Cost benefit

There is actually an interesting underlying point to yesterday's post, which is that it's very hard to get customer service right. There's always a tradeoff between cost and service, and what you want is something that maximizes the return on your customer base. So companies periodically have an incentive to push the envelope, to see how badly they can treat you before you'll walk.

I know, I know, I'm a libertarian, I love the market? Why don't I love this? Well, I don't unlove it, exactly, because it's certainly not unique behavior to corporations. Spouses test how far they can push their spouses, friends do it to friends, employees to bosses, and so forth. No one knows the limits of the human heart; the only way we can find out what they are is to grope blindly for them.

That said, I'm pretty sure that the clerk at the hotel was not under the impression that I might be okay with her giving away my room.

What she did think is that I might not do anything about it. What Comfort Inn did to me usually has a low price; whoever bribed that night clerk essentially paid her to spend twenty minutes on the phone with me shouting at her, when she wasn't doing much anyway. Most people, tired and exhausted, will just forget it the next day, particularly those who are traveling on an expense account, as most airport travelers are. Even if they did have the will, most people certainly don't have the means to do what I did--to record their credit card company exposing the lie and then confront the hotel clerk with it. (Although the means I used can be acquired for well under $50, and include free, if occasionally wonky, phone calls anywhere in the United States.)

The reason I wrote that post--other than a fair amount of righteous anger that I needed to use up somewhere--is that I shouldn't be the only one who has that redress. All journalists know that we have an out, in really bad customer service situations: we can call the press office. We don't even need to threaten them; if our name is in their database, the press office will make it all better very, very fast. All the journalists I know are also cognizant of the fact that it's really kind of appalling that we have a special out, and use it very rarely. I've never done it myself, though I did once call the press office at Dell to let them respond to something I'd written about their customer service.

But it shouldn't be true that Comfort Inn has to make good and apologize to anyone who has the knowlege and means to force them to capitulate, and no one else; it shouldn't be the case that selling someone's room out from under them, which really is a loathesome practice (I wouldn't have gotten on that flight in the first place had I not thought I had a room at the other end) has such a low cost.

I have no taste for revenge at all; past wrongs just don't interest me. But I do think that the cost of doing things like this should be a lot higher. And the way they get higher is that when things like this happen--truly outrageous things that are in no way a matter of opinion about the correct level of customer service--is that everyone goes back to the company and forces them to spend time, energy, and money making it right to the best of their ability. Letting it go may be good for you, but it's bad for everyone else, especially the next poor bastard who has to sleep on the floor of the Jet Blue terminal because the hotel sold his room.

On a footnote--and here is where I once again revert to sounding like I'm 12 rather than 34--it had never occurred to me that when you bribe a hotel clerk for a room, this is what you are bribing them to do to someone. Thankfully, I've never bribed anyone--I lack the chutzpah--but I'd feel pretty awful if I had, and I'll never laugh at it when someone else tells such a story again.