Bad customer service puts travel planning in perspective
There was a time, not that long ago, when a quick flight to Southern California or the Bay Area was as easy as driving to Sacramento: You drove to Reno airport, parked the car, strolled in a half-hour before the flight and arrived at your destination by happy hour the same afternoon. Things have changed, as was illustrated to me last week during a sojourn to Southern California for the annual California Newspaper Publishers Association awards lunch.
Since 9-11, air travel (at least short commuter flights) has become the great inconvenience. And, for the most part, it is an inconvenience most people grudgingly accept because we know the world is not as safe and airplanes are a target. We’re willing to forfeit our nail clippers. We’re willing to look like idiots standing in line holding our shoes. We’re even willing to live with the ridiculous image of a 90-year-old woman getting escorted to “the room” (the one reserved for the more invasive searches) because of the sensitivity of passenger profiling, blah, blah, blah.
But inconvenience is not what set me off last week – I’m already conditioned to accept inconvenience. Last week’s trip was a lesson in bad customer service.
The Reno end of our trip could not have gone smoother. My wife, Rachel, and I arrived early (early enough to board with the “A” group), and made our flight on time, but the real challenge started when we got to Los Angeles International.
After deplaning (I think that’s what they call it), we walked a couple miles to the rental car shuttle area, where we consequently sucked Los Angeles carbon monoxide for 45 minutes before Dollar rent-a-car picked us up. I’m calling Dollar out by name because this is the second time the company (remember, we are customers) has caused us headaches.
After a long ride in a suffocating bus – many other Dollar customers were waiting by the time the shuttle arrived – we were put in a line rivaling LAX’s security checkpoint. An hour later we finally got to a “customer service” representative. An affable man, he went through all the steps of re-entering all the information we had given when we made the reservation. The transaction ended up being a negotiation, him trying to upgrade us to a convertible and extra insurance (He proposed the $15-a-day option. Averaged over a year that would equal $5,475 dollars, expensive even by Los Angeles standards) and us trying to get the car we ordered in the first place.
Paperwork in hand, we dragged our bags out to space number A-115 only to find it empty. We went back in, waited in another line and were finally dispatched to a car, which we sat in for an hour to drive 15 miles to Long Beach where the luncheon was held.
Saturday we had a fine time aboard the Queen Mary, took home a bunch of awards for the paper, and went to see the sights. Downtown Long Beach has seen a great urban renewal, and we walked through the marina and happily bought $5 ice cream cones before making our way to one of the chain restaurants for a late dinner. We had no idea how late it could get. After putting our name on a list we walked around a little more and sucked some more carbon monoxide before checking the progress of our reservation. “Just a few more minutes,” the overly kind concierge said. Nearly an hour later we were seated, tempers flaring. We scarfed down our shrimp, paid our overpriced bill (they tried to charge me for a souvenir glass!), and went to bed. The next morning we did the whole thing in reverse, and were happy to make it back to South Lake while it was still light.
The whole experience made me think of our own tourism-based economy, where customer satisfaction is what keeps people coming back. I know I won’t be going back to LAX soon. How do our visitors rate their experience after a weekend sitting in traffic, waiting in lines, eating at our restaurants, etc.?
A search on Google for “customer service” yields more than 14 million links. When you type “bad customer service” you get more than 4 million links. Customers note bad service, even going as far as creating Web pages to publish their rants. While resorts and tourism-related businesses, as well as local government entities, in Tahoe concentrate on driving new visitors to our area, I hope they continue investing in keeping them happy once they’re here. All of our livelihoods depend on it.
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On a positive note, Lance Armstrong was victorious Sunday, winning his sixth Tour de France in his best outing yet.
“Armstrong” has become a household name as the American super-cycler has pedaled his way from the brink (he battled back from testicular cancer that had spread), to dominate the most challenging endurance event in cycling, and possibly all of mainstream sports. While Europeans are hesitant to label him the greatest cyclist ever (that honor still belongs to Eddy Merckx), he’s close.
No other rider has won six tours in the event’s 101-year history.
In 1996 when Armstrong was diagnosed, and subsequently received radiation and chemotherapy treatments, many of his sponsors dropped him in the belief he could never be competitive again. He overcame the odds, and has been an inspiration for cancer survivors and others challenged by great obstacles. As a representative of America in a world that follows cycling religiously, he is also a great ambassador.
Last year, Armstrong beat his closest rival by only 61 seconds. This year, he dominated the event from the beginning of the mountain stages on, finishing more than six minutes in the lead. Let’s hope he comes back next year to give it another go and inspire us again.
– Jim Scripps, managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org