Compassion vs. Commerce

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.

Be nice

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.

Go public

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.

The Unexpected

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.

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13 Responses to Compassion vs. Commerce

  1. Jodi says:

    This reminds me of a story in a local paper recently. A soldier was on leave, and got married. He and his new bride wanted to stay ONE night in a hotel in our area. No one would let him-it’s high season, and there’s a 2 night minimum. Come on, he’s defending our country, and they couldn’t bend the rules for one night?? He didn’t want it for free either! Finally, one nice B&B gave him a discounted rate, and treated them like royalty. If I have to recommend a place to stay for someone, which place do you think I’m going to mention?

  2. Alexandria says:

    Yeah, but if they give just a little leeway, people take full advantage. So I have to say I completely understand the policy. Suddenly everyone has some excuse and the industry doesn’t make any money (or on the flip side then we ALL pay more for the many people who do take advantage).

    Since we have kids we often buy travel insurance for large trips now. I am not sure I would have seen the point before kids, but they have a knack of getting REALLY sick the day before vacation. Travel insurance is great advice for large/expensive trips. & being a little extra pushy in bad circumstances, sometimes works to get a refund. So, good tips.

  3. wealthman says:

    There is really no reason for the company to make the exception because they know that people shop price. Business are not in it to be nice, but to make money. if they can be nice and make money at the same time, they will, but if it’s a choice of making moeny or being nice, they will rightly go for making money. Nothing wrong with that.

  4. Shannon says:

    I think that offering proof should bring some compassion. My husband used to work collections and eventually lost the compassion he used to have for some of the tough situations because people would lie to him all the time. (In one case, a man said he had to care for his seriously ill mother, and my husband later learned that said mother had died several years earlier.)

    For those with true emergencies, however, companies would benefit financially by bending the rules a bit and showing compassion — for the very reason Jodi just pointed out. No one wants to patronize companies that have treated their friends badly.

  5. Marissa says:

    In the case of airlines, I know policy states that you can change your travel dates on a restricted ticket if you were sick (or had to be operated) on the date you were supposed to travel. At least there was a few years ago.

  6. Liz says:

    On the one hand, it would be nice if there was more compassion in the world. Goodness knows, losing a loved one is tough. I’ve been there on far too many occasions. And yes, company representatives can be very callous.

    However, I don’t expect companies to go, “Oh, I’m so sorry about your loss! Take our money!” And the fact is, once you buy something, it is their money, not yours.

    Sure, sometimes things can be resold and so the company isn’t completely out, but that doesn’t mean that companies should always refund our money. In the U.S. we’ve been spoiled by good (and even great) return policies enough that we expect them — or even think that we are entitled to them. As a society, we’ve chosen low cost over good service too many times, even if it’s often out of personal necessity.

    So, buy travel insurance, or better yet, only buy tickets from companies that still have a heart — if you can find them.

  7. Jay Gatsby says:

    There is a legal concept called “expectation damages” that underlies a merchant’s refusal to reschedule. For example, I sign a contract to buy a car. I later change my mind and decide not to buy the car, in breach of the contract I signed. The dealer is able to resell the car (possibly for more than I would have paid). Most people would say the dealer suffered no damages. Yet the dealer did, in that assuming it had stock on hand, it would have sold two cars instead of one. Accordingly, the dealer would be entitled to sue me for the profit it lost when I did not buy a car.

    The same analysis applies to vacations. Tickets for hotels are essentially short-term leasehold interests for a specific time frame. If I attempt to move my reservation from one date to another, then I’m costing the hotel a sale. This is why hotels have 72 hour deadlines to change or cancel reservations. They know that they will be unable to rent your room past a certain date.

    The bottom line is that a hotel is in business to make money, and must protect itself against risks that are not its own (or of its own making).

  8. s cox says:

    The cheapest flights and hotel rooms these days are sold on nonchangeble tickets. You can pay extra to have tickets and reservations that are flexible.
    Your friend bought non changeable, nonrefundable tickets and then wanted to change them. The reason why she wanted to do that are really irrelevant. People die, people get sick, that’s life, but that does not change a nonchangeable ticket to a flexible one.
    I work in a box office and every single time we sell a ticket we are told to say “This is a final sale, there are no refunds or exchanges”. Those are the terms and conditions of the sale, and if they are unacceptable, you should not make the purchase.

  9. consumer_q says:

    “Unfortunately, it seems that the world of commerce today has little room for compassion.”

    I think Jodi’s example illustrates why going for the cheapest is not always the best “deal”. A B&B is no beholden to strict company policy like a Hilton or Mariott. As for personal examplesm my credit union has waved VISA late fees on two occasions now when I was on a trip and the cheque was forgotten. I have returned new goods beyond the 30-day policy at various small retailers without penalty. Even with large corps, such as airlines, thre is flexibility so long as you pay full price. It is when you get a “deal” that the perks are often lost. Good service is worth sacrificing any small monetary benefit to me in many ways.

  10. baselle says:

    Its yet another reason why if you can shop locally or get your services locally, that loyalty can be quite frugal. There’s really no such thing as a local airline, but if you establish a relationship with your seller – be a regular – you have a little extra flexiblity.

    For example, I often eat at a particular restaurant often enough that when I lost my wallet … that’s okay, next time. Next time I paid.

    Remember in the Millionaire Next Door, more than likely said millionaire ran a business, and established a personal relationship with other business owners. The roofer knew the exterminator knew the car salesman knew the insurance guy. They established links, gave each other business, knew each other’s character and often would give each other that leeway.

    Things happen – everyone knows that. But if you are one consumer with money blinking in and out, its hard to pick out the unfortunate from the fraud.

  11. I think the biggest problem is how big the companies are. Their hands are probably tied by management that may not exist in the same state.

    I worked in retail, and there is a paper trail for everything. Sometimes computers leave you locked in. Everything is accountable to some entity you don’t even know.

    I’d be willing to bet the people you spoke with wanted to provide a refund, but didn’t have the power to do it.

    It’s all part of the curse of big business. You get lower prices, but there is always a cost.

  12. Sanj says:

    Jay Gatsby has it correct. I run a small business, locally owned and I have to hold people to their deposits. I only have the resources to provide service to one customer at a time (and I prefer that personal 100& attention, don’t you?), if someone calls and books me for a given date – I gurantee that I WILL show up and that I won’t cancel. Now if someone else calls me and asks for the same date, I will (and have) politley decline and ask them to select a date where I have time available – but in some cases – I lose the business because I cannot meet the customers demands. Now if you call and cancel that date, and I have already turned down one (sometimes multiple) other customers – you are costing me money. If keep your deposit or fees is that not fair? Your deposit is your guarantee that you will be participating. My reputation is my guarantee that I will be participating. If you don’t show, I can’t ‘GO PUBLIC’ and name and shame the client can I?

    It’s not just big faceless corporations out there – the ones who really suffer are the small businesses where one lost sale can mean no income for that week…

    If you are worried about things happening outside of your control – then insurance is the best thing you can do for yourself and the merchant – insurance companies make big money to assume that risk.

    I can’t afford to.

  13. Gail says:

    I certainly understand both sides of the issue as we run a small on-line business. If I’m notified immediately about a problem, I’m compassionate. If 3-4 weeks have taken place and the person hasn’t fulfilled their commitment (to pay) and then starts with the, I have a blood clot, I had to go to the ER, etc. I loose my compassion real fast. Current medical problems don’t compensate for not having taken care of a financial commitment 3 weeks previously. I have had customers send letters with pictures attached of their ER namebands, and letter itself would have taken a minimum of 2 hours to compose–but it all boils down to I can’t pay you because I don’t have time because I had to go to the ER and then write you this long letter telling you why I don’t have a free minute to go to Paypal and pay you what I owe you.

    I’m chronically ill. I understand and am full of compassion, but too many people are out there trying to take advantage of businesses and so I can understand the fact that most businesses can’t be ‘compassionate’. Unfortunately more signs of how our society is degrading.

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