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Tuning Up Customer Service

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Two weeks ago I wrote a blog stating cruiser’s needed to take more responsibility for themselves… particularly in regard to purchasing travel insurance to cover unforeseen problems. This week’s blog entry is somewhat the opposite of that; that’s the cruise lines taking responsibility for their actions as well.

We do occasionally see people coming out and publicly praising a cruise line for their handling of a customer service issue. However, it’s much more common to see complaints of rather pathetic attempts at resolving customer service issues.

I believe much of this arises because the cruise lines don’t seem to have any standard policies which customers can read and understand easily and simply. The quality of the experience dealing with Customer Service departments seems to rely entirely on the luck of the draw, dependant on whether a customer with an issue finds a sympathetic or unsympathetic ear during their initial contact.

After 30 years in the hospitality industry my experience taught me that though on rare occasion a new problem occurs, the vast majority of customer service issues are reoccurring (with some variances), and can be dealt with effectively and quickly by having a set resolution policy in place.

The only complication in that system is making the determination as to whether the customer making the complaint has a valid issue which should put the resolution machinery into effect. That means having a well trained customer service staff, and that’s where the cruise lines systems seem to fail too often.

Granted, as anyone with much time spent working in those departments will tell you, it’s somewhat difficult to not get cynical after spending time dealing with customer complaints. It is difficult dealing with people who expect perfection, when you’re dealing with imperfect products, or when perfection is in the eyes of the customer. But better training, and set policies would simplify this process.

I believe the Customer Service departments don’t have much vision into just how much an unsatisfied customer, with valid complaints, can cost them in lost future revenues. Instead they concentrate too much on minimizing the immediate, short term, cost of resolving the matter.

In this regard, my own story is an example. In 1995 I sailed on the second sailing of the Celebrity Century, along with 11 other family members. I won’t go into all the details of my complaints at the time, but a combination of “new ship glitches” along with service and stateroom issues, and what I felt were inappropriate responses by the onboard management dealing with them, left me unhappy about that cruise experience. I believed I had valid and defensible complaints and wrote a letter to Celebrity attempting to address them. Their response (if memory serves me) was an offer for a 10% -15% discount on a cruise, to be used on a future booking, valid for 12 months. I felt the $300 -$400 value of that offer was not adequate compensation, and declined the offer… and didn’t sail on a Celebrity Cruise Lines ship again for 6 years (until I decided to give them another chance).

During that 6 year time frame I became a message board monitor and hosted live on-line chats for Cruise Critic on AOL, and went on to become a writer and ship reviewer for CruiseMates. During that time I “talked” to thousands of cruisers, and put in place a group cruise program for CruiseMates. During that time frame I also went on perhaps 18-20 cruises… and none of them were on Celebrity Cruise Line. 

I discussed this with a friend who is an Actuary, and combining dollars I personally spent on those cruises with that spent by people cruising with me over that six year period, he said he would conservatively “guesstimate” my situation may have resulted in $400,000 + of lost revenue for Celebrity.

Now my story may not be the norm. But I suspect most people who have similar unsatisfactory resolutions to their problems are more vocal than I when sharing their dissatisfaction with others. I quit cruising on the cruise line for some time, but others, more vocal “word of mouth” types, sharing their dissatisfaction could have cost the cruise line even more revenue.

In my case, an apology admitting the problem was theirs not mine, rather than sending me a “gesture of good faith” letter, and a couple of hundred more dollars in compensation, would have meant they’d have received at least a significant portion of that missing revenue.

They needed to step up and accept responsibility for their failures, just as I implore passengers to accept their responsibilities in the partnership. The combination of the two is what creates great cruise experiences.

– A View From The Kuki Side of Cruising –

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Comment from Beenie Weenie
Time September 16, 2009 at 4:56 am

I could not agree more! Nice article.

Comment from Bob
Time September 16, 2009 at 7:42 am

In my very limited experience the immediate service personnel (room stewards & servers) have been well trained and are responsive to passenger needs. The problems seem to grow further the employee is from the cruiser’s daily experience.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time September 16, 2009 at 7:53 am

A common response I give to someone who says “I called XYZ Cruises and they told me….” is to say “call back and you’ll probably get a different answer”. The problem is I am not trying to be cute. It is the truth.

I think part of the problem is that some shore-side employees have never taken a cruise, yet there they are in customer service fielding complaints from people who have cruised. While many problems can be resolved using a process-driven methodology, the human factor sometimes comes into play and having real world experience is crucial.

I have a similar experience to Kuki. After a bad cruise on the Grandeur in 1997 and a lackluster reply to my complaints, I “fired” RCI and didn’t return until 2004.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time September 16, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Having worked on cruise ships I can tell I learned this, “a customer who gets a complaint resolved satisfactorily is more likely to return than a customer who never complains” – now that does not say whther the customer who does not complain has a complaint, they have no way of knowing that. The point is that a satisfactory resolution is one of the best ways to create a loyal customer. Its an opportunity, so a bad resolution is more than just one bad outcome, it is a loss of future income – as you specifically point out.

And I learned that when I was working for Holland America – in one of our staff training seminars.

Inadequate customer service resolution is extremely frustrating, as Kuki’s article notes. I think the cruise lines have a prioblem in that they face an audience with unusually high expectations. Especially back in 1994 and moreso in 1983 when I first started on cruise ships. The expectations were through the roof.

I know that because we get the same complaints here that sometimes people are just having a bad cruise, and every little thing adds up, but there are few BIG things they can point to to complain about.

These are their common complaints:

1. there was a stray hair in our bathroom
2. there was a horrible smell in the hallway
3. Our room steward was unresponsive
4. I called the front desk and asked for a callback and it was never answered
5. We couldn’t get our room temperature adjusted
6. There was a crack in our mirror
7. There was a stain on the sheets
8. We were promised (something) and it never arrived

These are all complaints people seem to take personally, but the cruise lines hear them and they think “well, we’re sorry, but we aren’t sure what you expect now that the cruise is over.”

That is why we always tell people who feel they must complain that they need to distill their complaint letter down to the exact complaints that had a cost component. The other things are frustrating, but you can’t do anything aftr the fact. Oh, and always try to resolve a problem online whenever possible.

Comment from Manya
Time September 16, 2009 at 2:38 pm

As a travel Agent specializing in cruises, I have had the opportunity to deal with most cruise lines on a weekly basis and I can certainly tell you that my recomendations and booking patterns are directly related to my own cruise and customer service experiences… there are cruiselines that I will do as little business with as possible… I would say I will go so far as to price out a similar itierary on an alternate cruise line … I always tell my customers that I judge a cruiseline often on how they treat my passengers before the cruise as an indicator as to how they will be treated during and after the cruise. I would say that one cruiseline in particular has lost over $50000 in bookings in the last year through my steering passengers away from their line… other cruiselines have subsequently benefitted.

Comment from Kuki
Time September 17, 2009 at 7:20 am

Manya.. Travel Agents can certainly impact the revenue stream of cruise lines.

That’s one of the reasons I always recommend people book with Travel Agents. In the even of a problem, because of the sales they generate, a Travel Agent does carry more clout with the cruise lines to resolve customer service issues.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time September 18, 2009 at 9:12 am

I certainly agree that experience adds a beneficial perspective. I also just want to add that as a professional cruise reviewer I try very hard to be objective and really figure out if what I am experiencing on any given ship is a one-off predicament unlikley to happen again, or if it is happening because of a cruise line policy that will affect most passengers the same way I am being affected.

Anytime I come to a point of concern about a ship I will ask a good sampling of fellow passengers what they think. For example, I was not very excited by the food on one cruise line, but I found myself to be the only one – everyone else seemed to like it a lot. In cases like that I will not assume I am the only genius in the room.

In two other cases I had a headwaiter I didn’t like, and a Maitre’ D in another. Before I wrote up my experiences I made sure to go to the cruise line and ascertain whether what I experienced from them was cruise line policy or if the person was out of line.

In these cases I found out in the first it was cruise line policy I disagreed with, in the second it was the person I was dealing with having a bad night. It does make a difference, I can’t condemn a 22-ship cruise line because I had one bad experience.

So, when I write about a cruise ship I try to keep my information about details which I know to be universal to the ship that shoulf affect most passengers rather than opinions that originate with my personal experiences on the ship. It is a subtle distinction but I think it makes a big difference. I think that is a more useful review, and if people want opinion-only reviews they can go to our reader reviews.

I know that Kuki kas the same approach as I do in this area as well, because we discuss this often and I read his reviews.

The difference comes, I believe, when I am having a two-way conversation with a future cruiser – I feel far more confident relying on personal opinion to make a recommendation when I know who I am talking to – that is not always the case when it comes to writing reviews.

Comment from Trackypup
Time September 21, 2009 at 11:03 am

Every ship in every line is going to run into service issues. What sets them apart is how the deal with it. I fired RCL back in 2000 and haven’t been back. We had a terrible cruise on HAL in May to the point that we both said we’d never step foot on another HAL ship, however, after writing them a letter and receiving a response, they were falling over themselves trying to make it right, you never know, maybe we would try HAL again. Good CS really shouldn’t be that hard, but it apparently is.

Comment from jaxon
Time September 27, 2009 at 5:40 pm

All of my “bad” experiences were pre-cruise, over bookings/flights, and all with RCL. Once, on board, any complaints I ever had were so minor as to not have warrented griping about them. The pre-cruise glitches, however, took hours and hours and hours of my time to rectify with some less than pleasant people, sometimes. Maybe it was just the luck of the draw, but it is a factor when I look to book — not definitive as price and itinerary are more important, but a factor. I love Celebrity because they have always been perfect when booking. I always recommend them, first.

Maybe, Kuki, that accounts for some of the less than stellar customer service — it all comes out in the wash, as one who had a bad experience is countered by one with a good one.

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