Thanks, Northwest, For Flying Me To Chicago Because I Asked Nicely!

Contrary to published rumors, I did not spend last weekend trafficking Canadian drugs or performing “community service.” No, I enjoyed a gluttonous weekend in Chicago thanks to Northwest’s generosity. In the age or rising fees, reduced frequent flier miles, and general travel hell, it’s still possible to extract favors from airlines, if you know which levers to push…

My friend had an unused electronic credit voucher that he had no hope of using from a botched trip. Not wanting to waste the voucher, we decided to transfer the voucher to me, something clearly prohibited by Northwest’s policies:

Can I give my Electronic Credit Voucher to someone else to use?
Electronic Credit Vouchers are non-transferable…

First, my friend called and asked to transfer the voucher. They said no. We called back, escalated, begged and pleaded, but rules are rules, they said—our request would not be accommodated. After exhausting the normal customer service channels, we loaded up and fired the mighty and fearsome Executive Email Carpet Bomb. Here’s what we wrote:

Mr. Steenland,

On April 17, 2007 I purchased a ticket to Rhinelander, WI from your website (NWA Confirmation Number: XXXXX, E-ticket number: XXXXXXXXXX). I unfortunately never took that trip, but was repeatedly reassured by your agents before canceling that I would not lose the money I had invested in the ticket, and that I would be able to use the remaining balance however I wished towards future Northwest travel.

I am now trying to use the balance, as I was expressly told I would be allowed, to purchase a ticket from New York to Chicago for a friend. Your agents insist that this is not possible and that the credit from my unused ticket will expire in May if I do not fly myself. My considerable travel expenses are currently handled exclusively by my employer. It will be impossible for me to use the remaining balance for myself in the foreseeable future.

I would be most appreciative if you would allow me to use my balance to purchase a ticket for my friend, as I was told I could do. I am a frequent traveler and have a choice of airlines when flying and would very much like to tell my colleagues that you graciously accommodated my reasonable request. Please let me know by the end of the week how this can be arranged.

Best regards,

Carey’s Friend

We summarized the problem, requested a resolution, and specified a timeframe for their response, all while remaining professional and polite. Northwest Executive Communications Representative Jodee Gruebele quickly responded and agreed to transfer the voucher to me. Great!

Except the voucher was going to expire before I could get to yummy, yummy pizza hiding in the midwest. I called Northwest’s customer service line and asked them to extend the voucher by an extra week. They laughed and refused. Time for another EECB!

Dear Ms. Gruebele,

I write in the hope you can remove the remaining barrier to redeeming [my friend's] voucher. The absolute earliest I am able to travel is May 9-13. I have unfortunately been informed by your customer service representatives that my travel must commence by May 4, a mere 5 days earlier than my schedule allows. They have also told me that it is impossible to redeem the ticket online, forcing me to pay not a $10 operator assistance fee, but a $15 rebooking fee. This is in addition to fees costing $56 already associated with the ticket. I would be willing to pay the fees, provided I can begin my travel on May 9. Please let me know at your earliest convenience how this reasonable request can be accommodated.

Most appreciative,

Carey Greenberg-Berger

Four days later, Northwest wrote back and extended the voucher for an extra month.

Northwest had every right to say no. We weren’t filing a complaint or referencing a violated policy. They made a business decision to help us out, one that I certainly appreciate.

You might be thinking, “But Carey, you unethical rodent, they gave you the tickets because you write for The Consumerist and might say mean things about them next to cat photos if they didn’t acquiesce.” The first EECB containing the big request to transfer the voucher was sent by my friend without mentioning me or the site, and the second one was sent from my personal account.

Executive Email Carpet Bombs are effective because you’re speaking to people who are able to use their independent judgment to come to a reasonable solution. More importantly, anyone can launch an EECB without much effort. Nothing we requested was outlandish. We asked for a favor, and Northwest graciously acceded, gaining an appreciative customer, giving Chris the chance to write a weekend of great posts, and giving me the chance to finally taste Chicago’s ambrosial stuffed-crust pizza. Win-win-win.

RELATED: How To Launch An Executive Email Carpet Bomb
HOW TO: Draft A Good Complaint Letter

Comments

Edit Your Comment

  1. rbb says:

    C’mon, we all know the one e-mail that you sent them and are not showing us said:

    “I am Carey of the Consumerist. Fear me!”

    ;)

  2. ChuckTaylors says:

    Huh. Slightly different than the time I didn’t make it onto a NWA flight because there was NO ONE at the counter to issue me a boarding pass, at which time I was told by their phone people that it was my fault I’d missed the plane which had not left yet and that I’d have to pay $700 to get onto the next flight. It took five hours and sleeping in a JFK Airport hotel, on my own dime, to convince them to put us on the next flight and I’m fairly certain the only reason they did is because the original flight ended up getting canceled. Out of 15 customer service people we talked to, only one wasn’t completely rude. I’ll never fly that airline again.

  3. SuffolkHouse says:

    I don’t like this post. It implies that people who get screwed by the airlines do so because they fail to be nice enough.

    The behavior of the airlines is much too capricious for me. I think this post perpetuates the mythology that if consumers just shut up and were nice, everything will go along smoothly.

    Screw that!

  4. pigeonpenelope says:

    @SuffolkHouse: i will disagree with you on this one. what i read is that being nice and polite can take you farther than being a jerkface.

  5. DanKelley98 says:

    Thats not the Northwest I know!

    But again, I don’t have a xxx@consumerist.com address either!

  6. Imaginary_Friend says:

    It’s only win-win-win if you muled some pizza back for Chris.

    Both of those letters were great; short and to the point without coming off as whiny or demanding.

  7. world-inferno says:

    NWA don’t sound like they have very nice customer service:

    And that’ll make you think.
    Some suckaz just tickle me pink
    To my stomache. ‘Cause they don’t flow like this one.

  8. TheRealAbsurdist says:

    Unfortunately, your experience with Northwest’s “customer service” is typical. Your experience with their upper management is atypical. The more usual is the last tme I flew on Northwest, shortly after they filed for bankruptcy. I arrived at the airport in Flint two hours in advance for my flight, to find a long line and one extremely disinterested clerk handling check-in. When I finally reached the counter, I was told I’d missed the cutoff time by two minutes, and would have to pay an extra $100 to be booked on the next flight. When I turned around and announced the same to the people still in line, most of whom were booked on my original flight, the clerk called in security and threatened to have me arrested. Every other airline I’ve flown (and I fly at least twice a month), in the same circumstance, asks for those in line waiting for the flight about to leave so they can be checked in first. This was the last time I’ve flown Northwest. I hope the merger with Delta improves their service, but somehow I doubt it.

  9. fhic says:

    Nicely done, Carey and friend!

  10. fhic says:

    Except that you failed to mail me a Giordano’s pizza, of course. :-)

  11. nycaviation says:

    I’m sure that carey@consumerist.com return address had nothing to do with any of this.

  12. world-inferno says:

    @nycaviation: reading is hard…

    You might be thinking, “But Carey, you unethical rodent, they gave you the tickets because you write for The Consumerist and might say mean things about them next to cat photos if they didn’t acquiesce.” The first EECB containing the big request to transfer the voucher was sent by my friend without mentioning me or the site, and the second one was sent from my personal account.

  13. amejr999 says:

    This doesn’t seem right to me. EECBs are used when a company majorly messes something up, not when you just don’t like their policies.

  14. ccouvillion says:

    @world-inferno:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one that makes that connection. Every time I see a story about NWA or one of their planes, I think what a poor choice that abbreviation is. NWAir, NWAL, anything but “N*****s With Attitude”.

  15. DeltaPurser says:

    What was the purpose of this post? To show that NWA went above and beyond to assist (when they didn’t have to), or to show that given a finger, you go for the whole hand?

  16. spinachdip says:

    @amejr999: Since when did you become the President of When and Where to Properly Employ EECB Society of America? If the NWA execs really thought this was improper, they could have said no. But they didn’t, because it was an not-unreasonable request that happened to fall outside of the rules but would result in a happy customer in a world full of flyers who hate airlines.

    And the use of EECB was more than appropriate, because the solution required a person who’s trained to enhance the value of the company, rather than to simply follow a manual.

    @DeltaPurser: Neither. The correct answer is: (c) Give cynical dickheads something to whine about.

  17. @SuffolkHouse: There is power in distinguishing between favors and obligations. The attitude you should adopt is totally different, which clearly demonstrated is by these emails.

    Ultimately, people make decisions, not faceless corporations. And nobody likes to help out an asshole.

    @DeltaPurser: If I read your post right, you’re saying that transferring the voucher is a finger, and 4 extra days is the rest of the hand? I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit.

    @ccouvillion: How about “Delta”?

  18. DeltaPurser says:

    @spinachdip: Do you really think an executive read your plea?

    @Michael Belisle: Why, exactly, is that bullshit?

  19. world-inferno says:

    @DeltaPurser:

    because that would make each finger worth only one day and obviously transferring the voucher is worth more than one day.

  20. spinachdip says:

    @DeltaPurser: Probably, possibly not. There are companies where execs read every email that isn’t obviously junk – I’ve had email exchanges with C-level execs of multinational corporations (combined with phone calls that verified they’ve read my emails). OTOH, there are execs who have their assistants print out all their emails because they don’t know how to log into their Outlook account.

    But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, EECB emails reach people who are empowered to make decisions that a rep in Mumbai isn’t trained to.

    Seriously, pull that rod out of your ass and turn that frown upside down.

  21. Lambasted says:

    @rbb:
    Ha, I thought the same thing. When your name is connected to a website in which its ravenous commenters hold a company’s reputation in the palm of their hands, it is not hard to have the heaven and earth moved for you. A nice letter from anyone else would have been swiftly ignored.

    Northwest is one of the worst airlines flying the pseudo “friendly” skies. For a while, if there was an airline in the news that people were complaining about, I knew already it was going to be about Northwest. Sorry, I am not tipping my hat to an airline that is notorious for their “screw the customer” policies.

    Putting an expiration date on a customer’s own money is meant to screw us in the first place. I have an airline credit myself that I will not use before it expires, and it won’t be the first time. Credits mean airlines already have our money and don’t intend on making it easy for us to ever use it again. Nice letters only get you so far when dealing with greedy companies whose execs only concern is for their golden parachutes.

    When a regular citizen flies, we have no parachute to hold onto. It’s a terrifying free fall for us.

  22. spinachdip says:

    @Lambasted: You might want to check the battery on your Sarcasm Detector 3000.

    I think you are right to a tiny, wee bit extent. The letters worked, not necessarily because they were nice, but because they were concise, to the point, and framed the problems in a way that made airlines want to help Carey. That, and they were nice.

  23. ScooperJay says:

    Your an asshole.

    Rules are rules and you perpetually try and bend the rules to your benefit.

    I honestly do not see how, in any way, the airline was at fault for you booking a flight, at a discounted rate, then want to transfer the voucher, when clearly that is against policy.

    I’m assuming you were a spoiled brat of a child. Did you whine until you got what you wanted and mommy finally got sick of it and gave in?

    This is abuse, and you should be ashamed.

  24. DeltaPurser says:

    @spinachdip: ?????? I think you just revealed a lot about yourself with that comment…

  25. ViperBorg says:

    That’s pretty sweet, man! Nice job!

  26. spinachdip says:

    @DeltaPurser: I know. I like to spread the joy around. Thanks for noticing!

  27. TVarmy says:

    @SuffolkHouse: The major point of this site seems to me that it argues commerce would be a much more pleasant affair for both parties if everyone were nicer to each other. Companies should be open and honest with their customers, and be willing to do the occasional favor, while customers should try to be rational and understanding. Both parties seem to get more out of any situation so long as people are polite and assertive. The customer gets better service, and the company gets some good word of mouth and possibly a repeat customer.

  28. masterofallisurvey says:

    So I like the part about you saying that you were told by the that you could transfer the funds to another person.

    Sounds like you told a “little fib” to get what you want. Being nice wouldn’t have gotten you the result your friend wanted.

    Rather interesting that you would advocate not telling the truth.

  29. LJKelley says:

    You know I wish the Airlines still behaved in good will. I remember fondly as a kid flying with NW in 1998 and them waiving $200 in over weight baggage fees (Yes, my mom was crazy). We didn’t ask, the cashier just waived the fees.

    They could make a profit if #1) They collectively boycotted a select oil company to bring prices down. #2) More importantly treated their customers better which would encourage more people to fly.

  30. Lambasted says:

    @spinachdip: I wasn’t trying to be overly sarcastic (who me?) but let me be clearer just in case I came across that way:

    1. Influence = Power. Power to have rules bent upon request.
    Carey = Influence…thus…Carey = Power.

    2. Typical Northwest Customers = NonInfluential Flunkie (NIFs).
    NIFs = History of getting screwed by Northwest aka NonInfluential Flunkie Treatment (NIFT). NIFs usually end up ignored or riding in the cargo hold (ok now that was sarcastic).

    Ah, but don’t take my sarcastic word for it. Read what some NIFs have to say on ConsumerAffairs.com about how accommodating Northwest was to them.

    The following is an introductory quote from the article summing up the litany of complaints it precedes:
    An icy fossil that survives only because Southwest apparently dislikes cold weather, Northwest is perhaps the most rigid U.S. airline when it comes to making even the slightest accommodation to the customers who keep it in business.

    Read through all the Northwest complaints on the site and it will become clear in an instant that the conciseness or verbosity of the request has absolutely nothing to do with the end result of getting kicked in the rear by Northwest.

    But hey, thanks for the advice, SpinachDip. The next time I want that free upgrade to first class, I’ll be sure to make that request as concise as I can and surely I’ll be sipping complimentary champagne in my oversized seat in no time. But shhh…we don’t want everyone to know about this. Let the verbose NIFs drone on and wonder why they always get NIFT and end up in the cargo hold.

  31. DrBologna says:

    @spinachdip: “Since when did you become the President of When and Where to Properly Employ EECB Society of America?”

    Seriously? Probably around the time you got impeached for forgetting that we are constantly admonished on this very site to use the EECB sparingly and for good purpose. This is *clearly not* an example of an appropriately used EECB.

    We are frequently told here that part of the power of the EECB rests in not using it for superfluous aims; we are told that overexposure to the EECB will deaden the nerves of executives and make them less inclined to help. Instead of following that advice, Carey decided to help herself to some undeserved airfare at the expense of those folks who might have a legitimate problem.

    And for what? Gluttony? To make an end around on clearly stated and not particularly unreasonable policies? Boo on Carey for doing it; boo on Consumerist for glorifying it.

    Amerjr999 for President in 2008.

  32. chrisroberts says:

    I’m very glad this worked out for you. There’s nothing wrong with pushing against policy to see if a business will keep a paying customer happy — in this case your friend.

    Is it really deserving of a full write-up though? You convinced a higher-up to break the rules for you. How does this story benefit us? Proper execution of a “EECB”? Maybe, except this is an extraordinary case that, odds are, will probably never be reproduced for any of us.

    I’m just reminded of the young couple about to get married who were originally told they couldn’t cruise because of the wife-to-be’s age. Meg didn’t suggest a EECB (she admirably didn’t suggest anything outside of a commenter acting as chaperon as she said she wasn’t a travel expert), but in her post she acknowledged that the cruise line was rightly within their bounds to deny travel to the young wife, even though it was a very crummy situation.

    Still, it remains: Meg solicited comments in the context of working inside the corporate policy and not ideas that involved bending the rules.

    Like I said, I’m happy for you and your friend, but when did Consumerist become a place that offered advice on bending/breaking the rules instead of helping us defend ourselves from the rules being broken against us?

  33. DeafChick says:

    Carey as much as I love you, does this really need a write up? I hope I can use your acct this winter.

  34. mmcnary says:

    If you like Chicago-style pizza and you find yourself in south St. Louis, you should check out the Blackthorn Pub. They make their own sauce, and the pizza is to die for. Just in case you can’t get to Chicago for a Geno’s or Giordano’s…

  35. Carey Alexander says:

    I understand the objections to using an Executive Email Carpet Bomb as anything but a corrective tool, and that is partly how it was used. My friend had a credit that would have been completely lost if it wasn’t transferred. Customer service wouldn’t let him transfer the credit, so we salvaged its value by launching an EECB.

    My point in writing the post—a point missed by several commenters—was to show that a properly crafted EECB can be used by anyone to solve a wide range of problems. I can’t stress enough how I went out of my way to keep the site separate from my communications with Northwest. Not only because using the site’s name for my own personal gain is deeply unethical, but because I really did want to see how easy it was for any regular consumer to fix a problem with an EECB.

    There’s a difference between using an EECB recklessly and using it to advance an irregular request. Remember, if my friend’s request was objectionable to them, they could have told him to walk in front of a jet engine, and that would have been that. More importantly, they had absolutely no way of knowing that my friend was in any way connected to the site. His request was judged solely on its merits. Because it was presented to people unencumbered by arbitrary rules, they were able to accommodate us.

    Sending EECBs after exhausting all other options does not dilute their value. Sending poorly formed complaints or contacting executives without first trying other options might. Anyway, let’s not lose site of the moral of the story: Executive Email Carpet Bombs work.

  36. jsttheman says:

    I don’t understand why people think they are above the rules. Rules are rules. If they say no, and you know you can’t do that, why do you not accept that. The only thing that was nice was that you politely asked! Thank you for not threatening or whine but I still think it’s stupid that the rules can’t be followed.

  37. AndrewJC says:

    @jsttheman: But that’s just it. There’s absolutely ZERO harm in asking a company if they can bend the rules for you. Honestly, what could it have resulted in, besides an answer of no?

    A few fair points, in my opinion:

    1) Anybody who thinks that it’s wrong to ask somebody to do something even though they’ll probably say no has probably never had a date in his/her life.

    2) Carey simply asked if it was POSSIBLE to take care of these things, and despite the implication that masterofallisurvey made, it wasn’t a question of a “little fib” at all. Instead, it was that Carey’s friend was specifically told that the voucher could be used in any way toward future travel. If that is indeed true, then there was no caveat in there that specified that it had to be used personally and was nontransferable.

    3) People are REALLY missing the boat on the actual POINT of this post: that in a lot of cases, you can get what you want by asking for it nicely, while simultaneously making them realize that they’ll be on the winning side too by helping you out. Being a flaming cockface doesn’t often help a vendor see the positive side. Period.