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Three lessons from a 9 month customer support ticket

Hotels need reliable customer support from vendors. Or they won't be able to perform at their best.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear about hotels struggling and feeling helpless when dealing with some vendors.

There must be a better way.

In January 2020, The Mangrove Inn (not their real name) got an urgent email from a popular payment processor. Let's call them BigPay. The email says:

Account has been limited, please provide additional documents #1 - #3.

Mangrove Inn relies on BigPay to collect payments from direct bookings. They just got a large payment, and this must have prompted BigPay to freeze their account. Almost immediately, there was a significant decline in revenue.

The manager, Paul, crams together the documents and attempts to get a hold of BigPay's customer support. He tried to go through dozens of automated voice prompts. But the calls were either being dropped, going through an infinite loop, or reaching a dead-end.

He would try again several times. Meanwhile, guests are complaining and their revenue numbers are dropping. He's at a loss on what to do.

Has this happened to you? Do you dread the prospect of navigating your way through a maze of voice prompts, only to be dropped at the end?

Do you wish to talk to someone who can really take an honest look at your problem, instead of throwing canned responses at you and making you jump through endless hoops?

The reality is we can't transform a company's customer support priorities just for us. And complaining will only cause stress for everybody (it's really not the rep's fault). It would also have little chance of being heard anyway.

Perhaps a more productive approach is to use these mishaps as a lesson. A lesson in the value of customer support with regards to dealing with vendors.

Then seeing if there's actually a better option just waiting for us to pay attention to.

The example here is for a payment processor, but the same lessons can be applied to any 3rd party you engage with.

Lesson #1: If you can't reach them in good times, how can you reach them in bad times?

Before selecting a company to work with, try to send an inquiry. Make it a little unique just to see if they will actually read it and not just throw a generic response at you.

First, is there even a way to send them a message? If there's none, that's a red flag right there. Better to study it further.

Assuming you can send them a message, here are a few sample questions you can ask:

"We're a small hotel, and we need a payment processor to handle direct payments from guests. Is your product ideal for this?"

"What are your customer support hours?"

"What are your service level agreements?"

What kind of response do you get, if any? How long did you have to wait?
Does it seem that they are eager to work with you? Or they are eager to move on to the next message?

They say the first time a guest shows up in your hotel is the most excited they will ever be.

A similar principle applies to vendors. The first time they answer your question is likely the most excited, the most eager they would be to sign you up. If they don't seem that eager now, how much more eager will they be when there's a problem?

Next, try to google: " < vendor's name > customer support". See other people's experiences in talking with them. Look for at least 3 credible sources and exclude the very angry and the very happy. Pay more attention to the objective, middle of the road reviews.

In the end, it comes down to trust. You won't really know until it happens, but you can give yourself better odds through a bit of study.

For more about filtering trustworthy vendors, here's a short list by

Another useful site to check is Aside from helping customers talk to real people, they have a collection of the most common issues reported. Use this to learn about potential issues down the road.

Paul finally got hold of a support rep. He promised to take a look and shortly, Paul received another email.

Please provide more documents. #4 - #9.

His heart sank. But soldier on he must. They need to recover as much revenue as they can, and at the very least withdraw their funds held by BigPay.

He was given a different way to submit the documents this time, which he dutifully accomplished. There was no success message, but there was no error. So, maybe that's progress.

Weeks passed with no word. Strangely, in the course of a few months, he received the same email asking for the same 5 documents at least 5 times. He would re-submit each time as instructed.

Eventually, BigPay opened a message center that allowed Paul to send messages. He no longer had to spend hours wading through the voice prompts. Paul asked for help, and a polite rep said she'll look into it and follow-up internally.

Paul then got the same email for the 6th time.

He was tempted to just give up or yell really loudly at somebody.

Lesson #2: Biggest and oldest isn't always best.

The reality is, some companies are just too big or too dominant to have an incentive to prioritize our issues. What they have is a fiduciary duty to their investors to maximize profits.

It's not wrong. But it is useful to understand why something as simple as providing real, human customer support isn't highest in their priorities.

Many large companies are expected to increase efficiency by cutting costs and compartmentalizing. This can lead to gaps between departments where we fall in, like a deep hole where nobody can hear us however loudly we cry for help.

And if the company is too large, it's possible that each department is operating almost like a separate company. Which means nobody is really taking ownership of your problem.

So don't be angry at the customer support rep that just happened to rotate to your case number on that day. He's been given strict templates to follow, and moving this along is likely beyond his control.

If the service is not critical to your operations, then perhaps you can make do with less than stellar customer support. But if you are dealing with mission-critical functions such as finances, you need a vendor that will be there for you when problems come.

So for small hotels, consider the size and age of the vendor. There are a lot of new players entering the market. And the ones who have been around for decades aren't necessarily the most reliable anymore, let alone the most innovative.

Certainly, there are lots of very large vendors that have remained dependable and innovative. Do try to see if their interests are more for enterprises rather than small businesses.

And if you're lucky and they do specialize on small businesses, you can use them as a benchmark from which to evaluate other providers.

Consider reaching out to smaller companies and see if you can get a better deal. In terms of fees they charge, in terms of training, and especially in terms of customer support.

The newer companies have an incentive to prove themselves, and you might be surprised with what more you can get by just simply asking for it.

Seeing little signs of progress, Paul started looking for a potential replacement for BigPay. It turns out there was a company who contacted them a few months prior. And this company specializes on processing payments specifically for the travel industry.

The next day, he was on the phone with a friendly rep. And shortly afterwards, they had an account ready. They can start receiving direct payments again!

He can't help but wonder, why didn't he do this earlier?

Now all they needed to do was to retrieve their funds still being held by BigPay.

Lesson 3: Prepare a backup before you're forced to get one.

If only they had the means to quickly switch providers, The Mangrove Inn wouldn't have been in such a difficult situation. Less revenue lost, less complaints received, less stressful months.

The next best thing they could do is to learn from it and start working with a backup vendor.

And even if only one can be activated at a time, you can keep a few other vendors on standby in case the need arises. Don't be afraid to be honest with them. Tell them you are considering them for the future and would like to get all the paperwork done. But you can't go beyond that at this point.

Most likely they would be happy to take you in. Vendors pay good money to get warm leads like you, and they wouldn't waste an opportunity to nurture a relationship.

If they're in a hurry to get some form of a commitment when you are not ready, don't hesitate to hold your ground. They need to move their sales pipelines, that's where the perceived hurry is coming from. But they will likely accept your position regardless.

Even if you are thrilled with your existing provider, keeping other vendors in the periphery helps keep them honest. And helps push everyone to keep improving their services.

It's easy to procrastinate on this until the problem backs you into a corner and forces you to take action. Just remember the cost to the bottom-line. How much revenue do you stand to lose if your lone provider suddenly stops working?

Paul had moved on from being angry to being slightly amused. How can a company as popular as BigPay ask for the same 5 documents 5 times without even explaining why? His expectations were low to begin with, but this was borderline cruel.

As a hotelier, Paul had hosted all sorts of people and thus have developed infinite faith in the goodness of everyone. No, BigPay is many things, but they are not mean.

Then it hit him. Or could it be that he wasn't really being asked to submit the documents again, but rather, he was being sent an auto-reminder ?

He looked at his notes. True enough, he got those 5 emails at about the same time that he was able to get a hold of a support rep. The "follow-up" that the reps were doing was actually triggering a follow-up on Paul!

Paul tried a different tactic next. Instead of re-submitting the documents for the 6th time and then following-up, he told the support rep that he is still waiting for a reply from BigPay. And they should keep the thread open until he gets a response. Perhaps the documents aren't being received by the concerned department?

Somehow, this caused a support manager to finally call him. He was very apologetic and assured Paul that he doesn't have to resubmit those same documents again. And he'll follow-up with the proper people who can resolve this matter.

Paul allowed himself to hope once again.

After a week, he got another email:

Please provide more documents. #10 - #13.

And so as of writing, The Mangrove Inn is still waiting for a resolution on the support ticket. This post will be updated as we get more information.

Meanwhile, Paul has another idea on how to get their funds out. And It might just work.

In Summary

Small hotels like The Mangrove Inn shouldn't have to go through a 9-month customer support case. Clearly there is a breakdown in communication somewhere. A vendor that really cares about customer support would have picked-up the phone and called the hotel a long time ago.

This is the true test of real customer support: action, not empty words, endless hoops or automated voice prompts.

We would be wise to choose vendors that we know will be there when we need them.

How about you? What was your longest customer support case?


Names were changed to protect the privacy of the companies involved. All the events described are real.

As of 26 OCT 2020, without any explanation, and without the hotel resorting to drastic action, the funds were finally released. But BigPay still refused to offer any clarification on why the funds were held up for over 9 months.

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