It’s All About Talking to the Right Agent, the Right Way

In Hang Up, Call Back: the Four Most Important Words in Travel and Maybe Even Life I make the point that getting what you want from a travel provider isn’t just – or even primarily – about understanding what you are entitled to.

Sure, knowing the rules helps. But it’s just an opener. The front line employee has to give it to you, except in cases where things are automated and where automation works as intended.

Most of the time elite status-based airline upgrades process automatically. But most hotel upgrades are done at the check-in desk. Starwood has made an underappreciated play to change that — the most significant thing about “suite night awards” provided to Platinum members who stay 50 nights or more isn’t that upgrades can be confirmed up to 5 days in advance (that doesn’t even come close to confirmed suite at booking offered by Hyatt to its top tier members). It’s that Starwood has taken the upgrade process out of the hands of the individual property, confirming upgrades at the chain-level out of published inventory.

But that’s clearly the exception. Much of the time, whether booking award tickets or making changes to flights because of personal plans changing or irregular operations, we’re dependent on skilled agents being willing to help us.

My primary suggestion is to keep asking until you get what you want — not the same person over and over of course, but hanging up and calling back to talk to another agent over the phone and metaphorically hanging up and calling back when working with an agent (at an airline or hotel) in person. Talk to someone else.

Don’t try to educate the agent. That’s not your responsibility, it’s not likely to be successful, and even if you prevail in demonstrating your knowledge over theirs they’re unlikely to want to go out of their way to help you.

Don’t be a jerk. You need an agent to want to be helpful, and you don’t want them to make notes in your reservation instructing the next agent not to help you.

Just politely hang up and call back.

There’s a more subtle point, though, that I probably don’t spend enough time talking about. That’s how to talk to agents to get them on your side.

I want sympathy from an agent, to get them on my side, both so that they’ll go the distance and try hard to help me and also so that they’re willing to give me the benefit of the doubt on things where I may not be completely entitled to what I’m after.

So I never play the “don’t you know who I am?” card with my elite status. And I don’t play the “I know the rules and you need to do this” card. They don’t need to do what I want. Sure, I may be entitled to something. I may know the rules. And that means that if I push things hard enough with enough people I’ll probably eventually get what I want, or at least get compensation later if I don’t get what I want. But none of that means that a given agent is going to help me get what I want or what I think I’m entitled to. Remember they have little incentive to be helpful, they don’t generally get rewarded or punished based on how helpful they are to me. I may be entitled, but I have no entitlement from them.

Fortunately Wendy Perrin spends some time talking about how to ask for what you want and actually get it.

She begins by quoting from my hang up, call back post.

Leff, the mileage-award ticket specialist in our Top Travel Specialists Collection, says it’s key to “build a rapport with your agent” in order to get him or her to want to help you. “I want sympathy from an agent, to get them on my side…. I ask them how their day is going. I sympathize with the difficult job they’re doing…. I ask them to go extra distances not for me but because my boss is going to kill me, can you possibly help? They can understand that. They can help bail me out, they can empathize.”

She recommends:

  • Having a reason (such as important work on deadline), and asking nicely, for the gate agent to assign you a seat with an empty middle.
  • How to ask a resort’s on-site reservations manager for an upgrade — building a rapport by seeking their recommendation for a room you might get upgraded to.
  • Asking a hotel’s front desk clerk nicely for a modest buy up to a better room.
  • Posing questions to a concierge about what they would do rather than what you should do. I extend this advice to restaurant wait staff as well.

Read the whole thing, and let me know in the comments what sorts of dialogue work best for you.

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary, the only problem with your Starwood example is that it’s been shown time and again the process is flawed – WAY too many “technical glitches” 1.5 years into the program…the 5 day mark passing without an upgrade even as rooms remain open…hotels re-classifying the inventory or changing the rate to game the system, etc.

    So even good intentions often fail unfortunately.

  2. @UA-NYC that actually makes my point rather than detracting from it. There are efforts to move things away from relying on frontline employees, but the importance of building rapport with them remains.

  3. I remember a radio story about someone trying to stop pedestrians in Paris (or maybe going into stores asking for directions or assistance). The trick turned out to be starting the conversation with “Excuse me, can you help me?”.

  4. A few years ago I had a leisure ticket booked from Germany to the US. A couple weeks before i was to leave I wound up having to change it to a business trip. Well, my company’s contract carrier was UA, my ticket was on AA. The dates didn’t match up exactly so I needed to change the dates. The EXP line wanted some $850 to change the ticket because of course my fare bucket was no longer there.

    I explained to the agent that I could not afford to pay that and I was just going to have to fly US. She put me on hold for a minute and came back with great news, they changed the ticket at no cost.

    I was very nice and just tried to get her to see my perspective. Granted I was an EXP at the time, but she sure didn’t want me to go to another carrier.

  5. I once spent a half hour on the phone with the Diamond Delta help line trying to get an upgrade on my MSP to DTW lef of an international flight to FRA. For some reason my corporate travel agent booked that leg linked to the FRA leg and thus the computers saw it as international. Well the Diamond agent was great and helpful and figured out how to do it so the computer was tricked and put me on the upgrade list where i became #1.
    But the mean old hag of a Gate Agent saw me looked at my itinerary and flatly refused to even consider giving me my upgrade or listen to my story. She wouldnt give me my upgrade and just pretended my name wasnt number one on the list. Still makes me want to drop Delta, she just made me waste a half hour of my and the phone agents time. Some people just wont giuve you want you deserve no matter wghat.

  6. Re her point of “Posing questions to a concierge about what they would do rather than what you should do. I extend this advice to restaurant wait staff as well,” I often ask wait staff “what do you eat when you eat here?” and I seem to get good recommendations. However, the last time I did that in STL airport, the waitress said that “they don’t allow us eat anything.” She recommended the burger, and we both took her advice since it was the only thing she recommended. I still recommend the approach though.

  7. The thing I wonder about is how often they make a note of the fact that you called to beg for something or another – even if you didn’t offend them by doing so. Does anybody know? Do any travel companies require their agents to make a note of every inquiry – or all of certain types of inquiries?

  8. @Ron Lieber – they generally don’t make a note on every inquiry, and what I walk about in the linked “Hang Up, Call Back” article is precisely about not getting notes entered into your reservation. It’s why you want to end your call quickly when an agent is unhelpful, something like “I have another call I’m going to have to take, but thanks so much for your help, I’ll have to ring back later.”

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