Writing The Letter
How often have you had an experience as a customer that was SO awful your immediate reaction is “I have to write them a letter!”?
Last week I had, hands-down, the worst experience I’ve ever had with air travel. My husband, two daughters, and I were coming back to New York from San Diego. Without getting into too much detail, our debacle started with our 6:00 a.m. Delta flight being overbooked (a business practice I begrudgingly understand). An abrasive, chip-on-his-shoulder gate agent apathetically “tried” to get us seats on the flight. When he finally did, he wouldn’t print them, because my husband (who had returned the rental car and was behind us in security) was not with us and, “how did we even know he would show up at all?”—a comment that the implications of which did not escape my 4 year-old daughter.
After not getting on our flight, the same agent made a meager effort to rebook us—at best we would arrive 48 hours later having traveled through who-knows-how-many cities to get home. We ended up purchasing full-fare tickets on Continental and eventually arrived only 12 hours later than expected. Of course, our luggage did make it on our original flight, but since we took a different airline home, Delta was in no rush to get it to us. Another 24 hours, 14 phone calls and $33 later we had our bags. Which, of course, we paid $60 to check in the first place.
So the first thing I did was sit down to write The Letter. I haven’t gotten very far. Even as I sit and write this, I am procrastinating on The Letter. It’s not easy to take all your passionate anger and put it succinctly on one page.
Instead, I started thinking about a major difference between big and small businesses. Anonymity vs. Accountability. I could write “to whom it may concern,” but have no guarantee that it actually concerns anybody. I will send it off to Delta’s “Customer Care Center”, but the sheer fact that they have people whose specific job it is to sort through these letters somehow makes my letter already feel less important.
On the other hand, when one of my customers has a complaint, whether by phone, email or in-person, it comes straight to me. Sometimes it stems from a one-time mistake, and I am grateful to hear about it so we can prevent it from happening again. Sometimes we get feedback that results in us tweaking a product or service for the benefit of all future customers. Sometimes people complain just because they are complainers. Occasionally, it’s a scam—someone looking for a freebie.
About a year ago, we got an email from a man who said he had been visiting New York and loved our cookies. He wanted to bring some chocolate peanut butter cookies home to his mother, but when he arrived at her house he saw that they were chocolate caramel, which she could not eat with her dentures. Could we please ship the proper cookies to the following address in Las Vegas? I was upset about the mistake and apologized, asking for a few more details to identify how to fix it. I didn’t hear back.
Six months later, we received another email from a man saying how much he enjoyed visiting our store on his last business trip. His fiancée is a huge fan of our chocolate caramel cookies, and he bought some to bring home to her, but when he arrived home he realized they were the wrong cookies. Could we please ship the proper cookies to the following address in Las Vegas? I couldn’t believe I wasted time worrying about this scammer. Now all emails go through my manager before they get to me.
I wonder if I will reach a point where I’m totally jaded by these scams and the people who complain for the sake of complaining? Right now I subscribe to the philosophy of Danny Meyer at Union Square Hospitality Group: “the customer may not always be right, but he or she should always be heard.” At some point, do you no longer have the time to “hear” your customers? Or maybe there are just too many layers for the customer to get through to be heard?
As someone with a legitimate complaint, it makes me feels disheartened. When push comes to shove, how much power does The Letter really have? What do I want my letter to Delta to accomplish? Reimbursement? I seriously doubt they will send us a check that covers our incremental cost, and a few crappy travel vouchers are no good if I’m never going to fly Delta again. Retribution? Yes, that would be nice, but doubtful. Therapy? I have a blog for that.
Who knows if The Letter will actually get written? I’m sure I’m not alone in this boat—all fired up and then drained of all effort when it actually comes down to it. It’s a lot easier to just complain to my family and friends and tell them to never fly Delta again. I recounted our story to my mother, and she shook her head the whole time. When I finished, she sighed, “you know, you should write them a letter.”