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Customer Service and the Holiday Rep Mafia

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The world is obsessed with customer service.

From small companies to multi-nationals, local to national government, there are policies, promises and guarantees aplenty. You can't move for the customer service. It has become another sales tool, and end in itself as opposed to a means to an end. And so often, it means nothing.

You can forget policies, diktats, speeches and the automaton empty promises because here is the first rule of customer service; don't act like you are doing the customer a favour by taking his money. And here is the second rule of customer service; don't act like you are doing the customer a favour when you finally decide to do something about the fact he is annoyed you were acting like you were doing him a favour by taking his money in the first place. Nail those and you are well on the way to keeping your customers happy.

It is a lesson Thomson Holidays would do well to learn and, more importantly, inculcate into their resort reps who may just be spending too much time in the sun. My recent experience suggests that the resort staff are irked by that dashed inconvenient problem that head office keeps landing them with; their employer's irritating habit of taking money from the people they have to look after.

Mine was a family holiday on a Greek Island. Nothing spectacular or special but it did cost me about five grand which is no mere snip. I won't name the island, the hotel or the rep because it doesn't matter. I won't bother you with the gory details of not having the room we had booked on arrival, the ridiculous conversation about what constituted a sea view, the need to move rooms twice, water leaks, the absence of working lights in the rooms, the green, slimy water line of the pool, the rickety rooms and furniture, the awful food, the pungent smell of a broken septic tank that made it impossible to use our balcony for a week, the extremely flexible approach to "all-inclusive" (it wasn't), the battle for one of the six cheap, plastic sun umbrellas to protect a five year old from the forty degree heat etc. The list goes on and on.

Those were the problems, but we all know that problems can exist and I suppose we might argue that Thomson should be doing something about all of this or even refuse to market the hotel in the first place. But what really matters is how those problems are dealt with.

In this case, the rep's first tactic, armed with the fixed, transparent smile that seethed with contempt, was to suggest that our being offered the totally inappropriate room (and not the one we had paid £300 extra for) was the hotel "doing me a favour". Politely insisting that I would still like the room I paid for didn't go down too well and by way of punishment, she took some pleasure in saying the room I had originally booked did not have a sea view. I showed her the confirmation that said it should have. Mentioning the green slime in the pool was a bit of a faux pas on my part because the fixed smile vanished and was replaced by a terse, thin lipped grumble that "this isn't a five star hotel, you know".

However, with heavy heart, she moved us to a room that was still not the one we paid for but which didn't require our four year old daughter to sleep in a totally separate part of the building (it is too complicated to explain). In the morning after the move, when I looked forward to sitting on the balcony to read a book whilst glancing up occasionally at the hillside that passed for a sea view, I had cause to speak to the hotel manager again (once I had overcome the powerful urge to vomit having had a mouthful of the pungent whiff of the septic tank - did I mention it was forty degrees at the time?). When I spoke to the rep about the stench, she felt the need to tersely remind me that we were in Greece and that sewer smells are to be expected. To be honest, I don't know what led me to expect otherwise. However, as a favour, she would try to move me again. We had arrived on Sunday and this was now Wednesday but she did appear to have some family and friends at the hotel and would no doubt be busy with them and her nephew who was following her around. I didn't hear from her for two days.

By Friday morning nothing had happened but something was about to happen; the rep was not pleased and she was going to tell me so. As I quietly sipped coffee by the pool she marched towards me with determination. As she stood, shaking, to address me, some of her family and friends gathered nearby, ears cocked. "Apparently," she hissed, "you are still unhappy?" A little perplexed, I said my complaints were still the same - namely the stench and the sea view. Ah, but apparently I had other complaints and frankly, she insisted, I was making the staff of the hotel unhappy, as well as other guests. Now I was utterly confused since I hadn't discussed anything with guests or the hotel staff. "You are making life very difficult for me and I don't appreciate it," she said. "Further", she growled through gritted teeth, "I find you intimidating."

Resistance was futile because now, the entire hotel was apparently unhappy that I was displeased with the hotel. They took it personally because THEY liked it. It was pointless me telling her how offended I was that my complaint was being used against us like this. At which point a gruff family member piped up with an opinion of his own. I waited a moment for the rep to ask him to mind his own business, but she didn't, merely glaring at me. So I did it instead. The rep continued to harangue me about how she could solve all of my problems "just like that!", snapping her fingers with a flourish. And then she stomped off, presumably to empty and mend the septic tank.

An hour later she asked me, more politely, I have to agree, if I would join her for a conversation along with the hotel manager and another staff member. I then found myself in a parallel universe in which I had to endure a talking to by the rep, console the hotel manager who was apparently upset that I had a compliant and all the while friends of the rep sidled by and listened to our conversation. I eventually agreed to move rooms (again) on Sunday, back to the same type of room we had started with but which would be suitable this time because only myself and my sixteen year old son would remain (my wife and two daughters had to leave on the Sunday, their holiday basically ruined. I would have left with them but had a friend and his son arriving for the second week). I agreed since I'd had enough of the stench from the septic tank (which she obviously hadn't solved "just like that".)

For the next two days, the rep's family and friends whispered to each other and stared at my children, trying to intimidate them and making our family feel like pariahs who had insulted them.

As soon as I returned I wrote to Thomson, providing photographs and explaining the whole charade. As I write this, one month later, I have heard not a peep from them. I even wrote to the chief executive but received no acknowledgement of that either. When I tried to phone, I sat for half an hour on a premium rate phone number listening to awful music but nobody picked up the phone.

One would think, reasonably I suggest, that a complaint that involved serious health and safety issues, deeply dissatisfied customers, intimidation by the family and friends of the rep and sundry other matters (which I made Thomson aware of whilst I was in the resort by the way) would meet with a prompt response. After all, Thomson are signed up to the ABTA code of conduct which says acknowledgement of the complaint should be made within fourteen days and a response to the complaint made within 28 days.

Perhaps as one of the biggest package companies in the UK, Thomson think they are beyond all that nonsense. Perhaps they think us holidaymakers really ought to expect little in return for the thousands of pounds we hand over to them. Everybody has since told me that I should never have expected much from a company that has First Choice in its stable. But you see, I do. I expect, if not perfection, something approximating a decent hotel, not to have to endure sewerage smells in my room, or green slime in the pool, or rickety furniture, awful food and watered down drinks. Most of all, I expect not to be treated like a pariah because I didn't agree with the rep's friends and family that the hotel was a paradise on earth. I expect to be able to sit on a balcony I paid for. Or to not have to accept cold, greasy food. And I expect the rep to be aware that five grand had been handed over for the privilege of being victim to her mafia's outrage at my temerity to criticise the holiday.

But most of all, I expect the company that took that money off me to answer my emails and to stand by their own stringent customer care policies. Call me unreasonable.

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