Secrets for getting the very best customer service

It’s the proverbial man-bites-dog story for consumer reporters: an over-the-top customer service experience in which an employee goes the extra mile.

It’s even more rare — on the order of man-bites-man — to find a proven way to extract the very best service from employees.

I won’t mince words. Men are not biting men.

But a series of recent stories and one reader’s experience give me hope that it’s possible. In other words, you could get superior service every time you go to the store or log on to your computer to go shopping.
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Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals

It’s official: I’ve just finished the final edits on my new book, Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals.

I just have to tell you about it.

Last summer, a literary agent I’d known for a few years asked me if I had a book in me. I didn’t want to write anything on travel, because I felt there were already several great guides on being a smart traveler.

But how about something about the relationship between consumers and businesses?
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5 proven ways to get better customer service from a company

Everyone knows good service when they see it: The restaurant with a line out the front door, the retail store with customers that come back again and again (even if the prices are higher) or the hotel with a year-long waiting list.

But how do you extract good service from the other businesses? You know, the ones with indifferent employees, shortsighted managers and generally unhappy customers.

Check out the latest scores from the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index, and it’s obvious that there are a lot of “other” companies out there. As a consumer advocate, I’ve found that your experience doesn’t have to reflect the ACSI’s generally dismal scores, as long as you know about these secret weapons.
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Posting power: 7 tips for blogging your way to a better trip

Had a problem with your last trip? Fire up your PC and post something online.

Go on. You just might change the travel industry like Carl Larson did. When he tried to check a regulation-size box on a recent JetBlue flight, an unfriendly ticket agent demanded that he fork over $50. The reason? The box contained a folding bike.

So Larson blogged about the experience on the Bicycle Transportation Alliance’s site, calling the airline’s policy “ridiculous.” The story was picked up by another blog, Then it made its way onto another site called the Consumerist.

It didn’t take long for JetBlue to fold. Not only did the airline refund Larson’s $50. It changed its rules, too. “Customers traveling with folding bikes in a bag that fits within the standard checked bag weights and dimensions will not be charged the bike fee and will be treated like any checked bag,” a representative told him.

Bloggers are changing the travel industry.

• When Julie Yack had a bad stay at a Las Vegas hotel, she published the details on her blog. “It proved rather effective,” she told me. “The general manager called me that day, told me the hotel owners now know what a blog is, and worked hard to make things right.” That included an apology and an offer of a free two-night stay.

• Debbie Dubrow fired up her laptop after her car rental agency offered her “aged, unclean, and in many cases broken” car seats for her child. The resulting blog post was devastating. “It eventually led ABC News to pick up and investigate the story,” she told me. “Its impact reached far beyond a single news broadcast, though.” Indeed, the company pledged to clean up its act, and California agreed to revisit its child safety-seat laws.

• Catherine Connors hit the blogosphere after a flight attendant demanded she “cover up” with a blanket when nursing her infant son on a flight. The post caught the attention of other bloggers and national media. “WestJet changed and clarified its policies for flight attendants on in-flight breastfeeding,” she says.

The travel industry isn’t just hip to blogging. In many cases, it takes blogs more seriously than the mainstream media. “Blogging has a sense of authority and authenticity that other media doesn’t have,” says Rebecca Goldberg, a hotel design expert and editor-in-chief of Boutique Design magazine. She’s been tracking the influence of bloggers on the hotel industry, and says it grows with each year. Other travelers — particularly those booking their hotels online — feel that blogs are more believable than what they read in a newspaper or watch on TV. “If I read something in a blog,” she says, “it reads more like advice and less like a promotion for the hotel.”

How do you become part of the blogging revolution in travel? Here are a few ideas.

1. Get in the habit

Becoming a travel blogger may be easy at first — all it takes is a computer and an Internet connection — but it’s a lot of work over time. Max Hartshorne, a blogger who edits the travel Web site, says only a few rules apply. “Don’t write blog posts longer than 300 to 400 words, or about four paragraphs,” he says. “Make sure the headlines are specific, and aren’t misleading. Post at least three to five times a week — or don’t bother.” Travel blogging takes some discipline, but if you feel as if you’ve got something to say, Hartshorne says you should get started now.

2. Find a specialty

Want to start a general-interest travelogue? Good luck. There are tens of thousands of well-read general travel blogs. But focus on a single topic, like renting cars or visiting a particular destination, and you’re off to the races, say experts. “You don’t have to just say, ‘This is my topic,’” says Richard Laermer, author of “2011: Trendspotting for the next decade” (McGraw-Hill). “You have to say, ‘What’s my niche?’” Become an expert, so that when people read you, they’ll come away with the feeling that you believe in what you’re talking about.

3. Be opinionated

Don’t be shy about telling your audience what you think about a particular travel product or experience. Feedback — both positive and negative — is often welcome not just by readers, but travel companies. “I’d recommend that bloggers take the opportunity to be a key resource for companies looking to enhance their service by providing fast and fresh feedback,” says Joe Poulin, chief executive of Luxury Retreats, a villa rental company.

4. Tell an interesting story

“Think about what you would want to know about a foreign city or country before traveling for the first time and incorporate those details in your blog,” says Reggie Miller, the chief executive of Iced Media, a New York City-based online marketing and research agency. He says travel blogs can serve as both a glimpse into your own travels and offer a service to fellow travelers who are looking for advice on their next trip. “Details are key,” he adds. “The more information without getting too wordy, the better.”

5. Be real

One of the things that set bloggers apart from mainstream-media types like me is that they write in a more informal, conversational style. They also tell it like it is without worrying about upsetting an advertiser or source. “Be honest and write about a subject or destination that you are passionate about,” says Jason Sarracini, who blogs at “The best teachers are ones that are passionate about their subject — and the same applies to bloggers.”

6. Play fair

A blog may not be a newspaper, but some of the rules of journalism should still be considered, if not followed. For example, if you’re slamming an airline or resort, think about asking your subject for a comment. “If you did not like a certain aspect from your travel experience ask a decision-maker to provide details on why or why not,” says Katena Carvajales, the media-relations manager at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “That will give their reader an opportunity to make the decision on their own.” (That assumes, of course, that the company will take questions from a blogger — some don’t.)

7. Think beyond words

The most effective blogs don’t just use the written word, but also audio and video, to convey their message. Discount travel agency STA Travel hosts several employee blogs, and has found that multimedia really clicks. “The video blog from our last intern, Pat Blute, was great because people got to actually see Pat in the Galapagos and watch him skydiving in Australia rather than just read about his experience,” says Kristen Celko, the company’s vice president of marketing and ecommerce.

With just a little know-how, perspective and honesty, you can join the blogging revolution in travel. But maybe the best part about a Web log — other than that almost anyone can do it — is its potential to improve the travel experience.

It’s about time. Those of us who had the power to push for change, the folks who reported for the established media, have fallen asleep on the job for the most part. We’ve become tired and complacent, cozying up to our advertisers and rarely writing a critical word about an industry that has forgotten the meaning of customer service.

For us, blogging is a long overdue wake-up call.