A friend recently had a run of bad luck that required her to cancel a much-anticipated vacation. Her father died two weeks before they were to leave. Aside from the grief, she had to deal with much of the estate and legal matters. That alone would have made it difficult to go on vacation but to make matters worse, her husband had to have emergency gallbladder surgery a week later.
They called the hotel and the airline to ask if they could postpone the trip and move the reservations out a few months. They weren’t looking for a refund, only to have their deposit and airfare moved to new dates. In both cases they were told no. They would either have to travel on the assigned dates or forfeit the money paid.
My friend, upset and worried about losing the money, brought the travel documents to me to see if I could do anything. I read them over and, sure enough, in the fine print were clauses that allowed the airline and the hotel to keep any money paid and exempt them from having to issue any refunds or rain checks. I took a shot at it anyway and called to see if I could help in any way. In both cases, I ran into the brick wall of “policy.” The agents kept telling me that it was their policy to keep the money. I explained the circumstances and asked if they could show any compassion for my friend who was having a hard time and only wanted to vacation on different dates. I asked for managers and supervisors. I offered to send proof of my friends problems. I was told no so many times and by so many people I began to wonder if “yes” was even a word anymore. Under no circumstances could they or would they waive their policies. I had to tell my friend that I had gotten nowhere.
Stories like this always make me wonder: Is there no room in commerce for a little compassion? The people who make these policies are human, subject to the same problems and tribulations as anyone else. I wonder if they ever ask themselves, “Gee, if I booked this vacation or missed this appointment or payment and then had something terrible and unexpected happen, would I be okay with this policy that I’m dumping on my customers?” I tend to think the answer is no, but they must be living in some sort of denial where they believe bad things will never happen to them and they won’t be the ones victimized by inflexible policies. I guess most of the policy makers have enough money that being out the deposit for a vacation or $50 for a missed medical appointment isn’t a big deal to them.
This lack of compassion doesn’t happen only in travel, although it is very common in that industry. I’ve heard of it happening in the medical field, when patients are charged for visits they couldn’t make because their car broke down on the freeway or there was a tragedy in the family. It happens in retail, when a customer misses the return deadline for an item because they were tending to important family business. It happens in the financial industry when someone misses a payment because they were in the hospital, or tending to a close family member who was dying. Businesses in almost every field are guilty of failing to show compassion to their customers.
I understand that some service providers have been taken advantage of. They have had people ask for bereavement fares when no one was dead. They’ve had people cancel reservations and appointments at the last minute claiming a problem, when all that really happened was that they changed their mind or found a better deal elsewhere.
There are excuses that are simply that: excuses. But there are also times of genuine hardship when the vacation, credit card payment, or appointment are the last thing on someone’s mind. When you’re sick and in the hospital, you aren’t thinking, “Wow, I’d better get up and write that check to the credit card company,” and when you’re waiting on a loved one to die, you aren’t thinking about your vacation. When the hard times pass and you realize that you’ve missed some things or that you need to change some arrangements, wouldn’t it be nice to be met with some compassion instead of a slap on the hand, late fees, lost deposits, and dings on your credit? Yes, it would.
Unfortunately, it seems that the world of commerce today has little room for compassion. Gone are the days when you could work something out with the provider, when they would be willing to listen to your problems and try to arrange something. Gone are the days when customers were human beings with human problems. Now companies view us as “consumers.” We are nameless, faceless, income streams. The goal of most businesses is to get all the money they can from us, even if they have to be slimy to do it. Our problems are not their concern. Their concern is getting our money and keeping it. It’s unfortunate that it has come to this.
So what can you do if you have an unexpected life event that pits you against a company’s policies? In some cases there isn’t much you can do because the company in question, like the ones my friend dealt with, will refuse even the most reasonable compromise. But there are some things you can do to increase your chances of being heard and getting a little compassion.
Buy travel insurance
This one won’t win you any compassion, but is the surest way to protect yourself if you’re dealing with the travel industry. Since many arrangements are made far in advance, they are the most subject to unforeseen events such as illness or death messing up your plans. You want travel insurance in any case where the amount of money you must pay prior to your travel dates is more than you can afford to lose. If all you’re booking is a hotel room and you only had to pay a deposit of one night’s charges, then travel insurance is overkill. But if you’ve bought airline tickets, cruise fare, or paid for a vacation package in advance, the cost of the insurance is slight compared to what you might lose. If you have insurance, the policies of the individual travel provider are less of a concern to you because your insurance provider will pay you regardless, as long as you meet their conditions for an insurable event. If my friend had bought insurance, she would have gotten her money back.
If you are in a position where you have to beg for some compassion, be as nice as possible. No one wants to help someone who is abusive or mean. Companies are more likely to stick to their policies when someone is abusive. Try to be polite and calm, state the problem, and ask how you can work with the company to achieve a resolution.
Be willing to offer proof of your claims
When you’re asking for an exception, the burden is on you to prove that you deserve it. Don’t get offended if they ask for a death certificate, hospital bill, receipts, or other proof of your hardship. Refusing to provide proof of your claim will get you nowhere and the company will consider you a liar. Companies have had too many people lie to them to be willing to take you at your word. If a company is reluctant to deal with you, offer the proof on your own as a proactive gesture to get things rolling.
Offer to compromise
You might not be able to get all of your money back or cancel a trip outright, so ask if there is a compromise. Can they keep your deposit and allow you to reschedule the trip and apply that deposit to the new dates? Can your doctor apply the missed visit fee to your next appointment? If you missed a credit card payment can they waive the late fee, even if they won’t waive the interest charges? If you can’t get everything you want in the situation, getting some of what you want may be your only option. Think about what is a reasonable compromise that shows good faith and offer that.
Ask for management and then go as high as you need to
If the person on the other end of the phone can’t help you, ask for someone who can. Very often, the front line representative doesn’t have the authority to break with company policy, so ask for a manager or supervisor. If they can’t help you, ask for their boss. If you can’t get a resolution on the phone, write to the company headquarters and corporate management. Sometimes corporate management has no idea what is going on at the lower levels and may help you if you expose the problems. Explain your problem coherently, be nice, and ask for what you want. If you still can’t get a resolution, try number 6.
Sometimes a company is so busy hiding behind its policies that your only choice is to expose their unfair practices. Many television stations and magazines have a consumer advocate that will look into your case and try to get a resolution. Contact them and see if they’ll take your case. Companies don’t like the bad PR that comes along with being seen as uncaring towards those enduring true hardships and will often offer a refund or compromise if they are contacted by one of these outfits.
Spread the word
This won’t get you any compassion, but if all else has failed, spread the word about the company’s poor practices. If you have a blog, write about your experience. Report them to the Better Business Bureau. Tell your friends and family members to stay away from the company. Don’t do business with them in the future. Cancel your dealings with them and, when asked why, tell the truth. The only way some companies get the message is when it hurts their bottom line. The more word gets around that they are unhelpful in bad times, the more likely they are to change and be more compassionate in the future.
Of course this isn’t a one way street. Consumers shouldn’t have to beg for compassion from companies. If you are a business, there are some things you can do to make your business more compassionate.
When making policies, ask yourself if your policy would work for you if something unexpected happened. If the answer is no, create a better policy.
Be willing to make compromises
If the customer offers a reasonable compromise, take it. The goodwill you earn will more than offset any small monetary loss.
Protect yourself, but remember that life is unpredictable
You can enact policies and require burdens of proof that protect you from the liars and the cheats, but when someone is being honest about their situation and has proof of the facts, be willing to bend or break your policies to help them.
Give your front line representatives the ability to make decisions and break with policy
Nothing is more frustrating to someone who is having a hard time than spending hours on the phone searching out the one elusive person who can help. When you’re dealing with a death or an illness, every minute on the phone is time away from more important things. Make it easier for your customers to get the help they need with the first phone call.
Remember your customers are human
Just like you, your customers are human and you should treat them as you would want to be treated.
I think there is room in commerce for compassion and that the two can coexist. I don’t think it is necessary to treat people as simply money machines that don’t have problems or feelings. It is possible for companies to enact policies that protect them from those who would take advantage, while leaving room for those who have real problems to find relief. I encourage business owners to look at their policies from the customers’ end and ask if this is how they would want to be treated if the unexpected happened. If the answer is no, bring a little compassion back to your company. It will be worth more in the end than any deposit or fee.