Looking at all the places, cities and sights we ticked off on our 45-day long trip from Italy to England via France by car and then to Bulgaria by plane and then from England back to Italy via Belgium, Germany and Austria once again by car, brings back amazing memories of family bonding at the background of lush countryside, magical castles, picturesque villages and world-class museums.
To be honest though, it also brings back some not so amazing reminiscences. Like the time when we were not told at check-in that the hotel was in the process of changing all their beds and that they were going to come into our room whilst we were away for the day in order to remove the old beds and put the new ones in. Or, when we couldn’t get service in the branch of a world-famous fast food chain because of a, let’s call it, linguistic inability. Or, when we had to cancel our plans to visit a capital city because the national rail company didn’t seem to have computerised information about available return tickets.
In a world where customer service and expected satisfaction seem to make all the difference between people supporting your business by purchasing what you offer and bypassing you in favour of someone else who can serve their needs better, I was surprised that there are still companies in existence which fail to grasp the concept that the easier you make the life of your customers, the happier they will be to spend their money with you.
So, this blog post is dedicated to them.
Below I will share with you four real-life scenarios which I was either a leading lady or a witness of this summer in my role as a tourist-cum-traveller. It is all based on my personal experience and observations. My aim is not to name and shame, but simply to highlight attitudes and practices which ultimately cost the company lost revenue and put off tourists and travellers to use them ever again.
The Air Company and Their 2 for 1 Offer
Travelling equals a very strong emotion. The emotion of discovery, of connecting with a world beyond the comfort zone of your daily life, of experiencing something new and exciting.
With so many options to reach B from A, to sightsee at both places and to get a good night sleep in between, people start living with the emotion of travel even before any actual travelling has taken place. The research stage nowadays is as important as the actual journey, as you need to read through mountains of information, sieve through it, check several different websites and after much thought and deliberation plus some tightly crossed fingers make the right choice for yourself and your family.
No-one likes to make the wrong choices, especially when planning to transport themselves a couple of times across a continent. This is what I thought about six months ago, when an air company which flies directly from a London airport to my home town of Varna in Bulgaria announced a rare offer.
An email popped one morning into my Inbox declaring that said company was going to give two-for-one for every plane ticket, provided you bought it within a strict 24-hour window. Huzzah! Tickets to Varna in summer are notoriously expensive and getting one free in theory ticket out of the three that we needed to buy sounded too good to be true.
I spent the day in front of the computer screen eager to buy our plane passages for our visit to Bulgaria in July. Around lunchtime, the rate for two adults and a child was over 600 pounds without luggage (another 60 pounds a piece), which meant that a single ticket was about 300 pounds (as the offer was for 2 for 1). By the early evening, when my husband came back home from work and we were ready to buy, the rate, still without luggage, had doubled to over 1200 pounds.
We didn’t buy the tickets that night. They were simply too expensive. Even though we had used the incognito function in our browser windows and moved from a computer to a tablet to a laptop to check dates and rates, it was obvious that demand for 2-for-1 tickets was such that the company’s algorithm recalculating the plane ticket prices depending on the volume of searches, clicks and actual purchases was working overtime not only bigging up the price, but also stressing me out big time. My thought process went from a recriminating ‘OMG, why I didn’t buy the tickets at lunchtime?!’, to a panicked ‘OMG, they are selling out!’ and, finally, to a dejected ‘OMG, we won’t be able to go to Bulgaria this summer!’.
I went to bed with a heavy heart.
I was woken up at 6 am the next morning by my husband. Clutching his tablet, he showed me something quite incredible. With the 2-for-1 offer expired at midnight, the air company’s web site had reverted to normal prices and not only there were plenty of seats to Varna for our dates, but they were extremely cheap, too.
I couldn’t believe it! We bought our tickets then and there. For three tickets with added luggage we paid around 300 pounds! Yes, four time less in comparison with the 2-for-1 offer the previous night.
Had we stumbled onto the ultimate travel hack?! Was it a glitch in the system?!
I don’t know. What I know though is that it didn’t endear the company to me. Announcing a 2-for-1 offer only to steadily increase the prices all through the day, makes the offer meaningless. Just imagine going into a food shop only for all the prices around you to rise every time the till registers a purchase. Crazy, I know! Yet, apparently, this is allowed to happen in the case of air travel.
We travelled with this particular air company after all, because their flight was the only direct one, but I know that as soon as another air company starts flying straight from any London airport to Varna, I will drop the first one quicker that you can say ‘extortionate price’.
The Fast Food Multinational and its Linguistic Inability
After three hours of non-stop driving on the fast and pushy German autobahns, we were craving a little break and a lot of fast food. Just the type that tastes the same no matter where you are in the world and which gives you momentary wings based on all the fat, salt and sugar in it.
It is funny, because it is not the food we usually eat, especially since moving to Italy a year ago, but having been stuck in the car with not much to do for so long, I was at a stage of boredom which could only be filled by a large portion of ice-cream swirled with crushed biscuits.
Just then a road sign jumped out at us advertising a branch of one of the world’s largest fast food chains at the next gas station, so an immediate decision was made to stop there and eat. I couldn’t wait!
Once our little red car was parked, we almost ran to the restaurant, joined the long queue and started eagerly choosing items from the large panels with pictures of the different meals.
It was our turn to order and just as I was listing what we wanted to buy, the lady behind the till looked at us and uttered a very long sentence in very fast German. Now, in all honesty, I don’t speak German. By profession and education I am a linguist and apart from my mother tongue Bulgarian, I am also fluent in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Not in German, though.
I smiled and tried to repeat our order, but was once again cut short by another very long sentence in German. OK! I decided to use hand gestures and started pointing to the things we wanted to order and pay for. Guess what? The lady behind the till kept talking to me in German, not making any pauses, nor trying to slow down, so that we could sort of understand what she was trying to communicate to us.
I was stumped. My husband took control of the situation and in his diplomatic British way spoke the few German words that he knows. At this point, the first lady called another lady and consulted her over our case for what seemed like a minute or two. The second lady made a motion for us to move to her till.
Once there, using hand gestures she seemed to try to explain that the card reader of the first till wasn’t working. We offered to pay in cash. Another long monologue in German followed and we were waved to move to a third till. The gentleman behind it also explained to us something in very detailed German and even though we tried to order yet again, he didn’t make a move to the food displays behind him, so we gathered we weren’t going to get service after all.
I looked at my husband and, totally unnerved, asked ‘Are you really that desperate for a burger?’. Stoically he said ‘No!’ and we left. Which was a shame, as I was actually desperate for one of those ice-creams with crushed biscuits.
I still don’t know what to think about that whole futile exchange. I have been to a couple of the Bulgarian branches of that large multinational fast food chain and the people who ran the tills there had little badges with the flags of the countries which languages they could speak. So, if you were an American or a British tourist, for example, you could opt to join the queue being served by the person with the American and the British flags printed on their badge.
Even if we leave this aside, I think it would be only fair to ask: What happened to ‘If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann mussen Sie Deutsch sprechen!‘?
Come to think of it, I gather they thought that I, as a buyer, should actually speak German. As I didn’t, mainly because I couldn’t, not because I didn’t want to, they lost my custom.
The Hotel and Their New Beds
We had been on the road for close to a week, arriving at a new place every afternoon, checking in yet another hotel, getting the suitcases and the several bags out of the car, carrying them up to our room, then unzipping and unpacking our luggage so as to get out whatever we needed for the evening, the night and the following day, then repacking it all in the suitcases and the several bags, taking them down to the car, checking out and getting back on the road as soon as the new day had begun.
We were tired of this!
But, as we had anticipated it, and so as to break the monotony, in the next two cities on our itinerary we had booked hotels for two nights a piece. We were so looking forward to this! Just imagine, we were to arrive, unpack our luggage, spread it comfortably around the room and not have to pack it all until two days down the line. Bring it in!
So, we arrived in the first of these two cities. The hotel was nice. One of those cookie-cutters which cater to the business traveller, but it had a secure parking (a bonus, when you travel with your most treasured possessions), a fast Internet connection (a non-negotiable condition for me at the time of booking hotels) and a very large room.
Well, it was not all good! The Internet connection died later that evening and by the morning it still hadn’t come back. I needed it urgently, so I had to use my husband’s Italian mobile phone as a hotspot. As we were in Germany, this meant roaming charges and a rather large bill upon our return.
In the morning, we were all getting ready to explore Baden-Baden and the Black Forest. I called reception to enquire about a couple of things, one of which was the still unavailable Internet. I was told that they would call me back in a few minutes with more information. Half an hour later, there was still no call.
I went downstairs to see what was going on. Upon leaving the room, I saw burly men going in and coming out of each room, carrying beds out and then in again. Once at reception, the lady there explained that she hadn’t returned my call because she hadn’t any new information for me and then offhandedly told me: ‘Oh, we will be coming into your room today, as the hotel is changing all the beds and we need to take the old ones out and the new ones in. You just need to pack your stuff, so that the workers can come in’.
The hotel that we had been so looking forward to spending two quiet nights in without having to unpack and pack, turned out not to be the haven we were hoping to enjoy.
I asked to speak to the manager. To cut a long story short, eventually I managed to speak to him. By that point I was really upset by the manner of the lady at reception, by the lack of Internet, by our getting delayed for our day of exploration and fun and by the fact that we had to pack and be happy for people to go into the room and change the furniture.
I conveyed all this to the manager, who profusely apologised. He promised that no-one would be coming into our room whilst we were away, gave me his word that the Internet would be working by the evening and then offered to cut our bill in half.
So, the company lost money and also lost our goodwill. If we can avoid it, we will not be staying in any of their hotels again. I keep thinking – they must had known that they would be changing the beds in the entire hotel on that particular date, so they could have sent us an email in advance to warn us about it or at least mention it during check-in. As a matter of fact they didn’t which combined with the lack of Internet for half of our stay didn’t leave the very best impression they may have been otherwise trying to project.
The Railway Company and Their Non-Computerised Ticket System
We were spending two weeks in Varna, when I had the brilliant idea that we should go to Sofia for the day. Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria and I wanted to spend a little bit of time there not only to take some pictures and write about it on my blog, but, above all, to see my cousin and her family who I am very close to.
As the plane tickets from Varna to Sofia are very expensive in summer, I had a second brilliant idea, which was that we should go and come back by train. Now, trains in Bulgaria are rather slow. For example, the fast train needs over eight hours to cover the 500 km from Varna to the capital, which is a rather tedious journey.
However, the so called ‘sleeper trains’ are very popular in Bulgaria. They give you the option to travel at night and arrive at your destination early in the morning after a good night sleep in a bunk bed. There are three bunk beds per compartment, compartments are female- or male-only and if you travel with a partner, then you can buy two bunk beds in the same compartment and the company leaves the third one unoccupied. Fab!
My husband got very excited by the idea, as he had never been on a sleeper train before. So, we went to the train station in Varna to buy our tickets for the date which suited us.
The train station had undergone a recent refurbishment, it looked very nice and clean and, I noticed, it had huge TV displays showing advertisements among other things such as the departing and the arriving trains.
When we reached the ticket office, we were served by a lady who was rather reserved. She was not rude, but she was not really interested in helping as such. I explained that we needed return tickets to Sofia for the sleeper train and, after consulting a large diary with crossed off dates on her desk, she told me she didn’t have any left.
I probed a little bit further, asked clarifying questions, was super polite and after a while, it transpired that they were all sold out of tickets, but she had a one way ticket to Sofia for that Saturday. I asked about coming back to Varna and her suggestion was to try to buy a return ticket when we had reached the capital.
No, she didn’t use a computer to check if there were any available places for us. She consulted this large diary in front of her, which was full of handwritten annotations and crossed-out dates. Also, she didn’t offer to call her colleague in the ticket office in Sofia and ask if they had any tickets left there. And she didn’t offer to give me a phone number for me to call and enquire myself. She thought it was perfectly acceptable to travel across the country with a toddler for the day and then spend half of the day (a Saturday at that) there visiting the different ticket offices of the railway company trying to get a return ticket for the same evening.
I remember travelling regularly from Varna to Sofia on the sleeper train as a student. This was about 20 years ago. Since then nothing seems to have changed. The old diaries are obviously still in use. Each ticket office still seems to get allocated a certain number of tickets and once they sell them, they tell you they don’t have any tickets left, instead of calling the other ticket offices and try to find you one. Above all, it seems the whole system is still not computerised!
I mean, how much the world has changed in the past twenty years thanks to computers and their amazing power?! Not so much in the case of this railway company it seems.
We had to cancel our plans for a trip to Sofia. I didn’t get to see my relatives on this occasion. I was rather disappointed. What can I say?! It is 2015, guys! Computers don’t cost that much.