I've waged a long and lonely campaign against mindless form letters sent to customers by uncaring corporations.
It looks like I finally have some company.
Ana Maria Roqué booked an airport transfer and tour through Priceline (www.priceline.com).
But when she arrived at the airport in Rome, her tour guide was nowhere to be found.
"No one was waiting for us," she says. Finally, she tracked down the tour company, but a representative rudely insisted they didn't have a reservation and that Priceline was "fraudulently" using the tour company's name.
So Roqué hired a taxi and took the matter up with Priceline when she returned. She sent a brief, polite e-mail to Priceline, asking for a refund.
"I finally got an e-mail response from Priceline, in which they said they had researched my complaint and had confirmed the tour in question had been taken without problem," she says. "The reference number they gave me was different from the transfer voucher. I have sent several e-mails after that one. All have been ignored."
Ah, the thoughtlessly-sent form letter! Every company does it, to one degree or another. Some are simple cut-and-paste jobs that "apologize" for making a customer feel disappointed, but rarely for the actual infraction that led to the disappointment. Others are hybrids; part form letter, part fill-in-the-blank.
All of them have one thing in common: They fail to adequately address the problem the customer originally had.
I'm a big proponent of the written complaint. Short of resolving the problem in real-time, which Roqué certainly tried to do, the brief, polite e-mail trumps even the most articulate, well-mannered phone call.
Why? Mostly because you have no record of a call (alas, the company does, because it records calls "for quality assurance purposes" -- whatever that means).
Form responses are necessary evils. If your customer-service agents have to type the same information over and over, how is that an effective use of their time? I use forms myself from everything from thanking readers for story feedback to acknowledging requests for mediation.
But overreliance on forms can be problematic. Autoresponders fall under that category -- they go out to anyone that e-mails you, regardless of the query. In Roqué's view, Priceline was sending her the equivalent of a vacation autoresponder instead of investigating her complaint.
I could spend a few paragraphs describing what an inappropriate form response looks like, but I'll spare you. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart probably said it best in 1964, when describing his threshold test for pornography: "I know it when I see it."
When you do, it's best to send a cordial rebuttal, requesting another review. That normally does the trick.
I asked Priceline to take another look at Roqué's case. A representative responded to me in person.
"Here's what happened," he told me. "The Rome phone number provided to the customer was not for the correct airport transfer agent. I'm not certain how this happened, since our tours and other destination services are handled for us by a third party. "
Priceline issued a full refund to Roqué and offered her a $50 credit. She's happy with that resolution. To put it mildly.
"If you run for president," she says, "you have my vote!"
Stand by, Ana Maria. I'll be making an announcement shortly.
Christopher Elliott is the author of the upcoming book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.