Oh, the lengths some people will go to get better customer service. Like recording phone calls with a customer service agent.
Robert Grunfeld, who had a ticket on a United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Tel Aviv, Israel, around Christmas, said a representative offered to rebook him on a flight to Israel if the airline canceled his flight. United then canceled his flight but refused to rebook him on a nonstop flight to Tel Aviv.
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“I’d like United to keep the promise the agent made,” said Grunfield, a student from Monsey, New York.
Grunfeld then sent me the recording in which a representative did indeed promise to accommodate him.
If you want better customer service, recording a call sometimes works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But there’s an even better way to solve this problem, and I’ll share that with you in a minute.
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Wait, are you allowed to record a phone call with a customer service representative?
Hang on. Are you even allowed to record a phone call? It depends on where you are. In New York, where Grunfeld is based, as long as one person is aware the conversation is being recorded, it’s OK.
“Generally, it is legal in the U.S. for any participant in the conversation to record the call unannounced,” said John Hooker, professor of business ethics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “Some states require that all the participants consent to recording as well.”
If you’re in a state that requires both parties to consent, don’t worry: Before a call center representative picks up, you’ll hear a message that says, “Calls may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.” That gives both the company and you permission to record, according to legal experts.
The real question is, can you record it? Unfortunately, both iOS and Android place significant restrictions on call recording. Your best bet is to do what Grunfeld did. Put your phone on “speaker” mode and use a separate recorder.
Does that really work? It can.
Sometimes, recording a phone call works
Sometimes, recording a phone call with an airline works. Ben Edelman recalled booking an American Airlines ticket for his wife by phone in 2012. An agent described the seat as first class when he meant business class. But when Edelman, who was then a professor in Boston, saw the ticket, he forwarded the conversation to one of the airline’s attorneys.
“To his credit, he honored the agent’s statement and moved my wife to first class, consistent with what the agent had said,” he said. “I counted myself lucky that I had recorded that call.”
Edelman’s case is rare, experts said.
“Airlines typically follow their terms of service, even if an agent has made an error,” said Melissa Copeland, a principal with Blue Orbit Consulting, a service consulting firm. “Hotels and restaurants have more flexibility,”
But sometimes, travel companies see recording their calls as a nuisance.
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Warning: Recording a call doesn’t always work
Recording a phone may backfire. Eva Keller remembered working at the front desk of a hotel when a guest claimed to have recorded her promising him an upgrade to a two-bedroom suite. (She hadn’t.) But instead of admonishing her, she said the manager scolded the customer.
“My manager explained to him that it’s illegal to secretly record that phone call,” she recalled. “It worked against the guest’s best interest to secretly record and weaponize a phone conversation because it made the staff aware that he was a difficult and demanding guest, making no one inclined to go out of their way to do him any extra favors.”
Recording a call isn’t your only option
Edward Hasbrouck, a travel expert and data privacy activist, said there’s a reason more people are recording phone calls: It’s a gap between what an agent promises on the phone and what they are prepared to do. That’s what happens when you ask an agent to summarize the phone call.
“Typically, what they read back will be something less than the verbal promise they made,” he said.
If you can’t record a call or just can’t remember what was promised, you’re not out of luck. Hasbrouck recommended asking the agent to make a notation in your reservation. He said it may take a few tries to align the agent’s promises with what’s in your reservation, but ultimately, it can be more effective than telling an airline or hotel that you have a recorded phone call.
Hasbrouck used his strategy when his airline changed a flight, necessitating an overnight stay.
“I called to confirm whether they would pay for a hotel for that night,” he said. “They said they would, but wouldn’t put it in writing. I got them to note in the PNR – the passenger name record – that they had told me they would reimburse me for a hotel night.”
And they did.
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There may be a better way
It shouldn’t be necessary to record calls, possibly in violation of state laws, just to get better service. But that’s the state of customer service in the travel industry.
The most customer-friendly companies should already offer instant transcripts and recordings of all customer service phone calls. That way, both sides know what was said in a conversation.
Maybe it’s also time to update some of the laws that restrict calls from being recorded. Consumer advocates, even those who value consumer privacy, question whether employees need privacy in their phone calls with customers. If states loosened some of their restrictions, it might help customers who either feel that they can’t or don’t have the resources to record a call.
Phone manufacturers have a part to play too. If Android and iOS made it a little easier to record phone conversations, we wouldn’t even need to have this conversation.
But ultimately, the only way to fix this is to remove the reason travelers are recording their phone calls. And it’s simple, really: Just provide better customer service.
Will a recorded call sway United?
I listened to Grunfeld’s call and thought he had a decent chance of getting United to rebook him on an El Al flight.
United said it canceled his flight and has offered him a full refund, which airlines are required to do when they cancel a flight. A representative also said that the call center worker was correct – at one point, United was rebooking passengers on other flights. But the policy had changed.
“We are no longer allowing protection on other airlines for flights to Israel,” United spokeswoman Erin Jankowski said. “We are only able to process a full refund for the tickets.”
So would a recording help? I asked. But United held firm on its refund offer, even though flights to Tel Aviv were now considerably more expensive than when Grunfeld booked them. Seems that when it comes to making promises from an airline like United, talk is cheap.
Elliott’s tips for getting better customer service
◾ Don’t wait: If you experience a customer service problem, ask a representative for help immediately. Often, airlines, car rental companies, and hotels empower their employees to fix a problem in real time. They may offer you a voucher, a better seat, or an upgraded room to make up for the trouble. Don’t wait to get home, where you’ll have to deal with a customer service department that may deflect your concern.
◾ Get it in writing: Ask for any promise a customer service agent makes in writing. The best way to do that is to start an online chat or to email the company. Although companies don’t always automatically honor commitments made in writing, they do so much more frequently than when confronted with a recorded phone call. By the way, don’t forget to save the transcript; you may need it later.
◾ When to record a call: Many small businesses, like tour operators or bed-and-breakfasts, lack the resources to record their customer service calls. And some companies – notably phone and cable companies – strongly prefer to interact with their customers by phone. If you’re dealing with a business that won’t put anything in writing, you should consider recording the call. But make sure you follow all applicable laws.
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at [email protected].