Road Warrior


By Sheila J. Kittle

July 24, 2003 -- As if traveling on business isn't traumatic enough these days, you and your fellow road warriors probably have at least one horror story that has pushed you over the edge. But does your story end with the satisfaction that you were fairly compensated by those responsible for the injustice?

If your travel woes go beyond the normal airport security hassles, lousy room service or dirty rental cars, you need to gather your thoughts and your receipts and take the time to put your grievances on paper. Not every complaint letter will be rewarded with a compensatory response, but the offending travel supplier should be given the opportunity to right the wrong.

With consumer satisfaction at precariously low levels, you might think that airlines, hotels and car-rent firms must not really care about customer service. But the travel industry cannot afford to risk losing your business. Writing a clear, concise complaint letter should not only be therapeutic for you, the disgruntled traveler, it should also send a clear message to the travel supplier that you are not going to accept lousy service.

To get started, put yourself on the other side of the counter. If you had the responsibility of handling consumer complaints, what information would you need to investigate an issue? Hopefully, it's obvious--you would need dates, times, names and a concise version of the circumstances, backed up by copies of relevant receipts, tickets or correspondence. But because the consumer's aggravation often creates a need to vent, complaint letters often contain far more venom than facts. Tirades seldom get to the facts quickly, diluting your complaint --plus risking the loss of any empathy from the person receiving the complaint letter.

It is best to specifically state the chronology of events early in the letter. Nothing is more frustrating to someone trying to solve your problem than to wade through general ravings that the company is lousy, the employees are inept and you are sick of their lack of customer service. Instead, the travel vendor needs to know exactly what happened and when. The vendor also needs the names of any employees who you believe either may have been responsible or at least did not respond to your complaint at the time of the incident.

Handle your unacceptable travel experiences the way you handle your business: Be observant and take notes while the incident is taking place. In fact, you may never have to resort to writing the letter if the employee you are dealing with sees you jotting down his or her name during the episode. That employee may realize that this particular customer is not going to go away quietly, so the employee may work harder to resolve the issue.

While you are making notes, ask for the employee's title and the supervisor's name. If it is necessary later to write a complaint to the company, you also may want to send a copy to this supervisor.

Depending on the type of travel supplier involved, your letter should be addressed to someone in particular, rather than to the company's customer service department. Spend a few minutes on the company's Web site to learn the name of the head of marketing or vice president of customer relations. If you do not find these names on the Web, call the customer service department and ask for a specific name, title and address for your letter. You also may want to consider sending a copy of the letter to the company's chief executive.

If your company has a travel manager, copy the complaint to him or her. Because this executive deals directly with travel suppliers daily and represents your company's travel and entertainment budget, he or she is often in a strong position to negotiate a resolution. If your company does not have a corporate travel manager, speak with the manager of the travel agency that made your reservations.

After stating the facts in your letter, be specific in your expectations and be reasonable. What do you think is fair compensation for the troubles that you've experienced? You may not get very far if you demand a full refund for the lack of hot water in your hotel room. But if this occurred at a hotel where you stay frequently, a reasonable request would be to ask for a discount voucher or room upgrade on your next stay. Or if the incident happened at a supplier or location you are not likely to use again, request a voucher that can be used at an affiliated company, such as another property within a hotel chain.

Keep in mind that almost all travel suppliers are reluctant to part with cash. They are much more willing to meet your request if they can do so with future services. Travel suppliers need your business, now more than ever. When writing a complaint letter, it is appropriate to state that you will take your business elsewhere unless the issue is resolved to your satisfaction.

However, be careful not to issue any threats beyond the potential loss of business. You want the person reading your letter to empathize and feel the need to correct the problem. If your letter is seen as a slanderous attack accompanied by idle threats, you'll most likely end up with a computer-generated apology letter instead of something more satisfying.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Sheila J. Kittle. All rights reserved.