; part form letter, part fill-in-the-blank.

All of them have one thing in common: They fail to adequately address the problem the customer originally had.

I’m a big proponent of the written complaint. Short of resolving the problem in real-time, which Roqué certainly tried to do, the brief, polite email trumps even the most articulate, well-mannered phone call.

Why? Mostly because you have no record of a call (alas, the company does, because it records calls “for quality assurance purposes” – whatever that means).

Form responses are necessary evils. If your customer-service agents have to type the same information over and over, how is that an effective use of their time? I use forms myself from everything from thanking readers for story feedback to acknowledging requests for mediation.

But overreliance on forms can be problematic. Autoresponders fall under that category – they go out to anyone that emails you, regardless of the query. In Roqué’s view, Priceline was sending her the equivalent of a vacation autoresponder instead of investigating her complaint.

I could spend a few paragraphs describing what an inappropriate form response looks like, but I’ll spare you. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart probably said it best in 1964, when describing his threshold test for pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

When you do, it’s best to send a cordial rebuttal, requesting another review. That normally does the trick.

I asked Priceline to take another look at Roqué’s case. A representative responded to me in person.

“Here’s what happened,” he told me. “The Rome phone number provided to the customer was not for the correct airport transfer agent. I’m not certain how this happened, since our tours and other destination services are handled for us by a third party. “

Priceline issued a full refund to Roqué and offered her a $50 credit. She’s happy with that resolution. To put it mildly.

“If you run for president,” she says, “you have my vote!”

Stand by, Ana Maria. I’ll be making an announcement shortly.

61 thoughts on “Ridiculous or not? Form letters that fail

  1.  I find that companies, whether travel or not have the same mantra.  Form letters unless the writer is someone that they don’t want to piss off.  For example, elite tiered customers for example tend to get preferential treatment instead of form letters.

    1. Not always true, I’ve been a United 1K for many years, and several years ago I felt like I got personal responses.  But recently they have gone to impersonal form letters as well.  A recent letter about a horrible experience with a flight attendant resulted in the following reply: “We’re sorry to hear your experience gave you an unfavorable impression.  United strives to train all of its employees to provide the highest levels of customer service and to maintain their professionalism at all times. We appreciate the opportunity to respond to your concerns.”
      Why the “We are sorry to hear” and “Gave you an unfavorable impression”?  All things that sound like apologies, but are really not.  Why not just apologize and move on?

      1. Funny thing is, I sent an email to United complimenting them on a recent issue where they actuall went out of their way to fix a problem and I got the same “We are sorry to hear …” response!  If anyone with a sixth grade reading comprehension would have actually read the email they would have noticed I was not complaining.

        1. I’ve gotten that too!!!  I often send in e-mail with names and details when I see really good service and/or problem solving.  I often get a canned reply about how they are sorry for the situation, etc.  One time I thanked them for how well a gate agent handled a complicated situation and got a form quasi apology with a $150 certificate attached.

      2. I used to work in customer relations for an airline, and we always had to say “we regret to learn of…” because an outright “we’re sorry” would admit guilt.  The really big cases (legitimate problems) got a sincere apology and compensation, but the whiners who thought the flight attendant looked at them funny…well, we regret that…

      3. Granted, we are speaking in generalities.  I recently had an issue with a Marriott property in Vegas.  My phone call was ignored so I sent a letter, addressed specifically to the GM, and included my Platinum number.  The next day I got a personal phone from a VP who apologied profusely and creditted back to me my first night’s stay.

  2. Form letters are a part of the problem, especially when seeking resolution.

    But the bigger problem in my opinion – for other queries – is representatives who don’t READ and attempt to comprehend what you’re asking. People are hired to view certain keywords as triggers and then automatically reply with the related form letter. 

    It’s gotten to the point where the first line after my salutation is “Please note: I am NOT asking about XYZ.  Please do not reply with information about XYZ.  I already know that.” 

    I’d be perfectly happy with form letters if they addressed my actual concern and not a tangential concern that happens to share a key word or phrase.

  3. Form letters are a part of the problem, especially when seeking resolution.

    But the bigger problem in my opinion – for other queries – is
    representatives who don’t READ and attempt to comprehend what you’re
    asking. People are hired to view certain keywords as triggers and then
    automatically reply with the related form letter. 

    It’s gotten to the point where the first line after my salutation is
    “Please note: I am NOT asking about XYZ.  Please do not reply with
    information about XYZ.  I already know that.” 

    I’d be perfectly happy with form letters if they addressed my actual
    concern and not a tangential concern that happens to share a key word or


  4. “it records calls “for quality assurance purposes” – whatever that means).”

    Having worked in a call center, I can tell you that random calls were recorded. Supervisors would listen to those calls and use them to help agents improve their over the phone skills. Since not all calls were recorded and specific calls could not be retrived, they were not used for dispute resolution.

    Example…when the customer says “My wife and I are thinking of going to Rome.”, rather than say “How many people are going?” a better response to coach will be “Will it just be the two of you traveling?”

    Of course, that was my experience and other companies may have other procedures.

    1. I used to work as a call center supervisor.  New employees would listen in on calls while they were being trained, and then they would have someone listen in on their calls once they started taking calls.  Nothing was actually recorded.   When the high-ups started telling us to tell customers that we reviewed the recording and that such-and-such was never said (even though we had no recording) I found myself a new job.  I would not be surprised if other companies also state they review calls which were never really recorded.  Oh, and when a customer asked to hear the recording, it was “proprietary” information that we could not release.  Made me sick.

      1. You mean they’re just a bunch of LIARS? I thought they recorded all of “Peggy’s” customer calls. No seriously, how would anyone CATALOG (i.e wav) files of recorded customer calls? We have one of this hi-tech call center software in the office and stopped recording stuff since the library of wav files were totally useless. Most recordings are there to protect the company – to prove consent to charge credit cards and debit bank account or for third party verification. The FTC requires proof of consent for over the phone transactions.

        1. I was always told (may not be FTC compliant) that the CVV number was proof of consent for over the phone transactions.  How else would we get it since it’s only on the card?  Not saying that was legally compliant, and this was the company that lied about its calls.  Again, I no longer work there because their ethics didn’t match with my ethics.  It was a lender/servicer in 2003.

          1. The CVV is nothing but an extra security, anti-fraud check. As you know, the CVV is *not* encoded on the magnetic strip. So if someone where to fraudulently “copy” your card by an illegal swipe, the copied card would not have the CVV on it. So if the CVV the shopper enters is not correct, then the transaction will not be authorized.

            The FTC has strict rules on some over the phone transactions. This is the main reason call centers have to record some transactions. They need proof that the account holder actually PRE-AUTHORIZED the transaction.

    2. Aren’t most call center questions and responses SCRIPTED anyway?
      So many call center employees in India and the Philippines need scripts in order to do their lousy jobs.

      1. The call center I worked at years ago was a travel agency. It is hard to script a call because, as you know, almost all calls are unique.

        On a side note, I noticed after repeated calls to Comcast, I now get routed to an agent in North America. I started insisting they stop reading from “the script” when I got the overseas agents.

        1. I understand that Priceline (a travel agency) uses call centers in the Philippines even if their main office is right here in Exit 13, I-95 Norwalk. Connecticut (a few miles where I am right now). The same is true for Expedia and other OTAs. I can assure you the Filipino call center agents are most likely using scripts (seen on their computer screens or implanted in memory). These people think and speak Tagalog (or another dialect) in their daily life (activities). If they have to respond in English, their minds have to translate it first in their home language even if they have already acquired good enough “American” English accents. And, don’t ask them to write anything in English or you might get disappointed. I know since I work with Philippine (travel-related) call centers daily.

          1. And the award for the condescending reply goes to…
            I’m not an american and I worked at an outsource call center when I was younger at my hometown. Most of the employees came from bilingual schools and I can say almost all of the people from my “campaign” didn’t “translate” as they were listening or talking. Since I was young I’ve been able to think in english… The scripts you hate are MANDATORY, no matter how slow or painful is for the customer. If you didn’t follow the script you would end up with no “bonus”, which effectively left you earning like 3 dollars per hour, instead of up to 5 dollars that you earned if you follow all the scripts required by the American company.

          2. Aldo, american and english are usually spelled with a capital letter A and E, respectively. So where are you Aldo? How good are these “bilingual” schools? Can you name some so we can research them?

            Most Americans would rather be served by fellow Americans. Thank you.

          3. Aldo is correct.  I work in Silicon Valley and most of my clients are foreign born(Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Indians)  and attended bilingual schools in their native countries.  The colloquial(sp) term is usually the “International” school, occassionally the “American School”.  These are schools where the expectation is that there students will spend some amount, possibly all, of their adult lives in the US or the UK.  Its also the place where Americans and Brits would send their own children to school while abroad.

            Most of these students would attend American Univesities.

            My experience is that these folks tend to have much milder accents (if any) and have a more American or British paradigm and interact easily with American or British culture.

            Granted, these graduates are unlikely to work in a call center.

          4. Carver, I think I should know a little better.  I did manage an (inbound customer service) call center in SE Asia. I too lived in No.CA and worked in the heart of silicon valley (HP and Sun Micro facilities).  I have interviewed many of these workers, trained them, and continue to deal with them on a daily basis.

            You need to make a distinction between the cream that rises to the top and get here (USA)  from the ones that stay there and earning a few bucks an hour at call centers. Don’t get fooled, not all of these call center workers are working for Microsoft or some techie companies. Many of them are making outbound telemarketing calls reading from scripts.

            And specifically referring to the Philippines; there are only very few INTERNATIONAL schools per se. They are very expensive and cater to the kids of expats and local oligarchs. These kids don’t need to work at call centers. While almost all schools there have English classes (since the Philippines was a former US colony), the overall quality is mediocre.
            Some American Jesuits and LaSalle Brothers are active in very good schools there (i.e Ateneo de Manila, DeLa Salle Univ., Xavier Univ.); and the secular  University of the Philippines is a top notch university. But the rest are so-so.

            99.99% of the call-center people I worked with in Asia, think and speak local. They don’t go about talking to friends, parents and relatives in American English. They have really no clue what the average American traveler is going through. I think you (CARTER) should have noticed that Aldo is an outbound telemarketer (doing campaigns as he calls them). This (Eliott’s) whole site and the OPs post is about CUSTOMER SERVICE which is usually an INBOUND request to call/service centers. The term telemarketer and travel ombudsman are incompatible IMO.

          5. Most Americans would rather be served by fellow Americans. Thank you. 

            Not even close to being true.  Americans want to be assisted by people who they can understand, both in terms of language and accent, and paradigms regardless of nationality.

            Starwood has (had) a call center in Texas and Ireland. When the Texas center was unavailable, elite level callers were routed to Ireland as an unwritten perk. Regular member were routed to the Philippines or India.  The Ireland call center was generally praised as being the best offshore call center around.

            By contrast, call centers in certain countries are painful to deal with, not only because of the difficulty in dealing with an unfamiliar accent, but that the call center workers seem to have less authority, less ability to do anything besides read the scripts. Its maddening.

          6. Aldo, I also noticed you used the word “campaign” and not “customer service”. For all those not familiar with call center terminology, CAMPAIGN means OUTBOUND calling usually with an automated dialer. Usually these are the idiots who do not respect our U.S. Do Not Call Rules. So many of them work for bogus charities, bill collectors; and they pitch useless crap like print/copier toners, etc. They can operate relatively “free from FBI scrutiny” in foreign countries.

          7. But if the company has an American Presence then its under the control of US laws and can be appropriately punished.

          8. I should clarify. I did not work for an “online travel vending machine” as you have so wonderfully named them in the past, but rather a true agency whose business model was based on that of a brick and mortar agency…except we did not have a retail, walk in presence…only phone calls.

          9. Same here Mike. People rarely visit our office. They don’t have to spend money on gas and tolls. Also, they are spared of the traffic, finding parking, or a subway ride. They really get “better” service over the phone and email since they can stay home and relax. The difference is – with NON-ONLINE agencies – customers get to talk or interact with a human being, hopefully with someone who really understands and can empathize with them. The best is we are “forced” to beat online prices to stay alive. What a crazy world.

          10. I was afraid we were getting a bit off topic, but as I look back at the originall topic….discussing the pros and cons of a form letter have many parallels with that of a script when calling a call center.

          11. Yeah Mike, this is a problem for many ONLINE vendors. Many of these vendors offer over-the-phone customer service, too. A while back, they began outsourcing to rural call centers. Then these call centers migrated to India and the Philippines since these 2 countries have English as their second language and have millions of cheap, college-educated young workers. The emphasis of these Indian and Philippine call centers was to develop an American sounding accent. Unfortunately, as time passed by, the MODE of communicating customer service issues became more and more by email or by filling up a web form. So these foreign workers need a new skill – reading and writing for business correspondence. Guess what – where do you get that nowadays? Therefore, all you see are a bunch of form templates and the like.

    3. i disagree w the “will it JUST be the two of you traveling” sort of says to me, too bad there aren’t more. When we go out to eat and they say  Just the two of you for dinner, as if to say, oh, thats all. 

      1. I disagree with the “…the two of you traveling” because it can be answered “no” and you still have have to ask how many will be traveling.  It’s far better to avoid questions that are answered “yes” or “no” because a follow-up question to qualify the response is needed which disrespects the client’s time by using it is unecessarily.

        1. That all depends on which party’s interests you are looking out for.  To keep call times short, which is what the company wants, the less questions the better.  But as a consumer, an extra question or two to assure that they understand what I want is absolutely no problem for me. And a bit of extra conversation makes for a more cordial call. The worst thing is to have a live person on the phone yet still get the impression you are talking to a robot.

      2. The word JUST may or may not have been used, I was pointing out the circumstance in which a call was recorded for quality purposes.

        However, if the response is genuine, which you cannot easily get from a script, it’s fine. When I make my first trip with only my wife when the kids leave the nest, a milestone anniversary or a retirement, I be very please to say “Yes, just me and my wife!” 🙂

        It’s not only about choice of words, but also how they they are presented. A script is not genuine. A rushed server may not come across as genuine either.

  5. You’ll be surprised how many customer center employees cannot write.
    In fact I do not expect the average person to compose a business letter.
    Many call center agents of travel companies are not paid enough to afford the tours and travel products they sell. They probably are not even in America. What can you expect from them? It’s just going to get worse since the future crop of workers only need to know to send text messages to get by in day to day life.

  6. From a business perspective, Form Letters are an efficient use of the Employee’s time and the companies money.
    Readers need to remember that Form Letters do not fit every situation, but they do catch 90+% of them.  The ones we read about from Chris are the ones that should not have been form letters.

    Let’s Look at the math behind it really quick.  Say for instance it takes a  person 8 hours($10/Hour) to send out 100 Form Letters.  Of those, 5 people took offense at the Form Letter and demanded further investigation.  Let’s say an average person($15/Hour) can handle 10 Investigations per day.
    So if a company sent out 200 Form Letters in a day, they’d have to further process 10 investigations with a total cost of $280~$1.40/Complaint.
    Now let’s assume the company instead had to research each and everyone of those complaints.  The company’s cost goes up to $2,400 ~ $12/Complaint.
    Given the large number of mostly bogus complaints, I’d say that the use of Form Letters is justified.  Sure you may make the occasional customer upset, but if they are good, they can quickly deal with those exceptions to the Form Letter system and rectify the situation…

    1. Bogus complaints?

      Maybe from the viewpoint of the company the complaints are bogus, but I am willing to bet that most every customer making a complaint does not feel it is bogus.  

      Sure you have the occasional outrageous complaint that, for example, it rained while the tour was in Paris so the complainer wants the entire tour cost refunded and another tour for free.  Those I would consider bogus.  But most complainers have a legitimate issue where a form letter only makes them more upset over the issue and leads to negative publicity when they tell everyone they know about how crappy the company they have a complaint against is.

      I don’t mind the form letter that says we got your complaint and are looking into it, but the company actually has to look into it and provide a response that actually sounds like they read the complaint and actually looked into the issue even if they don’t do anything to fix it.

      1. You’d be surprised at how many bogus complaints there are.  I used to get so many client calls with absolutely stupid complaints that they wanted me to file, that ultimately I was forced to institute an initial consultation charge as a way of weeding out the frivolous cases.

        Form letters serve the same purpose.  A tool to weed out frivolous complaints.

    2. IMO Amazon (dot) com has relatively excellent customer service. One thing I’ve seen with them is that you don’t need to call them to get your problem resolved. Even if they respond to your emails with ROBOTIC answers, somewhere and sometime in the complaint process a human being will actually solve your problems. It does help if you are persistent.

      I think the problem is not the form letters but the lack of acceptable solutions to customer problems. Had the OP got her money back even with a form letter response, then I don’t think she would have written Chris Elliott for help.

      More importantly the real big issue here is WHY ANYONE SHOULD BUY LOCAL SIGHTSEEING TOURS from Priceline at all.

      I suspect Priceline affiliated with a company like (maybe) Viator which themselves aggregate local tours and sightseeing outfits. If one buys a Rome sightseeing tour or hotel transfer package, he is given a contact number or location to meet up with the actual local tour operator. You won’t see a Priceline or Viator sign anywhere. If there is a screw up with contact numbers, Priceline would probably not even know what’s going on. They just booked it and got your credit card, period.

  7. I worked customer service for years both at a retail store and at a toll-free call center.  People don’t listen any more.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve contacted a company for help only to be interrupted while I’m sharing my problem to be told the proper resolution. I’ll usually interrupt them with the question, “How do you know what my problem is if you aren’t bothering to listen to it?”

    They don’t want to hear your problems, they just want to pretend to listen, throw you a bone and have you go on your merry way.

  8. I suggest Google translate and doing a bit of research on the cultural mores of the nation the call center is located in. That way, you can express your offense in a way that gets their attention.

    1. I understand that employees of (usually outsourced) foreign call centers are forbidden to tell you where they are located. It’s too funny when you can decipher an Indian accent and you ask “Stanley” if he is in India and he says he can’t tell you where he is. What is this – a game of hide’n seek?

      Personally, if they can solve my problem in ONE CALL then I don’t really care if they are in Afghanistan. Did I spell that correctly?

      1. My favorite was “Betty” in “Kansas City”.  I asked her how the Blue Jays were doing.  Silence.  I said, you know, your home baseball team.  She said “fine”.  I asked “Betty” to transfer me to a US-based agent, since it was pretty clear she wasn’t from “Kansas City”.  (KC’s team is the Royals, for those of you who don’t know.)  I got one.  Problem resolved without a script, form letter, etc. 

  9. Virgin Atlantic’s email auto response promises a review and personal response within 28 days, which never happens.  I finally got a representative in London willing to connect me with “customer service”, but only between 9 am and noon, which is 1 am to 4 am for me.  After 5 months of going nowhere, Christopher Elliott got them to resolve our complaint within a week!   
    How can a department be called “Customer Service” and yet refuse to speak with customers?

    1. Because if they delay the customer long enough or make the process dificult enough, they don’t have to resolve the problem therby saving the company money in the short term.

  10. for me the problem with form letters is that they make you feel like no one even read your letter.  there are times when, although annoying, aren’t inappropriate.  But sometimes the only thing they mention is that you’re disappointed with them and that is unacceptable.

  11. I think that a big problem is that people often tend to get emotional, exaggerate their story and include many details that aren’t relevant in their complaint letters. A simple “__ didn’t happen and it should have” without anything else would be a lot easier for companies to deal with.
    When someone writes 3 paragraphs on what they did waiting while their flight was delayed (or whatever) and on about all the suffering they went through, there really is no good way to respond to it. Other than “we’re sorry”, the company can’t really do anything else about it, so a form letter would have essentially the same effect as any other response.

    1. Well let me tell you how pissed off and emotional one can get if you paid for an airport transfer from (FCO) Fiumicino Airport to a hotel near the center of Rome and they didn’t show up.

      You have all your luggage waiting in the planned pickup area. No one shows up. Do you get a taxi instead for 40/45 Euro? Do you go across and the road and take the Leonardo Express Train to Termini Rome Station? Do you try to locate a door-to-door shuttle while waiting in the airport? Do wait to get approached by one of those illegal unmarked “taxi” drivers?

      I bet you’d be livid, too.

      1. Of course there are cases that warrant a real letter like this one.
        But considering all the things that people complain about now, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to use form letters when travelers use ‘form complaints’, listing every small thing that could go wrong with their flight. (It happens – I was once on a flight where someone in a middle seat complained to the FA that he was stuck in the middle and was going to write the airline about it)

        1. Susan, I really don’t think there is anything wrong about a form letter for as long as one’s complaint and problem is resolved timely and appropriately. I still believe that if the OP got her $50 back immediately, we wouldn’t be criticizing these dumb and meaningless form letters.

      2. Yes you take a taxi, chalk it up to life, and toast over dinner that the missed connection was the worst thing to happen to you in a long time.  Gawd we are whiners.

    2. Another thing is that people often want something in return that might be difficult to get authorized.  It’s easier to brush it off with a form letter.

      I’ve actually had some pretty good experiences with customer service.  When I’ve asked where the call center is located, I’ve never had reason to doubt it.  I dealt with a Comcast contract service agent working out of her home in Sacramento, an agent in the Philipines with impeccable English, and even a guy with an Indian accent who said he was working out of Austin.  I had no reason to doubt him, because he didn’t use some fake American-sounding name.  I guess the most amusing was the French-Canadian IT guy who helped me log back in to a hotel internet system (it wouldn’t allow me to connect for some reason).  He said he was outside of Montreal, and at the end of the call I said “Merci”, after which he chuckled a bit.

      As for those dealing with Amazon – pick the live text chat option.  It’s probably someone from India, but they’ll use their real name and won’t BS you that they’re not.  The only problem is that sometimes they handled multiple customers.  I once managed to find Amazon’s infamous (for being so hard to find) 800 number, and was connected almost immediately to an American customer service rep.  It was wonderful, but I think they try to hide it because it would cost them big time if used for every customer with a problem.

      I actually sent a message to a certain national drive-in resturant chain after I had issues trying to buy breakfast.  I actually got nothing and wondering if maybe I got there before they opened, if there was an issue with the communications equipment, or if I was just being ignored.  I left my name and phone number, and the manager even called me to understand more about what happened.  I didn’t ask for any freebies and wasn’t ranting and raving.  In the end I was just hoping that the next time I go back, things are working properly. 

  12. Call center folks are not trying to be deceptive by using American names. Its simply a time honored tradition of foreign born folks using American names to make it easier to interact with American.  If you live anywhere in the US with a sizeable  population of foreign born Asians, you will see that this is the norm. 

    It just makes it easier to interact.

    1. “Time honored tradition for foreign born folks using American names to make it easier to interact with Americans”? Say what?
      Have you been to Japan, China, S.E. Asia or India?
      I’m sure they don’t want to named Geronimo.
      What makes you think they want Americanized names?

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