Friday, June 15, 2012

A Ongoing Lesson in Viral Social Media and Online Corporate Presence

Here's an update regarding my ongoing social media campaign to alert people about Mariden USA, the unscrupulous travel company with whom Heather, her students and I contracted to travel to Italy and Greece this past April.

There are larger lessons in this post about the power of viral social media and how responsible companies should respond to online feedback.

Early this morning I got an email from a teacher in Cecil County, MD, who received similar detestable customer service from Mariden USA. She saw my review on Yelp and contacted me to learn more details of our terrible experience. I eagerly shared the details, knowing that the more facts we share about Mariden USA's business practices, the more likely people will steer clear of contracting with them.

From a social media perspective, this information campaign is proving successful. People are getting valuable information, and sharing the facts has put Mariden USA on the defensive. But rather than react as a responsible would, or should, in this digital age, Mariden USA has resorted to the tired old strategy of maligning their accusers.

In terms of online corporate presence, Mariden USA has handled this as clumsily as it handled the planning and execution of our trip. Mariden USA has a Facebook page, but has disallowed comments. A company with nothing to hide freely invites comments.

On Mariden USA's website, all the testimonials are glowing. Yet a simple Google search reveals poor reviews (mine and others). This inconsistency merely underscores Mariden USA's duplicity.

Ask yourself: Does any company have 100% customer satisfaction? By seeking to hide or squelch truthful accounts of poor customer service, Mariden USA not only blinds itself to dissatisfied customers, but it also eliminates the opportunity to improve its customer service.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Customer Dis-Service & The Power of Social Media

Recently I went on a trip to Rome and Athens with my spouse, a Latin teacher at a public school in Massachusetts (yes, friends, they still teach Latin at some public schools). We were a group of 24 students and four chaperones. We booked and planned the travel through Mariden USA, a company that arranges such travel.

This blog post recounts our poor experience with Mariden USA and how I am using social media to ensure others in higher education do not have a similar experience. I wrote this post on behalf of my spouse, who as a teacher does not have the time to devote to this (fortunately I do, as one of my roles at MIT is to monitor and be engaged in social media).

First you'll read a edited review of the trip (from planning to execution) that I posted on Mariden USA's Facebook page. Then you'll check out a list of places where I posted the review (or a version of the review). If you're interested more in "the power of social media" aspect of this blog post, simply go to the Mariden USA Facebook page and you'll see their reaction to this account.

Particularly relevant to my social media mini-campaign is Mariden USA's protestation that we're "wasting energy writing bad reviews" about the company: When you get underwhelming (or in this case, bad) service, social media gives you a outlet to share that information with others.

* * *

Mariden USA was consistently and continually underhanded and duplicitous in the planning of our trip. Initially my spouse was told everything she wanted to hear, but, sadly for her students, the reality was far different than the false promises we heard from Mariden USA representatives.

FLIGHTS: My spouse selected Mariden USA because company representatives said they could get direct flights from Boston to Rome and returning from Athens to Boston. Many direct flights are available. Mariden USA representatives understood this was a priority of my students. Not only did we end up with layovers, but also these layovers unnecessarily prolonged the trip, eating away hours that could have been spent touring sites in Rome and Athens.

Mariden USA representatives also informed my spouse that our group would travel together: This, after all, is the definition of group travel. However, Mariden USA split up our group. My spouse was forced to involve an attorney in our perfectly justified efforts to compel Mariden USA to do what was right--that is, to amend the travel plans so that all her students traveled together.

In addition to denying her students the experience of traveling together in one group, Mariden USA denied compensation to the three travelers in the separate group. Reviewing the correspondence, it is obvious Mariden USA denied compensation because I engaged an attorney to convince them to honor their verbal commitment to her and our group.

LATE FEES and RECORD KEEPING: Where Mariden USA exhibited poor planning for our legitimate travel and itinerary requests, such disregard did not carry over to their relentless pursuit of so-called late fees from parents.

Ironically, Mariden USA was able to assess late fees to my participants, yet was not sufficiently organized to send invoices of fees due prior to sending notifications of late fees. This pursuit of late fees without sending invoices was a offensive attempt to wring more funds from parents. Mariden USA's consistently poor record keeping passed on a great deal of extra work and stress to my spouse, the customer.

DURING THE TRIP: Mariden USA's poor scheduling, abysmal planning, and lack of attention to detail repeatedly manifested itself while on our trip.

Although our guide in Rome, Alex, was truly exceptional, the fact remains that because someone in Mariden USA's office did not pre-plan and realize the Vatican would be closed on a Sunday (a fact generally clear to most of the world¹s population), we had to spend six extra hours on the bus because the scheduled trip to Pompeii was moved to Sunday from the more logical original plan of seeing it on the way to the ferry on Monday.

On Monday on the ferry from Bari, Italy, to Patras, Greece, we had to withdraw 598 Euro from our own savings to pay for the dinners and breakfasts for her students. These meals were clearly indicated as included in our overall bill, as contracted by Mariden USA. Although this blatant breach of contract was ameliorated several days later via Mariden International's reimbursement of these funds, our group should never have been put in this situation.

Also, while enduring a six-hour layover in Paris en route to Rome on 4/14, two flights left to Rome earlier than ours from our terminal alone. By our calculations, the flights and Pompeii trip inefficiencies wasted an entire day of touring.

The pity of these wasted hours is not the inconvenience but rather the disservice to the students whom Mariden USA purports to accommodate.

SUMMARY: The sole bright spots were the consummate professional tour guides we had both in Rome and Athens. They were professional, prepared, responsible, respectful and understanding. Not surprisingly, to our understanding, our guides were arranged by Mariden International, which apparently has higher customer service standards than Mariden USA. My spouse and I strongly advise her colleagues against traveling with Mariden USA.

* * *

Now, to the places where I posted this review (or a version of it)... in addition, of course, to the Better Business Bureau:

The point, friends, is that social media gives you the power to mount a one-person outreach campaign.

So the next time you get service you don't like, do something about it: Voice your complaint through social media.