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How to avoid a customer service nightmare

As the travel industry wraps up one of the most difficult years since the invention of the wheel, it’s taken a visible toll on the people who work in travel.

Ask Bonnie Friedman about her worst customer service experience, and she won’t hesitate to tell you about the time she checked in for her flight from Venice to Frankfurt.

An agent at the counter, who appeared to be on a personal phone call, ordered Friedman to return 15 minutes later.

“She never lifted her head,” she remembers. “She was just plain nasty.”

And that was only the beginning of an ugly series of exchanges between the two, in which Friedman repeatedly tried to check in and the agent ignored her. With her flight about to depart, she pleaded for help, and finally, the agent angrily issued a boarding pass, but not before informing the American that she was rude.

“I realized that arguing or losing my temper would be of no use whatsoever, so I thanked her for her help and wished her a good day,” she says.

Stories like Friedman’s are shockingly common. As the industry wraps up one of the most difficult years since the invention of the wheel, it’s taken a visible toll on the people who work in travel. You don’t have to look far to find an agitated gate agent, a surly flight attendant, an indifferent hotel worker or a mean car rental agent.

Bad service is everywhere.

The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index finds that airlines score a failing 64 percent. Hotels? Guests give them a gentleman’s “C” (75 percent). Ditto for car rental companies. Even though there aren’t any reliable customer service surveys, the one or two I’ve seen suggest no one is particularly happy with the way they’re treated at the counter.

Friedman, a fellow writer who lives in Hawaii, made her flight to Frankfurt, but others aren’t so lucky. Some are denied boarding, or removed from their flight, refused a hotel room or a car — all the while being treated worse than cargo.

I know. I had the misfortune of being on an international flight where the flight attendant had me in her crosshairs. My carry-on bag was “too big” (it was regulation size) my laptop needed to go in the overhead bin, not the seat pocket, and no, I couldn’t have the whole can of sparkling water, it was against the airline’s policy. Oh boy. At some point, I felt certain the crewmember would open the cabin door and kick me off the flight. I think she wanted to.

What do you do when you run up against a brick wall like that?

1. Don’t provoke an angry service employee.
If you’re faced with someone who is unpleasant, try to avoid a confrontation. Instead, do whatever is necessary to ease the tension — even if it means agreeing with someone who is obviously wrong. CeliaSue Hecht, a media consultant in San Francisco, recently had a run-in with a hotel manager, who forced her to wait several hours for her room and didn’t seem to care. Rather than rant against the hotel employee, she wrote a-n email complaining about her treatment. “This got me a complimentary stay, which I appreciated,” she told me.

2. Put yourself in their shoes.
Think someone is being rude? They probably feel the same way about you, says Freeman Hall, author of the new book, “Retail Hell: Confessions of a Tortured Sales Associate” (Adams Media, 2009). “They’re pointing the blame finger at each other,” he says. “What I’ve discovered after years of waiting on customers is it’s usually — not always — a misconception that occurs when the customer and service provider first encounter each other.” For example, the service provider says “hello” and the customer doesn’t respond. Or the customer thinks the salesperson is ignoring him or her. Many misunderstandings can be averted by simply acknowledging travel industry employees and empathizing with them just a little.

3. Ignorance is bliss.
When you encounter bad service, as Jenni Brand did on a recent flight from Philadelphia to Chicago, it’s easy for the situation to spiral out of control. It began when a flight attendant spilled water on her. As she tried to dry herself with a handful of napkins, the crewmember snapped at her that “it’s only water.” Brand held her tongue. “I chose to politely ignore her, because these days, the flight attendants hold all the power,” she told me. “Had I responded, I could have been deemed combative and had to deal with the authorities, or who knows what!” Then the attendant skipped her aisle for beverage service. That prompted Brand to shake her head. “Are you shaking your head at that?" the attendant demanded. At which point she realized how fortunate she had been. Openly challenging a flight attendant in a bad mood could have indeed gotten her into more trouble than she expected.

4. Try a smile.
A charm offense can be the best defense against an unhelpful ticket agent. At a time like this, everyone expects the complaints. But going positive can have shocking results. When Lori Lenz and her friend, Lisa, wrapped up a convention in Tampa, Fla., recently and tried to get home early, they were stopped by a ticket agent who demanded they pay $385 to board an early flight. Instead of whining, they tried a little nice. “She could see our disappointment,” Lenz remembers. Then the agent began typing on her terminal, and in a few moments, handed them two tickets on the next flight. “I have great friends who are named Lori and Lisa,” the agent said. “Great people with great names.” The fee to change tickets? Zero.

5. Document everything.
So you’ve tried being nice, you’ve backed down and you’ve ignored their inappropriate behavior. What if they persist? Unfortunately, that can happen. I’ve personally had to deal with vindictive employees who were hell-bent on making my trip a living hell. Elisse Goldstein-Clark has, too. She told me a chilling story about what she called the “worst airline experience of my life” that involved “perhaps the nastiest, most unhelpful, spiteful human being I have ever dealt with,” and her takeaway from the ordeal is interesting. “Control yourself, and take really good notes,” she says. Sometimes, asking for names will result in better service, but often you have to wait until getting home before drafting a brief, polite letter to the company. “That often works,” she says.

What if none of these strategies work? As a consumer advocate, I’m the first to admit that these strategies aren’t foolproof. A letter to a company is sometimes ignored. Foul-tempered employees may continue to harass you even after you’ve smiled and walked away. I’ve seen it.

I have a few suggestions on what to do next on my Web site. Better yet, you want to find a company that offers excellent customer service every time.

That’s the subject of next week’s column.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at .