You’re lying to us, but we still love you

Everybody lies.

Even to us, the guys who are trying to help. Especially to us.

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We know.

(Thanks for the reminder, Dr. House.)

Why don’t we do more to stop it? Well, that’s a question raised in our help forums recently. It deserves an answer.

I’m just not sure you’re going to like the answer.

“Maybe it’s just been a run of bad seeds and maybe I’m just ranting today,” said Walt Blackadar, a veteran commenter, “but lately this site and forum have been dealing with some fairly absurd and some outright dishonest requests.”

He noted:

✓ We’ve had a person asking for a fully comped cruise because her sister fell in the port building.

✓ We’ve had a person rant and almost certainly flat-out lie about getting a refund on his vacation deposit when the company in question was following their clearly-stated Terms and Conditions.

✓ We’ve had a person ask for a full refund on airfare because they were overcharged a small amount that caused their debit card to become overdrawn.

✓ We’ve had a person omit important information about her agent’s supposed failure to purchase travel insurance.

✓ We’ve had a person absurdly ask for a full refund because her lap baby got bonked in the head with a tray table (that caused no damage whatsoever) and then didn’t get the type of apology she wanted.

✓ We’ve had a person apparently not tell the truth about the departure time of an international flight in an attempt to get compensation.

True, all of it.

Isn’t it our job as consumer advocates to find the truth?

Actually, no. As consumer advocates, we’re here to help consumers. And that’s why I think some of you reading this will find my answer difficult to stomach.

We’re not here to truth-squad every complaint that comes in. We’re here to help. Period.

“Whose side are you on, anyway?”

I’ll never forget one of my first cases as a new consumer advocate. It was a woman in the San Francisco Bay area who wanted a refund for an airline ticket. The request was completely out of line. I suspected she was omitting some email in the paper thread she showed me. I told her I didn’t think I could help.

She exploded with rage. She called me useless. She said she’d cancel her subscription to the newspaper that ran my column. She said I was an airline shill.

“Whose side are you on, anyway?” she demanded.

Actually, she had a valid point. I was supposed to be on her side.

People lie. People omit details to help their case. Everyone does it.

But this site is not a neutral third party. We’re advocates for you.

So let’s just get that out of the way: To anyone who thought we were the Switzerland of this conflict, I apologize. We’re not neutral. We never claimed to be neutral or impartial. We are squarely on the side of you, the consumer.

Why we publish these cases, anyway

“There’s a danger here if we’re advocating for dishonest or greedy people,” adds Blackadar. “If the people on this site try to help advocate for someone who isn’t telling the truth, it’s going to anger the very businesses that we’re seeking help from. That’s going to cause them to be less likely to help the next person that this site is advocating for. It’s like the boy who cried wolf, and I can’t imagine that some of these cases are doing the reputation of this site any good.”

That’s a fair concern, but it’s not the real problem.

Here’s the issue. People are under the mistaken impression that we should only help consumers who truly deserve it. Just last week, in fact, we had a commenter who said, “Finally, a consumer who actually deserves to be helped.”

Again, that’s not how this works.

It isn’t for us to determine if someone deserves anything. Isn’t that for the company to decide?

When someone comes to us for help, they sign a form that says we can publish their case and gives us permission to share details of their grievance with a company.

One of two things could happen:

• The case doesn’t meet our “mediate” threshold, in which case it’s either referred back to our help forums or written up as an “Advocate This!” story — a post where we ask you if, based on the available information, we should get involved.

• The case does meet our threshold. I send the grievance and paper trail directly to the company. When that happens, the company is given an opportunity to respond and fill in any missing details. A story is published based on the results.

Most of our cases in the first category rarely make it to the second, where we’re getting involved. Maybe the case wasn’t strong enough, or maybe all the details weren’t there. I only send a grievance to a company when I’m comfortable that it meets every criteria for an advocate-able case.

To those of you concerned that we might be losing credibility by doing it this way, please don’t worry yourselves. Companies understand what we’re doing, and they want to help customers whose problems may have been overlooked. They are often grateful that we’ve done all the research and sent them the relevant paperwork. So we’re good on that front.

I think the problem lies with the people who read this site and are holding us to a standard we never set for ourselves. We don’t help only the people who “deserve” help. We try to help everyone. Even a case that can’t be fixed has a lot of teachable moments, and that’s often why we publish them.

So why not allow the commenters to run wild and dissect every case without moderator interference? Because:

1. By allowing commenters to call the consumers coming to us for help “liars” and “undeserving,” we create a hostile atmosphere. Let me put it to you this way: If you had a consumer problem and read some of the pre-2015 comments on this site, would you come to us for help with a problem? Yeah, neither would I.

2. If enough commenters pile on, then over time the comments become a toxic cesspool, where the customer is always wrong and the loudest voice in the room wins. And really, aren’t there enough blogs out there with mob rule in the comments section? Do we have to become one of them?

These explanations will probably not fly well with some of you. As Bladackar said in his original post, “many people are going to be turned off when they realize that a lot of their help is going to people who are being less than forthright or downright unreasonable.”

I’m fine with that. Participation in the comments and forums is completely optional. Please go easy on the folks asking questions about a case — they usually want to help.

But I would rather have a company ask me “whose side are you on?” than a customer ask whether they deserve my help or not.

29 thoughts on “You’re lying to us, but we still love you

  1. Speaking for myself, it can be very frustrating to take the time to try to help someone, only to then find out the information you have given is either useless or irrevelent because they had omitted a certain piece of information. If I look something up, and read it carefully (often in some form of legalese), and post and highlight that information, I have taken a decent chunk of my own time just trying to help for no reason. That’s frustrating. I even had a poster seemingly get upset with me once because I looked up the terms and conditions, read through them, posted them, and figured out how the company was arriving at a specific figure. I looked up the information because I thought it would advance the discussion and be useful, and to the credit of other commenters they absolutely took it that way. But to get an attitude from someone asking for help is very aggravating when I spent a decent amount of time finding and interpreting the information.

  2. I would disagree. I think Bladacker has a real point, especially if it is volunteered labor.

    I also think that the chance of a consumer advocate being seen as “crying wolf” is likely to make it companies less responsive going forward. So, some vetting seems reasonable.

  3. Your words “Isn’t it our job as consumer advocates to find the truth?
    Actually, no. As consumer advocates, we’re here to help consumers.” is in err (just a bit).

    Blindly helping consumers that lie to you (and us) does a disservice to us and the company they complain about.
    The help should be based on getting complete and truthful information from the consumer, though it’s not your job to FIND that truth, it should be offered freely by the consumer. JMHO

    1. Agreed. You make a great point that it also isn’t fair to the business. I always try to keep in mind there are 2 sides to every story. And I’ve worked enough customer service that I have a pretty good gauge of when someone isn’t telling the whole truth or, especially, when they have been downright nasty to the front line employees. It certainly isn’t fair to shame a business when they haven’t done anything wrong. Its fine to ask for an exception, so long as you know you’re asking for the rules to be bent and you’re polite about it. To be fair, there are plenty of posters in the forums seeking advice for doing that, and I’m always happy to help. I was the person that made those exceptions and know what will be more likely to work. And I’ve had plenty of people that are grateful and really nice about it too.

    2. Hi DC,
      As one of Chris’ advocates, I can tell you that we have finely tuned “BS” detectors, so there’s advocating, and then there’s ADVOCATING. Advocating (small letters) means you get a list of company contacts, our procedure for how to employ them, and a pat on the behind. ADVOCATING means Chris goes to war for you… and he’s very good at what he does.

  4. I am a big advocate of personal responsibility. if one makes a mistake and owns up to it, that does not preclude asking for help to get it solved. But when someone is blatantly lying in order to manipulate the system it hurts all those coming after him/her who need help. I find nothing wrong with pointing out that a consumer appears to be responsible for a problem if the fact so indicate. One of the first things I ever read of yours was you admitting that a poster had completely mislead you about the circumstances of him paying more for a car rental. You were able to get a refund for him and then heard from the location as to what the problem really was. You were unhappy about that. Now that seems to have changed. As for comments creating a hurtful atmosphere–you should start by taking a good long look in the mirror. You and your team made an effort to cut snark from those leaving comments. But you deal it out to many that disagree with you. When we disagree with you trot out terms like industry apologists,etc. You have little problem creating a hostile atmosphere for those who do not support your beliefs. Check out your “I am right, your are wrong” remarks on a recent post about South Africa”. I realize that some people think travel companies can do no wrong and others that think they can do no right–and the reality is probably somewhere in between. If you want to end the hostile atmosphere you might quite making snarky comments at those who disagree with your opinions.

  5. I’d like to think personal responsibility still exists. Not everything is the fault of “big bad corporation”. But people who lie or bend the truth are not taking responsibility–they are trying to game the system, and they are trying to take advantage of the advocates at this site, which unfortunately takes valuable time and effort away from those who honestly do have an issue.

  6. Chris, I get where you are coming from and while I disagree, I respect that you are clear about your allegiance.

    In my own opinion, I think the site would be even better if you could try to show more of the story, include lessons learned, and point out where the customer might be wrong or misguided. I am not saying not to advocate, but since many people look to this site for what they “could and should do” to avoid these problems, I think more complete and neutral posts might be helpful.

    Not saying don’t advocate or shame the customer, but be clear on the gaps and opportunities.

  7. Let me begin by saying that you do a lot of good work. There are more than enough cases where companies are not keeping to the spirit of fair dealing. (Even though I think some of the references to “industry apologists” are directed my way, I was totally with you on the tarmac delay thing. I think airline change fees, while they should be legal, are clearly stupidly done. I think the ridiculously small refunds for seat downgrades should be illegal. I thought the bit a couple of weeks ago about the “First Class if we feel like it fares” was a clear abuse of the finest of fine print, etc.) And of course there are plenty of cases where companies clearly do something wrong by any measure: fake damage claims, not issuing promised refunds, stonewalling lost-luggage requests, etc.

    I think there’s two separate issues here:

    1) Cases that are unfortunate, but the company has done what they said it was going to. In such cases, there’s a lot to be said for tone.

    For instance, a consumer’s beloved Grandma falls ill suddenly, and the consumer must cancel their dream vacation scheduled to depart the next week; the passenger does not have insurance.

    The typical article of yours in such a situation, if you don’t get the resolution you sought, will contain an extended bit about evil cruise contracts, how heartless anyone must be for not simply refunding the passenger’s money in their time of sorrow, and implying that most people pointing out that they probably should have purchased insurance are likely to be “industry apologists”, sticklers for the (clearly unreasonable) Fine Print, etc. There are liberal doses of contempt, scorn, and snark, for both the company and anybody that thinks to disagree with your position.

    If I’m a cruise company at all familiar with your work, frankly I’m not likely to help you, and for the same reasons that you would NEVER suggest a consumer writing a complaint letter asking for an exception to a policy would put together anything remotely like that. The cancellation fees for cruises are fairly reasonably structured, clearly disclosed (they aren’t buried nine pages in an impenetrable contract), and insurance to avoid the risk is offered at a reasonable price.

    If instead, if the typical such article was written as a “teachable moment”, and the company NOT nailed to the proverbial wall for sticking to terms that are both reasonable (if not favorable to the consumer) and clearly disclosed, I think you are more likely to actually obtain exceptions to policies in the future.

    The whole bit about flies, honey, and vinegar applies to your work just as much as it does letters consumers write themselves.

    Consumer Education through “teachable moments” is still VERY useful advocacy even if the consumer didn’t get what they wanted in the end. It’ll help out consumers in the future… For instance, the case a few weeks back where the consumer didn’t print out their train tickets and was upset that the company didn’t answer the phone in the middle of the night. Instead of talking about little but how the company should have had 24×7 contact, you COULD have had a little bit at the end with some lessons like: “They should have printed out their tickets before leaving” and “If they gone to the website of the company through which they purchased their tickets on-line, they would have found detailed instructions for recovering their tickets. This is probably what a phone contact would have told them to do anyway.”

    Glossing over when consumers are significantly responsible for the problem and not giving the company involved a fair shake doesn’t do anybody any favors. It doesn’t fix the consumer’s problem, and it doesn’t help out future consumers.

    2) Cases where the consumer has obviously left out something important and/or is lying to you.

    You’ve been a travel advocate for some time. There’s no reason that commenters (who have no access to any information beyond what you’ve posted) should frequently be able to spot obvious inconsistencies, lies, and seemingly-deliberate omissions. This is especially the case since you DO have the ability to ask for further information.

    I would think that your contacts are more likely to dig into cases if they think there’s a pretty high likelihood that at the end they’ll find that somebody in their company really screwed up. If a significant portion of your cases feature consumers who are obviously misleading, at best… well, that IS crying ‘wolf’ and the employees have better things to do than figure out what your consumer is leaving out THIS time.

    1. Ditto! For years, I thought that Chris was not using his platform effectively by not including consumer education in the stories. Bashing companies doesn’t solve the problem of ‘uninformed’ consumers.

  8. On a (much shorter) note:
    “But I would rather have a company ask me “whose side are you on?” than a customer ask whether they deserve my help or not.”

    I think right now, the question the companies might be asking you (or themselves) is not “Whose side are you on?” (the answer to that one is obvious.)

    The question I imagine they are asking is “Do you recognize that (at least sometimes) we HAVE a side, even if you wish it were otherwise?”

    As I have often quipped here: “Companies, even large faceless ones, like their money just as much as consumers like theirs.” If a company is not contractually obligated to cough up [insert non-$0 thing here], it’s not real effective to say “If you don’t come up with the goods, you are Evil, Heartless, Unfair, Meanies.”

    Sometimes when the answer to a consumer is “no” it’s not a wrong answer to say that, even if it’s the answer that the consumer doesn’t want to hear. If you want companies to work with you, you need to treat them fairly when that’s the case.

  9. But, Travelgirl, that’s the beauty of being an advocate on the forum. When we think a poster’s stance is without merit, we just MOVE ON. We don’t have to comment at all. Chris has set this up so that the advocates can help solve real problems and the people who don’t tell the truth or have bad attitudes don’t get much response. We’re dealing with the internet here, people can post whatever they want. Even with a questionable post, at least half of our responses are very valuable to other readers who might be able to avoid a problem in the future. It’s a win-win situation.

  10. no one wants to attack the consumer, just point out
    1) points of failure / improvement opportunities
    2) things the company may have done right or at least not wrong.

    For example, the story about carrentals.com this week was written a little unclear. The summary is that the customer booked 2 reservations, but showed up at a 3rd time expecting one of the 2 reserved rates. When he didn’t get it, he complained and wants carrentals to refund him.

    1) point of failure – customer should have checked reservation
    2) Car rentals provided him reservation, but communication was not clear. They couldnt know he would arrive at a different time.
    3) we will advocate because we always do and we are here for consumers, and we will try to not just help him, but change process to help others…

  11. That’s the thing Joe,
    There’s helping, and then there’s HELPING. Everyone gets help, even if it’s only a list of company contacts so they can plead their own case. But others get HELP, which can be quite impressive when it’s at the hands of Chris. He doesn’t get many wrong.

  12. It is sometimes frustrating being an advocate for Elliott, but I think the people we are able to assist are more numerous than the fakers. Lots of people read the forums, and we never know when our advice to someone (liar or not) will help 6 travellers. It IS sometimes difficult to not just tell someone they’re wrong, but we always have the option to just move on to the next post. I have occasionally not been able to think of something constructive to offer, but I read my colleagues’ posts later and marvel at their ability to be helpful.

    1. Ha!
      “It’s sometimes frustrating being an advocate for Elliott”? I work with this woman, and I feel sorry for our customers! Yes, she IS occasionally unable to think of something constructive to say, but trust me folks, that NEVER slows her down. Come to the forums for the advice… stay for the smiles. 🙂

      1. Um, my inborn Minnesota confidence makes me take this as a compliment … I love to make people smile! In all frankness, I’d be NOBODY without Grant Ritchie.

  13. I feel like I’ve learned so much, even from consumers who may have been bending the truth. I’ve learned to advocate directly to execs, and this has paid off several times. I’ve learned that when I take that cruise of a lifetime, leave a day early or more, if possible to not miss the boat. I’ve learned that I can’t trust any of the airlines (except maybe Southwest), so better check my boarding info a few times, not just that morning. I’ve learned to photo my rental car, which prevented an unscrupulous E… agent from charging me. Some of the complaints I read may have been somewhat inflated, but I still learned things to avoid.

  14. I love this site–been reading here for many years, but I … dunno. I think I disagree with a lot of this. I used to tell my kids, “if you get in trouble at school, for something outside your control/fault, I will battle to the ends of the earth for you–but do NOT expect me to mindlessly side with you when you’ve done wrong.” There’s a bad taste in my mouth at rewarding bad behavior. Certainly in cases that you don’t KNOW the customer has done the wrong thing, give them the benefit of the doubt and try to help. But.. when you KNOW they’re flat out lying or find out during the process that they lied to you, I think it’s perfectly legit to say, “I asked for all the information up front, you have some responsibility in this process too..and you lied to me.. So long.” *Shrug* Just my two cents worth.

    1. Hi Mel,

      I wanted to reply because a lot of folks DO believe that we “mindlessly” advocate for everyone who comes to us. We don’t. Actually, WE don’t advocate at all, Chris does… and he only advocates when he believes 100 percent that someone has been ill-used. The rest of the time, the majority of the time, our customers deal with my colleagues, the forum advocates, and our duties are really more those of advocate/facilitators. We analyze the incoming cases, answer and ask questions, advise our “clients,” supply them with email addresses and the names of executives, and send most of them on their way, with some few being directed to “Himself.”

      As Chris said in the article, and with which the author of the deleted comment above yours rather snarkily disagreed, “It isn’t for us to determine if someone deserves anything. Isn’t that for the company to decide?” I happen to agree with that. If you’ve truly been wronged, you have no better friend than Chris. But even if (in our opinion), you haven’t been wronged, we’re going to give you some advice, hand you some contact information, point you in the right direction, and let you find out for yourself. Isn’t that what YOU would want?

      P.S. Every time I see it, I think, “I HAVE to say something,” so today, I am… I LOVE your avatar. It gives me a smile every time I see it. Thank you for a LOT of smiles. 🙂

  15. A major problem with modern society and the Internet in particular is the one sideness of sites. Advocating for every consumer is not good for consumers, business, or society. Fairness and free and open discussion is. It is unreasonable to say EVERY consumer needs help, even if it is just a phone number. What if I don’t like the answer a gate agent gives me so I beat and strangle them. Now I want a refund because I couldn’t use my ticket and I want my legal fees covered because of the action of the agent caused my rage. Would you advocate for that consumer? What if I just punched them once? What if I yelled and caused a scene? At what point do I deserve help?

    That all said, Elliott is on the website name so Elliott can make the rules. We can live with them or leave. That’s how the free market works. I don’t contact a consumer advocate to make you change your rules, I live with them

  16. “Even a case that can’t be fixed has a lot of teachable moments, and that’s often why we publish them.”
    As you seem to have a variety of different columns posted these days, why not start a “Teachable Moment” column. So many of these cases are because of a consumer misstep or something unknown that should have been that make experienced travelers wince when they read them. Rather than asking if you should advocate on all articles, do a “Moral of the story” paragraph for some. I’m not saying all the stories be like this as many travelers ARE at the mercy of heartless, ill trained personnel and deserve your advocacy. But I am getting tired of stories looking for compensation for rudeness, or because someone did something stupid and expects a freebie.

    1. Damn… a “Teachable Moment” column? That’s a GREAT idea. Thank you. I’m going to copy, paste and send your comment to Chris to be sure he sees it. I like the “Moral of the story” paragraph idea, too. Thanks again! 🙂

      1. I adore this idea. Every time I made a mistake, no matter how foolish, my mom always had one question for me when all was said and done. Every time, I knew I had better have an answer once I dug myself out of the mess. “Well, did you learn something?” Mistakes turn into experience and experience turns into wisdom…but only if we take the time to examine our mistakes and learn something.

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