Written By: Lee Zanello, General Manager – Independent by Flight Centre
Her name was Sandra and I was a new agent, only two weeks old behind the desk.
She came in like a firestorm; full of personality and humour and excited for the cruise she wanted me to book her, a cruise she took every year with her sister.
I was in Ottawa, having just completed my training in Toronto, and still getting used to the GDS. I pulled up some flights on the Air Canada website and she was surprised when I told her there was a direct flight from Ottawa to Miami.
“Are you sure, Lee?” She was skeptical. There had never been a direct flight before.
What I lacked in systems knowledge I made up for in confidence and convinced her that yes, the flight was direct. She agreed to book it, I booked it online and created a ghost booking in the GDS for her to sign off on.
It turns out that my training habits hadn’t been kicked yet and on BOTH the Air Canada website and in the GDS ghost booking I had put YYZ instead of YOW, a mistake that was not realized until she called me from a payphone at the airport after having been denied boarding for a flight that didn’t exist.
“Lee… they are saying there is no flight from Ottawa to Miami. My cruise is leaving and I have to get to Miami today.”
We have all been there.
That “Oh, poop.” moment when we have realized that we have screwed up.
Every agent has a story like this, and every agent has learned that it’s not the mistakes that we’ve made that define us, it is how we handle them.
After getting more details from her and looking into my system, I immediately admitted my error and told her I would fix it. I didn’t know how just yet, but I would fix it. I said this with such firm confidence that she was okay to be put on hold while i went to work fixing the issue. I was able to get a full refund applied for the Toronto-Miami I had booked and had it applied to an Ottawa-Toronto return ticket. There were 2 seats left on a net fare with United from Toronto to Miami that would connect fine with the AC flights and they were just $400 each.
Through all of this I kept checking in with Sandra on the line (this was a time before everyone had a cell phone) and after almost 2 hours I was able to confidently tell her to go back to the AC desk and check-in and she would be okay. She sounded hesitant, but thanks me for all my work and hung up the phone.
I didn’t hear back from Sandra until after her cruise when she came bursting into my shop, the same whirlwind personality filling the room.
“Lee…” I cringed, waiting for it.
“I had the BEST time with my sister.”
She went on to tell me all about the cruise and the other million little dramas that had occurred, like forgetting her passport on the plane and she had an airport worker take her out to the tarmac while a cleaning crew threw it down to her from the open plane door. Clearly, this is a woman whom drama follows.
She thanked me for taking SUCH good care of her at the office and she took out a small present for me, a Miami shot glass, and told me she would be booking all her trips with me. And she did, following me across shops and even across cities, continuing to book with me even when I moved to Toronto.
That shot glass remains on my desk to this day; a constant reminder that mistakes are opportunities to show your clients exactly the stuff you’re made of.
Handling A Customer Complaint
When things go wrong with a client, I say to myself, “At LEAST it’s only this and nobody has died”.
That’s not me trivializing the matter; it’s my mnemonic device to help guide me through the situation.
Nothing is worse than trying to communicate a wrongdoing to someone and they interrupt you, jumping to their own conclusions on where the story is headed and offering a solution before you’ve even been heard.
Half of the emotion buried in every complaint is the frustration that the person who can fix it does not know the full situation. Taking the time to hear your clients out and letting them vent will make the communication process that much smoother throughout.
Without taking the blame or accepting responsibility yet, show true care and concern for your client. No matter the size of the complaint, this is your client, your business and your reputation and it’s important to consider what gets said about you when the conversation is finished.
Ask questions to clarify the full extent of the problem. You don’t want to find yourself in the middle of a solution only to find out there is another issue you haven’t yet uncovered that your solution doesn’t take into account.
Solve the problem. Offer your client the best and most reasonable solution and communicate that solution with confidence. They are here for your expertise and when things go wrong, lean on your expertise and have faith in yourself that you are truly offering the best resolution.
This is the absolute most important step. Never try to hide your mistake from your client.
In the worst case, your attempts to hide the mistake will be uncovered and you’ll lose the most important thing you get from your clients: their trust.
Even if things are not uncovered, there can be an unspoken uneasiness your client may have with you where they may suspect that you are not owning up to what really went wrong and this can also eat away at that trust.
In the majority of cases your client will respect someone who take responsibility upfront, especially if you follow up the “This is the mistake I made” with “and this is how I’m proposing we set it right.”
It’s the fear of a client blowing up at us that often keeps us from admitting fault and we have to remember that the damage here is the mistake that was made and that damage has already been done.
It’s how you handle the mistake that matters most.
“At LEAST it’s only this and nobody has died.”
Listen to the client and stay calm
Empathize with their situation
Ask questions to clarify the full extent of the problem
Solve the problem
Of course, the best way to fix a mistake is to avoid making them in the first place. With our busiest season now upon us, here are a few things to remember that could help avoid those pesky errors.
- Getting a second set of eyes where possible on a complicated booking is not a sign of weakness, it is being thorough and ensuring you have all your details in order
- Texts and social media have become shortcuts for doing business; these tools should not replace a proper opportunity for your client to review the itinerary in full, complete with name spellings, and signing off on the booking before payment is taken
- A Bon Voyage call a week before departure is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal to ensure the client has anything they might need for their trip and all their questions answered. It’s also a good time for you to have fresher eyes on the booking one last time yourself to make sure everything is in order.
- If you think you don’t have time for a Bon Voyage call, trick “Future You” into making it by promising your client you’ll give them a call a week before they leave to check in. Once you say it out loud, you’ll do it.
You Are Not Alone
Sometimes it can feel that way, but you have peers and agency support there for you to talk through the potential solutions for your clients. Use them. Use your reps to try and find a way to add value to the client’s trip after the problem has been solved. Thoughtful add-ons after the fact can help soften any disappointment that may still be lingering and unspoken and your reps can help with this. These are the things you can do for your business for times Mistakes happen. Did you know Monterey and Monterrey were two different places? I didn’t, but that’s a story for another time. If the mistakes are handled correctly and responsibility is taken, you’ll end up with clients for life.