Ridiculous pandemic excuses businesses use — and what they really mean

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By Christopher Elliott

What kind of pandemic excuses have you heard lately?

From “extraordinary” circumstances to “it’s complicated,” companies are feeding you a line when they fail to meet their basic customer service obligations. Sometimes you need a dictionary to decipher the meaning behind the words and phrases in these excuses during the pandemic.

I almost did. After a recent story about the timing of refunds during the COVID-19 crisis, I got a call from someone who handles refunds at a large travel agency. She was unhappy with my advice of initiating a credit card dispute if the refund took longer than a month.

I reviewed all of our resolved cases from July to get a clearer picture of what companies were telling you. The results are fascinating — and a little disturbing. Seems companies are not only putting little or no effort into coming up with creative (or credible) reasons for failing to meet their obligations. Apparently, they think you’re going to buy their feeble excuses.

But I don’t think you are.

What’s your excuse for taking so long to refund?

Companies love to blame their tardiness on technology. That’s the number one excuse I hear.

Travel companies always took their time with refunds. Here’s a 2010 case that took more than a year to get resolved. Here’s one that took two years.

But now they are dragging their feet on almost all refunds.

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Here’s how one executive explained the situation to me. Travel companies, and particularly cruise lines, don’t have the technology to process refunds automatically. In normal times, they don’t consider that a problem, because they process relatively few refunds. (I do because these manual refunds are still slow as molasses.)

But during a pandemic, where all cruises have been canceled, the system locks up. Refunds that would have taken weeks now take months. Some cruise lines like Oceania have even told customers to wait 99 days for their refunds. (Here’s what you need to know before booking your next tour.)

Come on.

The system didn’t work to begin with

Apologists of the current system — the same folks telling you to wait patiently for your money — are defending technology that never worked. Think about this from a consumer’s perspective. It takes seconds for a credit card transaction to go through on your account and one or two days to post to your account. Why shouldn’t the money be returned as quickly?

Instead, we get excuses about “manually” processing refunds and old technology that wasn’t built for this kind of thing. And frankly, it’s tiresome. We’ve heard the same excuses for years, and now they’re giving us the same recycled lines again: The system wasn’t built for fast refunds.

Well, why not?

The answer, of course, is that companies had no incentive to invest time or money into systems that processed faster automatic refunds. Instead, they spent their IT budget figuring out ways of extracting the money from your wallet faster.

Thanks for nothing.

“It’s not right to tell people to file a credit card dispute after a month,” the executive chided.

Perhaps. If you believe the current system is fair, that advice is unfair. But if you don’t — if you think the system was never fair — then one month is more than enough time.

It’s actually pretty generous.

Other pandemic excuses I’ve heard this summer

I decided to review our cases to see what companies are telling their customers. I found the responses to be problematic. Most companies didn’t even bother to offer a reason for their service lapses. That’s new; usually, they try to offer an excuse.

“Extraordinary” circumstances

One large vacation rental company blamed “extraordinary” circumstances for simply pocketing a customer’s money. That’s absurd. If a burglar cites the extraordinary circumstances of not having enough money as the reason for breaking and entering, he’s still guilty of breaking the law. And even if we can blame COVID, aren’t we all living through the same nightmare?

“It’s complicated”

In another case, the same company claimed complexities hampered a speedy refund. That may well be true. But who sold a complicated product? That’s right, the company. In fact, by creating a more complicated product, companies can confuse their customers and profit from that confusion. So don’t you dare tell us that your customer service sucks because it’s “complicated.” It’s complicated because you made it complicated.

“The check is in the mail”

That’s what one tour operator told us when we asked for help with a case. He said, with a straight face, that the case had already been resolved. It’s a classic “did-he-jump-or-was-he-pushed” situation. No one believes it. This pandemic excuse is one of the most outrageous because it gives us false hope and insults our intelligence. And no, the check is never in the mail. It goes in the mail the moment you contact the attorney general or your friendly consumer advocate.

“We’re experiencing high call volumes”

A well-known financial site offered this pandemic excuse as the reason for failing to take care of a customer with an erroneous bill. I believe it. But I also believe there’s more to the story. Large companies can scale their call centers up and down, depending on demand. “High call volumes” probably means they are going to blame you and all your calls for their sluggish response time. In fact, they’re just slowing down refund payments as a business strategy during the pandemic. Pretty clever, huh?

“It’s not our fault”

This is an old favorite. It’s often used by online travel agencies to shift blame to an airline or hotel. And again, that may very well be true. But hang on! Isn’t that why you hire a travel agent — to help you navigate the complexities of the travel process? Also, imagine if the roles were reversed, and you told a company you can’t pay your bill because your dog chewed up your credit card or you lost your job. Would they care? They would not. Should you care when a company says it’s not their fault? You should not.

How to handle ridiculous pandemic excuses

Some of these excuses involve service lapses. But most of them are about money — specifically refunds. So here’s my best advice for dealing with pandemic excuses.

Listen politely to the words. Believe them if it makes you feel better.

Then look at the situation calmly:

  • If it’s been less than two weeks, give the company a chance.
    OK, it takes up to two days to post a purchase to your credit card account. I think two weeks is plenty of time for a refund. If the airline owes you a refund, the Transportation Department requires a refund within seven working days when you pay by credit card.
  • If it’s been more than a week, fire a warning shot. 
    By “warning shot” I mean send a brief, polite email to a customer service manager, asking for a refund. I list their names, numbers and email addresses on this site. Let them know, politely, that you will not wait forever.
  • If it’s been more than a month, file a dispute with your credit card.
    I know this is going to be upsetting to the companies reading this. But a month is more than enough time. The limits of a company’s refund systems are absolutely no concern of yours, just as your personal circumstances have no bearing on your obligation to pay your bill. If the company can’t get its act together, ask your bank to reverse the charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act.

I’m tired of the absurd pandemic excuses businesses are using on their customers. We deserve the truth, better customer service — and a fast refund.

Do you believe the excuses? 🤔

What’s your reaction when a company offers pandemic excuses to you? Do you believe it or do you think it’s just stalling for time?

I don’t know, maybe I’ve become jaded because I read the excuses every day. Perhaps these companies deserve our sympathy. But I also think that when the pandemic ends and people start buying again, it’s unlikely companies will be sympathetic to us.

Then again, I’m probably reading too many corporate excuses. Right?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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