Thursday, May 28, 2009

How Princess Cruise lines lost all my future business

Several months ago I booked a balcony cabin on a Princess Cruise Line Alaska cruise for this coming July for myself and my wife. Everyone I know who has done an Alaska cruise has raved about them so we were really looking forward to it. As background it is worth noting that we have been on 9 cruises in the last 12 years so everyone we know who has cruised Alaska is a LOT of people. I am no longer even looking forward to the cruise thanks to what has to be the worst "customer service" department in the cruise line industry.

A few days ago my wife found out that there is a possibility that her father will be going in for surgery around the same time as our cruise, possibly that very week. The odds are pretty good that the medicines they are giving him will make surgery unnecessary, but discretion being the better part of valor I decided to try and make sure that we don't wind up missing our cruise because of it. I'll give everyone the short version and then the details for those of you who care or wish to know how NOT to run a business.

If my father-in-law does have surgery scheduled for the week of our cruise we will get a 100% refund. I am perhaps the most over insured person in America and bought trip insurance for this cruise just like I did on the other 9 we have done. In order to CHANGE the date of our cruise it would cost me roughly $1400. Please bear in mind that the cruise industry is really hurting. Princess has empty balcony cabins on several cruises between now and my scheduled date that I would happily exchange for and give them more time to fill some of those empty cabins. I am not asking for a different cruise or an upgrade or anything that might have a real cost to them. In reality I might be helping them out by taking an earlier cruise. I want to exchange one empty cabin for a different one. I was told by a "customer service" manager today that she was very sorry but this was their policy and they make absolutely no exceptions.

I'll just start with that ridiculous statement. If you make no exceptions in customer service you are an idiot. It is simply not possible to write a policy which covers what is best for both customer and business in every situation. Secondly, it's a lie. We all know it's a lie. If my name was John Stossel or Barbara Walters or Rush Limbaugh they would have happily asked me which date I would like and would I like a free upgrade to go with it since they have some empty suites. You know this, I know this, they know this, and they are doubly idiotic if they don't know that we know this.

The details: I started by calling Princess and explaining the situation. The nice lady who answered the phone informed me that there would be a "sizable" fee because Princess does not move or exchange cruises. They consider this a cancellation of the cruise I had already booked and a new booking of the new cruise. In my opinion that is just plain stupid. I am not trying to cancel anything. I just want to avoid the possibility that I won't get to go on the cruise and they will be out about $3000 by not letting me do the same cruise on the same boat on a different day.

It is worth noting that I have done this in the past with another cruise line for a lot less important reason with very little trouble. I called and told their sales person I had a scheduling conflict come up and it would be terribly nice if I could switch my cruise date to any other sailing. It took 5-10 minutes and cost me some nominal $100-$150 fee which I happily paid. Bear in mind that time wasn't even in the middle of a recession where the cruise boats are half empty. I got one choice where they had an opening on the type of cabin I had booked. What did that get Celebrity cruises? A very happy customer who has used their services many times since. Yes, I do give credit where credit is due. All 9 of our cruises have been on Celebrity or Royal Caribbean which are owned by the same parent company and the service and customer service have always been impeccable.

Moving on, I asked the nice lady at Princess what "sizable" meant and she told me that because I had booked the cruise through a travel agency I would have to discuss that with the travel agent as she was not allowed to quote me any numbers. I asked "How many zeros does sizable have?" She laughed but offered no information. I thanked her and hung up.

I then called my travel agency and told them what was going on. The word sizable came up again: things are not looking good for the home team at this point. I explained which weeks we wanted to avoid and that we wanted the same cruise and cabin type and was informed that she would need to call Princess and get back to me. I gave the number where I was sitting and she assured me she would call me back in a few minutes.

Now I'm getting steamed. Princess can't tell me anything except to call my travel agent who has to call Princess to tell me anything. What kind of a three ring circus are these people running? On top of the fact that I am beginning to believe booking a Princess cruise was a mistake I am now wasting significant amounts of time.

I waited as long as I could but 50 minutes later I had to run to the store because we had guests coming for dinner and I needed a couple of things. I was gone 10-15 minutes and sure enough... missed the call. I called the travel agency back and, you guessed it, the lady whose call I missed has gone home for the day and there are notes "but I can't make anything out of them." Great! The new very young sounding lady informs me she will have to call Princess, what dates do I want or not want, etc. On the upside she puts me on hold while she calls. A few minutes later I have a choice of alternate dates and the $1400 price tag. I ask about the insurance I had purchased. She gives me their number as she cannot discuss that. Of course.

At this point I would like to add that a few weeks ago I got the paperwork for the cruise. Every other cruise I have done included the insurance contract with terms and conditions in the packet. With Princess's paperwork I don't even see where it mentions I bought the insurance. It might be there in their little codes but it isn't obvious to me. Anyway, I go open an 18 year old scotch and try to suppress the rage that is building in my gut and decide to sleep on it before I get unduly unpleasant on the phone.

Early this afternoon I called the insurance people, who are by the way Princess employees. I get a pleasant and eager young man who wants to help. I try to explain that I need to see the details of the policy. He offers to mail me a packet...... Um, no, today if at all possible, could you fax it to me? No, he cannot but he can email it to me. "Great" I say as I try to decide which of the myriad of email addresses I have that I would like to have spammed for the rest of eternity by Princess Cruise Lines. "But" he says, there's always a "but" with these people isn't there? "But since it's so late in the day (it's 2:30 MDT) the email probably wouldn't go out until tomorrow." I am stunned. Are you kidding me? The whole freakin' point of email is that it is nearly instant communication. I can feel my blood pressure rising. "OK, any other possibilities?". The answer I get makes me want to cry "Sure, it's on our web site as a pdf if you know how to do that." Um... yeah, I kinda do, he tells me where and I thank the young man, hang up and go download and read the pdf. I'm screwed! It sorta covers this but not really. Count to 10, slowly.

I decide on my strategy and I call Princess back. A pleasant sounding lady answered the phone and asked what I needed and I told her I would need to speak to a supervisor. She politely informed me that I could but she would need my details and reason for speaking to a supervisor first. Fair enough, I give her my booking number, name... and tell her the story, AGAIN. Really, shouldn't this all be in my customer file by now? Computers are wonderful devices capable of keeping track of vast amounts of information about vast numbers of people and keeping it all squared away. If you don't type the stuff in my file they are useless and I wind up having to repeat myself over and over. This makes me angry which is definitionally BAD customer service.

The nice lady tells me she is going to put me on hold and have a chat with her supervisor. I'm thinking "Great, I'll sit here on hold waiting to tell the same story the fifth time in two days because I didn't hear any key clicks while I was telling it to you." A few minutes later nice lady is back and informs me that her supervisor has instructed her to transfer me to a manager in "customer service." Great, fine, whatever, just get me to someone with a brain and the authority to do the unbelievably obvious. My terrier, Tigger, would have figured this one out by now.

You guessed it, "customer service" lady doesn't have a clue what my problem is and frankly doesn't sound too pleasant. I consider hanging up and calling back a little later in the hopes of getting a different one but decide against it. I tell my story for the fifth time. She tells me Princess considers this a cancellation and it's their policy to ALWAYS charge the fee. I try and politely explain that I am in fact not canceling anything but EXCHANGING it. I will be happy to pay a small exchange fee for their paperwork and other hassles but I am not about to pay them another $1400 to exchange a cabin on one half empty cruise for a cabin on an identical half empty cruise on another date of their liking. It just will not happen. She tells me this is their policy and they make NO exceptions. I don't even call her on the obvious lie, I simply present her with 3 facts.

First, I am 41 years old. If we wind up going on this cruise it will be our 10th in 12 years. I asked if she understood what this meant and she said she did. I continued that if I do not get an exchange option that makes me happy it will be my first and LAST cruise on Princess Cruise Lines.

Second, 20 years ago I had a very similar conversation with the regional service manager for Ford Motor company. Over that 20 year period I have purchased 5 new vehicles but have never stepped onto a Ford dealership.

Third, I know a lot of people who cruise and many many more who would like to some day. I will tell all of them and anyone else who will listen about this stupid and unnecessary lack of customer service.

At this point the woman told me that she was sorry that I felt this way, and she would make a note in my file (now I get a note in my file), but they make no exceptions to their policy which is in all of their brochures. I quietly wonder at this point if she knows I never looked at a brochure? I don't have one and never did. I didn't ask, but do these people not realize that I look for vacations on this wonderful thing called the INTERNET and I have a travel agency if that doesn't get me what I want? Brochures are for people who are all giddy because they are booking their first big vacation. People who travel regularly don't look at them and don't want to. She is clearly one of those people that wastes perfectly good oxygen I might need some day. I conclude by telling her that I hope she enjoys reading about her company online and hang up. I wasn't trying to be rude to her, it clearly isn't her policy, she is a cog in a bad wheel. I HAD to hang up before she responded for fear that she would ask me what "online" meant.

I hope my father-in-law does not need surgery and we go to see Alaska. I have heard good things about Princess cruises themselves. I also look forward to telling this story to every passenger on the boat who will listen. Many people cruise once or twice in a lifetime but the industry makes its money on people like my wife and I who cruise over and over and over. I suspect given the current economic times that a very large percentage of the passengers going to one of the most expensive cruise locations in the world will fit that category.

God willing we will book many many more cruises over the span of the rest of our lives. I will never again consider booking one with Princess Cruise Lines even if the cruise itself is fabulous.