I have been part of the service industry all my life and service recovery is almost second nature to a service professional, because things WILL go wrong when human beings are involved. Services are offered by human beings and things do go wrong, however great the systems and processes are.
We decided to visit Laos this year for our annual vacation, almost at the last minute. We couldn’t find any travel agents for a long time and I reached out to Paul because Souk, his wife is from Laos. I asked about any tips for us and he mentioned a few places that were a must see. Krishnan sent out emails to a few tour operators in Laos and one of them refused to even do a tour saying it was raining.
While searching for tour operators, Krishnan stumbled upon Beyonder, a Bangalore based travel company run by Anand and Srini who are from IIM and ISB. That was the first interesting fact and of course when we saw their website and spoke to them, we found them very straightforward and service oriented. We booked the tour through them and stopped looking for any other people.
We landed in Vientiane on the 3rd of Sept and met with Beyonder’s Laos partners Green Discovery on the 4th. We met with Mr. Thor, a young (read green) manager who was our tour leader. We told him about our need for vegetarian food and that we were not adventure seekers, that we do that in India but not when we were on vacation. We told him that we don’t want to be in cramped and dirty public buses but would like to go in air-conditioned minivans. He assured us that everywhere the travel was by air-conditioned minivans. We also told him that we don’t want to do long overland journeys over bad roads. We were just looking to soak up the history, culture and sights of Laos and chill out. He nodded to all that and we were conned into thinking that he got it… well, he got us and how!
The first sign of trouble started on Sept 9th… a week into the trip. We had a great trip to the Pak Ou caves and then a horrible lunch at the restaurant across the river. It was vegetables in tomato sauce that had been diluted with water. Both of us ended up with stomach cramps. So we told our guide that we wont eat any food in the village restaurants. The very next day, we ended up being taken for a road trip over average roads for about 80 kms all told, in a rusting Tuk-Tuk with no back support and no rain covers. We didn’t gripe about it too much with Anita, our contact at Beyonder because we thought its ok, these small things do go wrong. We were so naïve!!
The public minivan trip from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw where we got packed like sardines into a non-airconditioned Hyundai Starex was the start of long chats with Anita. The minute we landed at Nong Khiaw, we told Anita that we didn’t want to go to Luang Namtha and that we wanted to stay at Nong Khiaw itself for four days. Well, that got done and again we thought it was all ok. The very next day, the guide brought beef and sticky rice and vegetables all mixed together and insisted that was our lunch. Once again we told him, we eat vegetarian food that hasn’t been mixed with any meat and complained to Anita. Then we went to Phonsavan and the first day was ok, but on the second day the hotel had no breakfast! We complained again and then when we reached Vang Vieng we got into Savanh Hotel that was really pathetic. We realized that Green Discovery was treating us as backpackers and we again had long chats and several conversations with Anita to get things changed. Then Mr. Thor got into his special cancellation whine, because we changed hotels in Pakse, the last week of our tour. By this time we had lost all trust in his ability to book us in a good hotel. Well, this was before we stayed at Mixay Paradise where the room was like a jail cell and breakfast was a joke.
Since we didn’t want to hear the cancellation whine, we just booked ourselves into a hotel of our choice for the two days that we were to be in Vientiane and informed Anita and Mr. Thor. We once again naively thought, we didn’t have to bother Anita again…. No such luck. We reached Kong Lo view resort and found it to be non-functional and then to be served mouldy bread for breakfast was just enough to put us off Laos. Anita could not be contacted for a day so she had a day free of us, but the minute we got wifi, she again got a list of complaints. We were almost becoming what we never have been – difficult nagging customers !
Once again we thought our troubles were behind us and we didn’t have to talk to Anita atleast in the last week of our stay in Laos. No such luck because the biggest gaffe happened in Pakse during the Bolaven Plateau trip – we ended up trekking through slush, slippery terrain, climbing up and down small hills for just 14 kms :):). Again Anita got bombarded with enough messages to make us look bad.
Ok …. Hope the readers get the message in all this whining that I am doing as a customer. Anita, from Beyonder used super responsiveness as service recovery with us and we would like to appreciate that with heartfelt thanks. She was online at all times, any hour of the day and she would always get back instantly. Whether she could solve something or not, was another thing, but just the fact that she never shied away from listening to a customer complain was fantastic. Not once did she make us feel abandoned. She cared enough to keep checking in with us. That she was dealing with an uncaring partner in Green Discovery and couldn’t fix many things still did not keep her away from responding to the situation. As far as we are concerned, Anita is the new synonym for responsiveness and we may never come back to Laos but we will definitely travel with Beyonder again, only because of Anita.
And what did we get from Green Discovery in all this time – zilch… no apology, no attempt at service recovery. They are going about their business as though we were a bad dream and we would have disappeared when they woke up. Their country manager did not even think of offering a $1 coffee when we shared our feedback with him. Terrible.
Thank you Anita for all the support. You were the one big bright spot in our trip to Laos !