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How to complain

Brancatelli’s squeaky-wheel theory of business travel was developed after surviving a generation of incompetent airlines, haughty hotels, and subcompact rental cars reeking of the previous driver’s cigar smoke.
Image: Airline passenger at a ticket counter
Did things go all wrong on your last flight? Don't bottle it up. Business travel columnist Joe Brancatelli advises complaining, but knowing how to go about it effectively.Will Powers / AP file
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Brancatelli’s squeaky-wheel theory of business travel was developed after surviving a generation of incompetent airlines, haughty hotels, and subcompact rental cars reeking of the previous driver’s cigar smoke.

The way I see it, the travel industry, in general, long ago abandoned any pretense of providing good service — or even meeting their minimum published standards. They are also spectacularly inept at service recovery. Giving hundreds of millions of customers what they paid for and making good when things go wrong is simply too expensive in a high-volume, low-margin business.

I believe the bean counters have decided that the best way to make money in travel is to treat everyone poorly and make amends only to the select few who go to the extraordinary effort of complaining about how they are treated. In other words, grease the squeaky wheels and let the silent traveling majority suffer.

But you have to know how to squeak effectively. Screaming at a beleaguered ticket agent or frontline clerk won’t get you far. You need to craft a good, crisp letter of complaint, complete with a demand for appropriate compensation. And you need to target your letter to someone who can actually resolve your problem.

Here are 10 tips — from the beginning of the process to resolution — to make sure that your complaint squeaks the loudest and gets the most metaphoric grease.

1. Go for immediate gratification
The best complaint letter is the one you never have to write, so do whatever you can to solve the problem on the spot. If you can’t get instant gratification from the person with whom you’re dealing, speak to someone higher up the food chain. Schedule permitting, it’s worth investing some time in an on-site, ad hoc arbitration session.

2. Take good notes
As a business traveler, you’ll often have a sense very early in the process when something is amiss. Start taking notes immediately: Get times, places, names, and as many specifics as you can. Hold on to all receipts, tickets, boarding passes, and anything else that is part of the paper trail. And think like a businessperson: Keep track of anything and everything you’d want to know if it were your job to resolve the situation retroactively.

3. Act fast
Don’t throw your grievance file in the corner with your expense account. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that you’ll get any satisfaction. Initiate your complaint as soon as you get home.

4. Go with paper
Despite how reliant we all are on e-mail, most airlines and hotels are unwilling or unable to resolve problems electronically. Rely on an old-fashioned paper letter and snail mail. Use company stationery and never send a handwritten note. Make sure to attach copies, not originals, of all relevant pieces of the paper trail.

5. Send the complaint to a specific person
Letters generically addressed to customer service will be handled generically. If your problem is with a particular hotel or specific airport station, find out the name of the general manager or station manager and address the letter to that person. Unhappy with the frequent-travel program? Write to the vice president of marketing. If your problem is with a hotel chain, airline, or car-rental firm, write to the chief executive. You probably won’t get a response directly from the top dog, but most C-suite executives have staff specifically charged with handling letters addressed to them. (An interesting side note: A lot of business travelers I know have resolved their complaints by writing to the firm’s assistant general counsel. I don’t know why, but it seems to work.)

6. Keep it short and polite
Long missives that begin with the dawn of the millennium aren’t a good approach. Think of your complaint letter as a memo to your own CEO. Keep it brief, firm, and polite. Don’t clutter your letter with small indignities or frivolous complaints. Don’t go for revenge. It isn’t worth it — and anyway, you won’t get it.

7. Use your clout
Don’t bludgeon the airline or hotel with your clout, but don’t run away from it either. If you are an elite-level frequent traveler, put your account number and status on the letter. If the complaint is so serious that you’re thinking of moving your business elsewhere, say so. If you can impact your company’s travel policy and sway business away from the airline or hotel, say so. But don’t bluff. Only threaten what you are actually prepared to do. And don’t tell the company that you’ll never fly with them or rent a room from them again. If you proclaim yourself a lost customer, there’s very little incentive for the company to try to make amends.

8. Ask for something
Writing a letter of complaint without asking for some sort of tangible make-good is guaranteed to generate little more than a form-letter apology. Tell the airline, hotel, or car-rental firm exactly what is required to make you happy. But have a sense of proportion. A one-hour flight delay does not entitle you to a refund. A rude front-desk clerk isn’t grounds for a free night at a hotel. The punishment, so to speak, should fit the crime. Asking for hard cash is always tricky, although sometimes a refund is the only fair resolution. However, if you’d be happy with bonus miles or points, room or flight upgrades, or discount coupons, ask for them. If you’re a frequent traveler, elevation to the next level of elite status might be the best compensation of all.

9. Use your big plastic stick
I assume you know that you should never pay cash for travel services. That’s because you do have legal recourse if you charge your travel purchase. Under federal fair-credit laws, you have the right to contest any charge that you do not consider legitimate and that includes a travel purchase gone awry. If you’re in a row with an airline, hotel, or car-rental firm over a service they didn’t provide, immediately contest the charge with your credit card company.

10. Don’t give up
If the airline or hotel’s first response is insufficient, tell the person who responded to your letter that you aren’t satisfied. (By the way, don’t return any coupons, discounts, or checks they sent.) You’ll be surprised how often a second letter yields a better offer.

The fine print ...
As I warned in a recent column, the travel industry will continue to slap surcharges on published prices. During the past week, for example, airlines have attempted to impose a fuel surcharge of $50 round-trip on domestic fares. It fell to $40 and is now $10. And some Dollar Rent a Car franchises in New England are testing a $2 “top-up” fee if you return your rented car with a full tank of gas.