These are the most complained-about companies — and here’s what we do with them

Can you guess which company gets the most complaints on this site?

You’re right, it’s an airline. And you probably can narrow it down to a list of three finalists.

I won’t keep you in suspense. Here’s our leaderboard for the first two months of 2016:

American Airlines 75
United Airlines 33
Delta Air Lines 17
Expedia 17
Southwest Airlines 14
Enterprise 10
Hertz 10
Royal Caribbean  6
Orbitz  5
Travelocity  5

I should clarify what I mean by “complaint.” These are formal and detailed grievances sent through our “Help” form – not complaints received by email, forums or through our commenting system. Our advocacy team responds to each one and tries to help find a solution.

How we advocate

We received 284 cases in January and 261 cases in February, which works out to a little more than 9 grievances a day. But what happens when they come in?

We use a Google form to capture the data. The information is sent to a spreadsheet (that’s where the company counts are derived) and automatically emailed to our advocacy team. We also back up the cases in the cloud.

Several times a day, our lead advocate, Jessica Monsell, will conduct what we call “triage” on the incoming cases. We have several possible options:

    • Assign the case to one of our advocates.
    • Send the case to our forums.
    • Reject the case.

We have a series of form letters that accompany each response. Why a form letter? Because there’s a lot of ground to cover, including the status of your case, what to expect, and anticipated response times. Also, as much as we’d love sending out personal letters, we just don’t have the time.

Actually, the most common form letter is the “paper trail” response. It’s neither an acceptance nor a rejection of the case, but a request for more information. Specifically, written information. We need to see evidence that you’ve asked a company to help and that it either has – or hasn’t – responded. We can’t make a decision until we see that proof.

Our advocacy team tracks the cases on an online spreadsheet, identifying grievances that are worth covering on the site. Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t choose the most scandalous cases to highlight. Cases are picked because of the lessons they offer readers, and also because they’re so darned interesting! OK, and sometimes, as an added benefit, they might be scandalous too.

Why we do it like this

There’s no training manual for starting a consumer advocacy site. The cases started coming in 20 years ago, and they haven’t stopped. At first, it was just me without any formal way of categorizing, tracking or responding to the grievances. But a system is necessary, if for no other reason than so I can report a list of the worst offenders.

A lot of my colleagues view complaints as nothing more than a source of stories. That’s how I felt about it for a long time. So keeping a database of complaints seemed like overkill. I also believed I could ignore some cases, especially if they were unlikely to become a story.

I don’t feel that way anymore. Anyone who reaches out to my team through the site deserves a straight answer, if not also our help. Our first responsibility is to assist the consumer, not to write a story. That’s a subtle but important shift for me. While I still consider what I do an act of journalism, it is secondary to an even greater mission: to help consumers.

This is heading in an interesting direction, from a single-author blog into a cause. I’m grateful that you’ve decided to join me — as a reader, commenter or one of our volunteers.

We have a team of people working behind the scenes to make the advocacy happen. If you’d like to join us, please let me know. Here’s my email address.

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