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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/19/2009 11:08:30 AM ET 2009-02-19T16:08:30

United Airlines is putting the kibosh on calling in with complaints .

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Last week the airline confirmed that, come April, it will disconnect the phone line to a foreign call center contracted to field customer compliments and complaints. Customers with issues to discuss will still be able to call the airline’s general 800-number but, as anyone who’s tried navigating United’s (or any airline’s) automated phone tree knows, the focus there is on selling tickets and tweaking reservations.

From here on out, even if you get through to a live United Airlines agent, you’ll likely be told to send post-flight comments, good or bad, in old-fashioned letter form or via e-mail.

Why quit answering the phone?

United Airlines spokesperson Robin Urbanski says the company did research on the success of the feedback line and concluded that “people who e-mail or write us are more satisfied with our responses.”

However, many travelers, hospitality industry experts and folks in the field view the call-center closure as a cost-cutting measure and yet another step away from focusing on customer care.

In a tough economy, when keeping every customer you’ve got is more important than ever, United’s move puzzles folks like Zeke Adkins of Luggage Forward, a door-to-door luggage shipping company. “What is unclear to me is how this [research] led United to conclude that eliminating, rather than improving, their call centers would be the best strategic decision.”

Others suspect that as the economy worsens and budgets tighten, live customer-service centers will disappear elsewhere as well. But that’s doesn’t mean well-mannered travelers should stop giving feedback on service. We may just need to learn some new skills — and sharpen some old ones.

“It’s a skill that anyone can master and everyone should,” says Betsy Whitmore of Angie’s List, a Web site that invites consumers to rate and review companies and services. “Whether it’s travel, home improvement or restaurant service, not speaking up about bad or good service is a disservice to you and the company involved.”

Whitmore is right, says John Crotts, director of the hospitality and tourism management program at the College of Charleston. “Customers or guests who complain are a business’s best friend. They are telling you where your problems are and giving you the opportunity to correct mistakes, thereby keeping their loyalty.” His advice to travelers: “Speak up!”

How to give feedback
OK, we will. And if no one answers the phone, we’ll put our issues in writing using some of these tips from well-mannered, experienced travelers and experts in the field:

Don’t yell. When writing your complaint letter, always keep your cool, says customer service consultant Esteban Kolsky. “While calling someone names in a letter may help you feel better, it does not improve your odds of getting what you want — it actually does the opposite.” Business travel expert Chris McGinnis agrees. “Write your emotion-packed ‘I'll never use you again’ letter first, then put it in a drawer and re-write it later.” He adds, “Keep things short and sweet. Include an ‘executive summary’ at the top of the letter, show the details below, but never, ever more than a single page.”

Be specific. When complaining to an airline, Anne Banas of SmarterTravel.com says be clear about the details of your experience and very specific about what you want to happen. “Always ask for some form of compensation and attach an appropriate dollar figure. Of course, this is easy if your loss was tangible, but even if it is not, come up with a figure for inconvenience and hassle. Do you want a voucher for future travel? More frequent flyer miles? A check? An upgrade next time you travel?”

Be realistic and fair. When sending feedback to a hotel, Lara Weiss of K Hotels suggests directing your note to the general manager of the property and copying the corporate office, if there is one. “Demanding a refund never works,” says Weiss, “because then you just look like you want your money back and don’t really care about the experience.” She says hotels would much rather offer you a free stay to come back and try them again but warns against writing a complaint to a hotel after you have already written a bad review on sites like TripAdvisor. “You will lose all opportunity because you’ve already done the damage.”

Don’t over-dramatize. Guido Adelfio of Bethesda Travel Center shared the story of a client who fell in the hallway in a French hotel, chipped a tooth and complained when the hotel ignored his request for compensation. “The customer asked for dental bills, medical bills…, a refund of the airfare, a meal allowance, plus a fund for the inconvenience and discomfort,” says Adelfio. “Of course they didn't hear back. They’d asked for the sun, the moon and the stars, far beyond the damage suffered.”

If you need to, go up the ladder. If you don’t get a response to your well-written complaint letter, it may be because the person reading it doesn’t have the authority to do anything about it. That’s when Kelli Grant, Senior Consumer Reporter at SmartMoney.com, suggests going up the ladder. “There’s a great Web site called Executive Bomb that helps you find executive e-mail addresses for a given company. This way, if your initial complaint falls on deaf ears, you can be sure the next try doesn’t.” And don’t forget that these days many company representatives can also be reached via Twitter, she says. “UPS, Bank of America, JetBlue and Comcast all have people you can reach out to via Twitter to help solve problems. It’s fast help, and usually pretty effective.”

On-the-ground strategies
If it’s really fast help you want, then Tom Murphy suggests learning how to resolve travel complaints in real time. Murphy is the Director of the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University in New York and has been helping teach airport and airline employees how to solve customer issues before they become written complaints.

He says the three key tools employees are taught to use — body language, tone of voice and words — can be used by travelers as well.

“If you can, approach a worker with an understanding of the stresses that person has on their job and let them do their job without getting in their face,” he says. “If you use body language and words that have respect, then you have a better chance of getting what you want.”

That approach works for experienced traveler and expert negotiator Ashley Grayson. “The secret is: Don't wait until you have to complain,” he says. “Act immediately to get the optimum solution from the person in front of you.”

Grayson is a literary agent who knows a thing or two about using words effectively. So he offers this opening line: “I’ve got this terrible problem that I hope you can help with. But if you can’t, let’s get someone who can."

Longtime public radio host Bill Radke, also an expert with words, has had luck resolving travel issues with this opening line: “I’m looking for a hero here.”

Radke says he suspects the line works because “people want their work to matter. So in just the right circumstances, when the other party knows you're getting red-taped or shafted” the person at the hotel front desk or airline counter “might just step in to be your hero.”

And in a world of cranky, unhappy travelers, if someone is asking for the moon, why not be their star?

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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