Avoid pitfalls of online reviews

Saturday April 7 2018

An airport scene. What you see in pictures is not always what you get. ILLUSTRATION | FOTOSEARCH

An airport scene. What you see in pictures is not always what you get. ILLUSTRATION | FOTOSEARCH 

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A colleague recently shared an online story berating one of the best-rated airlines in the region as also having the worst customer service.

He had had a bad experience with the said airline and therefore concurred. He questioned why the airline was even rated and recognised for anything.

This is not unique to airlines. Hotels and other companies offering accommodation are in the same boat.

In a recent sojourn, a colleague and I were caught up in last minute travel logistics. We had secured our flights well in advance, but still lacked accommodation. And to keep our spend within the budget, we went online for quick deals. 

We had four cities to cover. We were soon taken in by one of those visually stimulating room offers you find online. Before hitting the book button I asked if we could read the reviews section. They were excellent, and the offer being pocket-friendly, we booked and paid.

It was not until we arrived at the given address that we realised we had been duped. In fact, we had to ask our cab driver if he had brought us to the correct address.

The house was perched in the middle of what looked like a dumpsite, surrounded by strewn garbage.

Inside, things were on the darker side of grim; untidy, rundown rooms with dirty beddings, some of the amenities displayed online were either missing or not functioning — nothing like the glossy online pictures. In fact nothing resembled what we had viewed online or remotely related to the reviews.

We had few choices, as we had already paid in advance.

Is it time to disregard online reviews, particularly when it comes to the travel industry? Travellers need to be aware that there is a possibility of online reviews being rigged or falsified to lure unsuspecting customers.

Airline reviews

When it comes to air travel, the most genuine reviews will be bad or average because passengers will at the slightest inconvenience give the most depressing feedback.

However, when shopping for an airline, I do not take airline ranking to be an absolute measure of quality of service as most agencies that carry out these rankings use different criteria.

It is therefore common for airlines to align their messaging with rankings and accolades while capitalising on the accompanying recognition as a way of hoping that this somehow improves their customer service.

Interestingly, a 2017 study done on measuring and building the customer experience, ranked airlines second from bottom only above insurance companies.

How then can flyers avoid getting carried away by accolades and unverified awards and zero in on things that count when choosing a carrier?

The rule of thumb is that you get what you pay for, hence shopping around for the cheapest fares and room rates has consequences.

Trip Advisor Flights is a great place to start if you are looking for a general opinion on an airline you have never used.

Categorising flights into short hops, regional and long haul can be a useful approach also in making your choice.

Buying tickets on a small regional carrier and expecting service befitting a luxury airline is pushing your luck.

Customer service issues will naturally vary from one flight to another since the experiences are different depending on quality of safety track record, punctuality, baggage handling etc.

Frequent flyers should pay more attention to airlines that make quick service recovery with minimum trouble to their customers in the event of interruptions. What is surprising however is that most customers prioritise food quality, cabin crew friendliness and the seatmate they get above other critical factors.

The bottom line however is that the best airline is not necessarily the richest or the most expensive but it could be one that is sensitive to little things such as boarding assistance for passengers with special needs.

Michael Otieno an aviation consultant and travel writer based in Nairobi. Twitter: @mosafariz; Email: [email protected]