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Stuck in customer-service hell? Here's the secret to solving your problem: you

Stuck in customer-service hell? Here's the secret to solving your problem: you
Calling customer services tips. (Daisy-Daisy / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Loretta Gromo wanted to do something special to celebrate her wedding anniversary, so she decided to book a Royal Caribbean cruise to mark 25 years of marriage to her husband, Bob.

After 34 years as an elementary school teacher, she was experienced in handling a range of behaviors, including a lack of cooperation. In the classroom, that might be expected; after all, she taught second-graders. But from a cruise-line agent?

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Yet that’s some of what the Claremont resident said she encountered after she asked for and thought she had received a cruise-line promotion that would have given the couple a $200 shipboard credit on an already booked cabin — one she had chosen because she believed its location would help alleviate her seasickness.

Then she found another money-saving option: booking her shore excursions ahead of time. She did that too.

Instead of a confirmation, she got an email saying her shore excursions had been canceled. And in trying to get that problem fixed, her entire reservation was canceled.

Oops.

In the next days, she worked with cruise-line agents to get the reservation back on track. The reservation was restored, but in a cabin on Deck 2, not her original stateroom amidship.

When she told the agent that would not work, he offered her an upgrade to a junior suite — for $1,500 more. She said she did not want to spend that much. How much could she spend? the agent asked. She said $500. He suggested $1,000. She said yes because she wanted to move on.

Later she realized she had just spent $1,000 to fix the cruise line’s mistake. That went against her sense of fairness. But no one she spoke with would help.

She was flummoxed. She had asked to speak with the agents’ supervisor (by this time, she had dealt with several agents), but she was told there wasn’t one. She said she told them that everyone has a supervisor. No, they said.

Let’s skip to the end of the story. Loretta Gromo got back her $1,000.

She had called to ask me whom she should contact; I hadn’t a clue but suggested we look at the company’s annual report. There we found the name of a senior vice president, whose email she tracked down and used.

As if by magic, she was made whole again.

This is not a tale of a cruise company’s mistake, for which it accepted responsibility in a later conversation with me. This is not the story of how a cruise line had to change some of its procedures to prevent future fiascoes, which in that same conversation with me it also said it would do to prevent this problem.

We give Royal credit for honesty and for shoring up its procedures.

But we give Gromo even more credit and kudos for being her best advocate. Her work to resolve this problem is an outline for dealing with difficult customer service issues.

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Here is what helped ensure her success:

--She kept detailed notes, records and emails that contained confirmations of dates, conversations and other important communications. She knew from that outline when someone was supposed to call her back and was able to note it when no one did.

--She didn’t lose her cool. She acknowledged that she did cry in frustration one day on the phone but otherwise no screaming, yelling or name-calling, no “if you don’t do this, I will do this.”

That’s important, said John Mast, the senior director of global cruise marketing for Expedia Cruise Ship Centers. “Avoid threats,” he said. Social media is a popular but misguided avenue for resolution, he said, but, he added, “This seems to be people’s first response.”

It’s more helpful, he said, to “calmly and clearly state facts and provide any evidence.” Which she did.

--If you’ve reached a stalemate, seek a higher power. Here’s where the Gromo model didn’t work and why she ended up calling me. In one conversation, she said, “I must have asked five times if there was a supervisor I could talk to or someone else higher up.” Request denied.

Mast offered what seems to be a customer service magic word: “escalate.” Not as in getting madder and madder but in taking your issue to the next level. “Every cruise line has a customer service escalation protocol,” he said.

Gromo escalated all right — to a senior vice president who turned this over to someone, she said, who had the power to fix it. The woman did, and Gromo had nothing but praise for her, not only because she resolved the problem but also because she was empathetic and listened.

--Express your displeasure when the incident happens. Don’t wait until you’ve returned home from your trip. Give the organization a chance to fix it.

“If something happens on your trip, you need to get the business card” of the person you’re dealing with, Mast said, and try to get the issue resolved then and there.

--Be prepared to spend time to get the results you want. As anybody who has tried to wrestle customer service issues to the ground knows, it’s usually not quick and it’s often not easy. It’s a commitment. Know that going in, but don’t get discouraged.

--Know when to call it even. “Sometimes you can win,” Gromo said. “Sometimes you just have to say ‘OK.’” She didn’t get some of financial incentives that had set her on the quest to save money, but she also didn’t have to pay the extra $1,000. “They did the right thing at the end,” she said.

Royal Caribbean was forthright about Gromo’s issue.

“We strive to deliver a great vacation experience, and that begins before the cruise departs,” said Ted Miller, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean. “In this case, we made a mistake. Fortunately, we were able to correct it, and we scheduled additional training to ensure this type of request is handled better the first time.”

That’s consistent with what Gromo said is ingrained in her personality: taking responsibility for a problem. So, yes, she would cruise again with Royal Caribbean.

If things were to go awry, she now has the magic word. With luck, neither she nor any of the rest of us will ever have to use it.

May the force always be with us.

Have a travel question or dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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