Airlines, car rental companies and hotels claim that they’re responsive to customers’ problems, but who are they kidding? Too often, they answer your emails with pre-written responses and your tweets with canned one-liners. Or they don’t answer at all. So how do you get a travel company to respond to your complaint?

People like John Dignam want to know. He recently tried to redeem two “free” flight vouchers on Spirit Airlines. He and his daughter had received them when they volunteered to give up their seats on a flight from San Francisco to Baltimore. But when Dignam, a federal manager from Catonsville, Md., tried to use the vouchers for a new flight, Spirit only lowered the cost of each ticket by $12.98.

“Thinking this must be an error, I called and spoke to a Spirit representative,” he says. The airline confirmed that the vouchers had a combined value of about $26. “The remaining $188 was my responsibility.”

Dignam emailed Spirit asking if he had misunderstood the meaning of “free.” The response? Crickets.

It turns out that Dignam was talking, but no one was listening. I contacted Spirit on his behalf. The company said it hadn’t heard from him, blaming an “IT issue that we can’t replicate.”

It refunded Dignam’s ticket.

Choosing the right channel of communication is important. Most travelers pick up the phone to resolve a problem, but that is hardly ever the right move. A carefully written, rational complaint sent using the company’s online “help” form is far more effective, at least to start. If patience isn’t your thing, you could also ping a company on social media. Sometimes a tweet or a Facebook post can get things moving in your direction.

Another often overlooked route to a quick resolution: a travel agent. You can often leverage that relationship to get a company’s attention. “A true travel professional is going to have a direct relationship with the hotel, airline or cruise line and can be your voice to get the issue resolved,” says Jennifer Achim, a vice president of marketing for Ovation Travel Group, a travel agency in New York.

If you want a travel company to respond to your complaint, you also need the right approach. Nancy Friedman, whose St. Louis consultancy, the Telephone Doctor, trains call center workers, recommends what she calls “CPR.”

First, she advises, stay calm. “Raising your voice usually will not get you better service — or any positive results,” Friedman says.

Next, prepare yourself with information — dates, times, names. The more specific, the better. And, finally, remember that the person you’re talking to normally isn’t the person who created the problem.

“The agent, the hotel clerk, the car rental person is usually not the reason for the issue,” Friedman says. Blaming them for your misfortune can hinder your chances of getting a company’s attention.

The right words can help, too. Be sure to use what Joshua Dorsey, an assistant professor at California State University at Fullerton, calls the “language of business” to describe the problem.

“Keywords like ‘service failure,’ ‘switching costs’ and ‘cost of retention’ will always resonate with managers and customer service representatives, whether they admit it or not,” Dorsey says.

At larger companies, sophisticated software analyzes almost every customer service interaction, including phone calls. When phrases like “service failure” and even less jargony words like “disappointed” pop up, complaints are flagged and reported to managers.

Of course, you can do everything right and still fail to get a company’s attention. That’s probably because businesses have developed methods to more efficiently process — but not necessarily address — customer complaints. You can see that in the scripted online chats and endless phone trees that you have to negotiate when you want help. And you can’t help but feel that companies want customers with problems to just go away.

No surprise, then, that travelers are taking more extreme measures to get a company’s attention. One remarkable development is the power of online reviews.

“I have seen travelers place multiple online reviews to get a quicker response,” says Elaine Rose, a spokeswoman for Review Inc., a Woodland Hills, Calif., reputation-management company. “The fact is, the travel industry lives and dies by their online reviews. Even hotels and major airlines are managing their online reviews with software that will notify them when a customer has left a review — either positive or negative.”

A classic tactic for getting a travel company to respond to a complaint, threatening to sue, can backfire. That’s because companies normally refer lawsuit threats to the legal department. There, in-house attorneys must decide whether it’s a credible threat. If it is, they’ll respond to the complaint. But more often than not, they’ll write it off as an empty threat and close the case with no resolution.

If you have a consumer complaint and the company is being dismissive, maybe it’s time to adjust your approach. Consider another strategy or shift to a different channel. And remember, you can always take your grievance to social media.

Ideally, companies would answer every complaint promptly and politely. Fortunately, there are more ways than ever before to ensure that they do.

Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.

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