By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 9/16/2009 2:21:42 PM ET 2009-09-16T18:21:42

Elaine Goldman had just returned home from a disappointing cruise experience on Royal Caribbean. Traveling with her elderly mother, Goldman says she found the food “terrible” and the crew “rude,” which she says a far cry from her previous pleasing voyages with the line.

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Goldman conveyed her issues to the onboard managers, to no avail. So, when she returned home she did what any self-respecting angry customer would do — she wrote the cruise line about her negative experiences. After six months of no response from Royal Caribbean, Goldman contacted me for help.

What not to write
Goldman sent me the letter that she had written to Royal Caribbean and boy, was it a whopper. It was a five-page, single-spaced laundry list of every detail that went wrong with the cruise. Worst of all, it was written in a belligerent tone that was very disconcerting. Basically, it was everything a complaint letter should not be.

I advised Goldman that I could not help her since it was a letter that I could not stand behind when approaching the cruise line. Goldman did have two issues that I felt she should convey to the company, so I counseled her to compose another letter that was more thoughtful and concise using the following recommendations from a previous column.

Get organized
A letter can go a long way in voicing your dissatisfaction with your cruise. A letter makes your complaint official and pretty much requires a response from the cruise line. It’s your best shot at resolution, so you need to make a good case. Here’s how to do it.

The first key to achieving satisfactory results is getting organized. Here are some key points:

Calm down. For many people, this is the hard part. But if you don’t put anger and disappointment aside, you will just end up ranting or whining — and that won’t get you anywhere.

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Make notes. Write down exactly what happened (”Just the facts, Ma’am.”). Include a record of each attempt to remedy the situation, along with the names and positions of those you have dealt with, if you know them.

Gather documents. Copy any receipts, incident reports, photographs, witness statements or other documents that explain and support your case. Never send original documents, only photocopies.

Put away the poison pen. You have to strike the right tone. You don’t have to suck up, but you mustn’t indulge in name-calling and derogatory commentary. You’re trying to resolve a problem, not start a new one. The correct tone conveys respect for the company and an expectation that the matter can be resolved.

Keep it simple
It’s important to keep the letter brief, clear and concise. Highlight one or two main issues and avoid a laundry-list relating to simple nuisances.
Here are some composition helpers:

• Type your letter.

• Give your reservation number.

• Keep the narrative of events in chronological order, but explain all the details.

• Specify how you would like the issue resolved; offer solutions.

• At the end, give a brief summary and a cordial sign-off.

When you finish the letter, sleep on it and then reread it in the morning. Better yet, have someone else read it. Still having trouble writing a letter? Microsoft Word travel complaint templates are a great resource for helping you compose a professional letter.

One thing: Don’t threaten legal action or adverse publicity. Simply put, the cruise line will be less likely to help you.

To whom it may concern
Some people don’t agree with me, but I firmly believe you should address serious complaint letters to people as high in the chain of command as possible. Why? Because if the letter is very important to you, it should be important to the company’s management, too.

Cruise lines are in a service business, and their executives sometimes need to be reminded that their business rises and falls with customer satisfaction. So, never address your letter to the anonymous “Customer Service Department.” Instead, direct it to the manager of customer relations, director, vice president — or even to the president of the cruise line. I am not deluded. I don’t think every letter is being read by the big cheeses, but on more than one occasion, I have been pleasantly surprised.

Resolution takes time
Don’t expect an immediate reply to your letter. The average response time is between 30 and 60 days (shocking, but true). Cruise lines research the complaint and usually wait to reply until they know that some action has taken place on what you’ve reported.

A few weeks after Elaine Goldman revised her previous five-page novel into an effective one-page synopsis, she heard from Royal Caribbean. The cruise line apologized for the negative onboard experience and stated it was working to correct the problem. As a gesture of good will the line offered Goldman and her mother a $250 onboard credit towards their next cruise. Goldman is happy she finally heard from the company and is satisfied with the offer. She plans on booking a Royal Caribbean cruise very soon.

But what if you’ve calmed down, gotten organized, written a good letter, waited patiently and still aren’t getting anywhere?

Sadly, it’s often only dogged persistence or the timely threat of legal action that finally yields results — or public exposure in online columns such as this one. Thanks to the Internet, there is now a great deal of help for customers wishing to take a stand against a company. So, if you aren’t getting anywhere with your cruise complaint, e-mail me. I’ll do my best to find out why you aren’t getting the response you deserve.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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