At the end of our family trip to Madagascar, we had a very bad experience, we were swindled at the airport. We had hired a local guide for the trip, Jean-Claude. And I had even asked “Jean-Claude, is this a scam?” He answered “I don't know” and went on checking his phone.
We were so upset when we found out it in fact was a scam; we faced Jean-Claude, but he denied any responsibility. As Jean-Claude worked for ToursByLocals, we took it up with them. Unfortunately, their response was disappointing as they said they could not do anything for people who did not book through them. Upon which I wrote a piece on ToursByLocals and Integrity and I tweeted it. I at least wish to warn people. The following conversation ensued:
When they said “We do care about our guides, hence our reaching out to you again”, I actually felt like rebuffing with “I would have appreciated it more if you had taken the issue more seriously when I first contacted you.” But realizing that, even if late, they were caring and trying to do something about it, I wrote to them in private in the direct messages and added “Thanks for reaching out, I appreciate it a lot.” After all, most companies do not even bother to answer; if they do, it just stays with one move and then forwarded to the backdoor out of public sight. Booking did not bother at all, Turkish Airlines used the backdoor tactic. So even though ToursByLocals seemed like doing a similar thing suggesting DM instead, I wanted to see if they'd do anything differently. Then they said something that struck me:
“We are all just trying to do our best.”
“We are all just trying to do our best.”... It echoed in my mind. Yes, they probably were. And perhaps I was unfair to them with my criticism. Perhaps it is too much to expect so much care and attention from that level of Customer Care. And the management level is generally not interested, doesn't get involved. Perhaps that's the doom of companies or the unluck of us customers. Nobody hears us who has authority.
Something extraordinary happened with ToursByLocals. They wrote “We've brought this issue to the attention of our Quality Experience Manager. He would very much like to get in touch with you to hear even more.” This was new. Someone at a manager level wanting to understand the issue. In fact, he wrote a very nice, detailed and courteous letter saying he was made aware of my blog post by someone in their social media team, he read it, and completely agreed with everything I had said. He also went and located my original mails to ToursbyLocals from back in September 2018 to have full grasp of the situation.
“Wooow!” I thought to myself. That's exactly what I would have done. And someone going into detail and trying to understand a situation was amazing.
The Quality Experience Manager Gavin also agreed that that correspondence was not dealt with correctly. “But I would now like to do what I can to respond appropriately to your feedback. I found your account of your experience with Jean-Claude balanced and insightful,” he wrote. Then he advertised a bit about his company and how they strive for 5-stars.
“We always endeavour to conduct our business in the most honest and ethical manner, and when something does go wrong, we take this seriously. This is why I really appreciated your detailed feedback, as I see this as a valuable learning opportunity, and I assure you I will now personally follow up with our guide partner Jean-Claude to ensure that this feedback is taken on board.”
This was really something. Seriously? Someone taking a customer complaint so seriously and responding in such a decent manner? Interesting...
I had stressed that this wasn't about money, I wanted Jean-Claude to understand that his behavior was wrong. Still, Gavin offered us a 100 USD promo code to be used as a discount for any ToursByLocals tour worldwide, valid for 2 years. He wrote “I do realize that you did not request any compensation; however, I would still love for you to consider giving ToursByLocals a chance to impress you the next time you travel - we do have full confidence in our process and our guide-partners’ abilities to deliver 5-Star tours.”
Of course I thanked him for the promo gesture even though we probably would not be using it because we have stopped travelling for some time. I wrote back saying I was already impressed. Impressed by his detailed and caring response. I confessed “I never expected to hear from ToursByLocals after one answer to my tweet, especially not after time passed.” The rest of my email:
“I understand that at the basic level your customer service agents cannot take up responsibility for someone who has not booked through you, it's not a part of their job or at least not a standard procedure. And the people in higher positions generally do not deal with customers and do not get back to them personally. So I am totally aware that this mail of yours to reach out to me is very out of the ordinary and worthy of praise/respect.
On the other hand, to be any meaningful, I would like to know the end result with Jean-Claude. I would like to see that he has really understood that the way to do gas is going full tank and leaving full tank. And that letting guests to be swarmed by unsolicited attention of locals is unacceptable and is failing of his duty.
The fuel cost was not the issue. Even if I would not have liked it, I would have accepted it if he charged us properly. After all, he said it, that that fuel was not included. What upsets me is the way he did it, getting 30-50 USD more out of us, charging a premeditated amount of 200 USD instead of what was actually consumed.”
Then I wrote something about money. I don't know exactly why, but to me this is very important. I don't want money myself, but I don't want people whom I believe did not deserve the money they got, to keep that money...
“I said money is not the issue, and it really isn't. I don't want money, what I want is to see that Jean-Claude has understood the above. On the other hand, I don't want Jean-Claude to keep the money we gave him, because I believe he definitely did not deserve it. So I don't know... In such cases I offer the person to pay a charity, somebody else. I think it's the best way to solve a money dispute. That neither party gets it, but it is given to a third party. My choice would be ihfonline.org , a place I've found after long research and feel I can trust. But of course Jean-Claude can give that money to someplace in Madagascar to help the country. I know he'll be spending the money in Madagascar and it will be going to the economy there, but I wouldn't want him to make use of it for himself. I'm sure you have the authority to make him do it, or the creativity to come up with a different solution to satisfy both ends.”
Gavin wrote back saying he was going to talk with Jean Claude during the week and would get back to me.
The week passed. I didn't bother. It is travel season, people might be busy. Two weeks passed. I still didn't bother much. These things take time. Then three weeks passed. I felt like dropping a line. Gavin got back to me saying he was following up with Jean Claude. He had the phone call, and then gave Jean-Claude time to absorb the feedback. Okay.
However, the rest was disillusionment. I try to understand their perspective. I understand that they are a business, that Gavin is doing things on behalf of a company. Still... I suppose that's where I have an issue. It was once again all about ToursByLocals, how great they were and what standards they expected for their customers and not about the right way to do things, a general moral and ethic code to follow in interactions with any tourist/guest.
Also, he got to the main point of his interest in taking up this issue. My removal/retracting or updating of my post! I understand, it is normal for him to expect that, but it makes the whole thing a big disappointment for me. My shoulders sank. Because I am not after interests, I am after integrity!
Here is Gavin's email, emphasis is mine, and my comments to him in parenthesis:
“I am happy to say that I have been able to reach a consensus and that Jean Claude has accepted the learning opportunities presented by the feedback you provided to us. I am truly grateful for this opportunity to connect with Jean Claude and to reinforce the expectations of ToursByLocals and our customers."
(To me, this should have been “to reinforce the right way to do things with tourists/guests.” Any tourist, any guest. Not only your customers.)
"I have advised Jean Claude that we would of course always expect him to include fuel costs (and any other such expenses) in the overall tour cost for any ToursByLocals tour; this is in fact part of ToursByLocals model. ToursByLocals customers would always expect all expenses to be included and/or disclosed on their booking form and we would never expect any of OUR customers to be overcharged or blind-sided by extraneous costs in the way that you described."
(Again... The only emphasis is on ToursByLocals customers. No guest likes unexpected expenses. Besides, Jean-Claude includes the fuel cost in your tours anyway. I was expecting you to tell, to instruct him the right way to charge fuel if it's not included. Come full tank to the airport, fill up the tank while leaving. It's simple.)
"I have also discussed the incident at the airport car park in detail with Jean Claude and have made it very clear that it is our expectation that he will always do everything in his power to warn and protect our customers against unscrupulous vendors or other 3rd parties."
(I'm sorry, this disillusions me so much. Why is it always about the person involved and not in general? It's ethics, it's morals, these are universal values. Guides are there to protect guests, it's an integral part of their job. Jean Claude has to always do everything in his power to warn and protect anybody who is visiting his country, not only his customers either, against unscrupulous vendors or other 3rd parties.
When I worked as a guide, I mean even when I wasn't working, even as any simple local, we interfere if we feel a tourist is being cheated upon by some local. It's just basics. Basics of being a host.
Plus, he was our guide. What's more, I asked if it was a scam. I mean, think about it. Imagine, you are in your country, there is a tourist family next to you and they ask you “Is this a scam?” It is only natural you'd say “What's going on?” and ask those people. Jean-Claude, let alone doing that, just brushed it off with an “I don't know,” and went on checking his phone! It's INEXCUSABLE!
And may I say, writing now and thinking about it again, it seriously makes one question if he was in on this scam.)
"This was a very important matter for us to clarify with Jean Claude as we would always expect our guide partners to utilize their local knowledge to enhance our customers' trip and to avoid any such unpleasant experiences. Jean Claude has assured me that going forward he will be vigilant to ensure that ToursByLocals customers do not find themselves in such situations."
(Again... To ensure ToursByLocals customers do not find themselves in such situations! What about other people? You just seem to say it's fine if others find themselves in such situations. This is what I call integrity, what I've been trying to say. That you are fine with your guide putting other people in such situations as long as your name is not involved.
Of course you cannot surveil him for his private customers but you could definitely tell him that he be vigilant with all his customers, all guests in his country not to find themselves in such situations.)
"I am satisfied that Jean Claude has taken my feedback on board and that he is moving forward positively and professionally from this incident - I have full confidence in his ability deliver 5-Star tours for ToursByLocals in future."
(Again... The 5-Stars service only reserved for ToursByLocals customers! Jean-Claude delivers 5-Star tours for ToursByLocals anyway. The problem is he should be delivering the same 5-Star for anyone, even without any authority over him. Perhaps I am expecting too much. But that's my goal. To have people behave the right way even if it's not in their interest. That's why, as you might have seen on my website, I am campaigning for freedom of movement even though I have nothing to gain from it myself as a holder of a European and a Muslim passport. It's about doing the right and just thing.)
"I did advise him that I believed it would be appropriate to make a financial gesture to apologize for the lack of clarity regarding the fuel costs; however, to be honest, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to pressure him or instruct him to take certain action with funds that are not associated with a ToursByLocals transaction. But I did advise him of the promo code gesture we had already provided to you and he was happy that we had done so."
(To be honest, I do think it is appropriate for anybody who has the power to pressure anybody who has done wrong. My child may be an adult; if I believe she has done wrong, I will be pressuring her to correct herself, to make up for it. I won't say “She is an adult, I cannot interfere.” I won't try to wash my hands off, I will take a stand. The stand on the right side, the just side. Of course, if it was something disputable, if Jean-Claude had denied the issue, if you had any doubts regarding my claims, then it would have been unfair to expect you to pressure him. But it's not the case here.
Plus, it's not the “lack of clarity of the fuel costs”! It's the sneaky way it was done. What's more, the more important financial gesture to apologize for is not the gas money, it was his lack of service, falling behind/failing miserably in his duties, the nonchalant way he answered and let us be swindled.
As for your advising him of your promo code gesture code.... Why would you do that? This gives the signal that you have already covered up for his mistake and he doesn't need to do anything more about it. I'm sorry to say that that is NOT the case. I had told you it was highly unlikely that we'd be using that code as we stopped travelling for some time. Under these conditions, we will definitely not be using the promo code, you may cancel it. Promotional gestures are exactly what they are called, they are for promoting your company, not really compensating the customer.
I understand you are partners with Jean-Claude. You work together. You make him money, he makes you money. We are just someone who might be a potential for you but he is your main partner, the person you need to look after. And I understand very well that the reason you are interested in this issue is the negative post about you, that as a 5-star company you don't want any negative thing on your name.)
"I trust this concludes this matter, and I am glad that you have given us the opportunity to fully address these issues. I am so happy that this has changed your perception of ToursByLocals and that you would consider giving ToursByLocals a chance to impress you in the future too."
Ah, he trusts this concludes the matter; he is the one to judge if the matter is concluded, not us, not the party who suffered the damage. He has done his part, so let's get to what I have to do in return!
"I would also be very interested to know if you are considering updating or retracting any of your comments regarding ToursByLocals on your blog. As I do appreciate and agree with your statements regarding integrity - I am in fact very grateful to be part of ToursByLocals as I can confidently say from my experience that we are a company that truly values integrity and honesty, and that we live and conduct our business by this philosophy. I would appreciate it if you could let me know your feelings on this matter and if you agree it would be appropriate to clarify the comments on your blog in anyway?
As always, I am at your disposal - please let me know if there is anything more I can do."
So he had done all this only in the self-interest of the company!
I said I'd certainly be updating my blog. But the issue was not concluded for me. I wrote:
For it to be concluded, I need two things:
You say you are satisfied that Jean Claude has taken your feedback on board and that he is moving forward positively and professionally from this incident. I take your word for it, yet I have to see that this is the case for myself as well. I was looking for something concrete from Jean-Claude himself instead of you. I was expecting some evidence, something in writing, either from your exchanges or better yet, a message to us from Jean-Claude to see that he really got the points I was trying to make.
And the second... As I said, he doesn't need to refund us necessarily, but he certainly needs to refund that money. Given his responsibility and unacceptable responses it should be more like all the money he earned but he should refund at least a 100 Euros. Or more appropriately 150 Euros. That's how we feel.
And we don't feel this is unfair the least bit, given that we are not asking him to give back much considering he got paid very handsomely for his services which involved two gross faults. There is no compensating for all the trouble we went through and all the time I wasted writing all these emails to you and the posts. As I said, it's not as if we are asking him to pay something he has not already received a lot of. Just to give back a small bit of it which he has not deserved. Only then, will he have showed that he has taken responsibility for his “shortfall” let's say.
This was Gavin's answer and my replies to him in paranthesis:
"Thank you for your thoughtful response; and certainly, yes, it is our hope that our guide partners will of course learn from the ToursByLocals' best practice which we try so hard to instil and maintain for every ToursByLocals tour.
I do believe that guides who join ToursByLocals benefit from the experience of delivering tours for our customers, and I would certainly hope that our business practices will have an ongoing positive influence on how our guide partners conduct their business with respect to both ToursByLocals and any other endeavour they pursue in their private life.
However, it is important for me to maintain this distinction and to be conscious of what requests it is appropriate for me to make of our guides; and as I said, in this case I do not agree it would be appropriate for me to pressure Jean Claude to take any certain action with regards to his private funds which are not associated with a ToursByLocals transaction. This is simply the dynamic of our partnership in which we respect our guides’ private commitments which they may have outside of ToursByLocals."
(I understand you Gavin. Nobody puts any pressure on anybody if they have a symbiotic relationship, if they have an interest involved. Nobody ever does. So my expecting you to put any pressure on Jean-Claude would be very unrealistic. I suppose you couldn't do any more than what you did without hurting your own interest. And why should you hurt your interest for something the person you work with did to someone who means nothing to you? I understand, it's no concern of yours. Not beyond the “stain”, a negative comment on your name on the internet.
Still, you didn't need to comfort Jean-Claude and take credit points for yourself by telling him you provided a promotional code for us. I understand, it is whatever gets you credit for anything you give away. That was just a good move to promote your business through a customer, plus strengthen Jean-Claude's bonds and loyalty to you. Two birds with one stone. I'm sorry I'm not the bird who falls for those stones. I understand perfectly well where your loyalties and your interest lies. This doesn't make you bad of course. It just makes you pragmatic and businesslike. And it makes me despair more. One more layer added to my unsuccessful tries with institutions. I understand asking for integrity at the cost of one's interest is asking for too much and it is only the rare few of those like me who do that. Perhaps I care about this so much because I grudge that I have given up so much for my integrity and principles. Or because the world is not a place for the likes of me. Or because I am left so alone...)
"Thank you again for your considerable efforts to provide feedback and enact positive change - your dedication to moral and ethical improvement is admirable. As per your request, I have cancelled the promo code previously provided to you and have instead arranged for the funds to be donated to the International Humanity Foundation."
(Thanks for arranging for the funds to be donated to the International Humanity Foundation. But again, I still have difficulty in understanding. Okay, I take your word for it but I'd never expect anybody to take my word for such a thing and I'd have provided a receipt to back up my word when I made such a claim to anybody. Why is it so difficult to do something properly without the need for prompting? And you probably are the best of the best possible. At least you care and respond. At least you tried to do something whatever your motivation may have been. Thanks for all your efforts.)
I left the most significant part of Gavin's response for last.
"I believe I have fully addressed the issues you have raised about Jean Claude, and as I said, I am confident that that this has been a learning experience for him. I believe everybody is capable of making mistakes and is entitled to a second chance. I do not believe it is necessary to pursue this matter any further with Jean Claude; I have accepted his contrition and I am happy for him to now move forward positively from this incident."
(Yes, I agree, everyone is entitled to a second chance. After they make up for their mistake. You are not the father paying for the window your son broke. Jean-Claude is an adult and he faces the consequences of his actions.
And what he did about the scam is NOT something light. Coming up with excuses, trying to shift the blame on us by saying ah we exchanged money through his friend is not acceptable either; let alone that, it's more outrageous. It's total bs trying to whitewash.
You may be “confident that that this has been a learning experience for him”, I am not. As I have not seen or heard anything from him.
You say “I have accepted his contrition and I am happy for him to now move forward positively from this incident.”
Sorry??? You have accepted his contrition??? You are NOT the person to accept his contrition! He did not violate your contract, your trust, he violated ours; he did no damage to you (I mean apart from getting your name involved indirectly), we suffered the damage he caused. Sorry but you have no right to accept his contrition in our name. Only we have that right. And we have not accepted anything as we have not seen any gesture or heard any word of redemption from him.)
This is so important, so so important that I cannot emphasize. Whenever someone does something wrong, they should make up for it, they should make amends. To the person who has been hurt. To the person who has been the object of the damage, the one subjected to the damage.
As far as I know, or as far as I don't know that is, Gavin might not have talked to Jean-Claude at all. How do I know he did? I mean of course I believe him. But I have no single proof, no single evidence that Jean-Claude got what I wanted him to get out of this incident. But Gavin writes:
“I am satisfied that Jean Claude has taken my feedback on board and that he is moving forward positively and professionally from this incident.”
Oh good, I am glad Gavin was satisfied! So it was about the satisfaction of ToursByLocals after all from the very beginning and not mine! Their satisfaction is enough! And Gavin's satisfaction with Jean-Claude understanding should be enough to satisfy me I suppose.
I'm sorry... It doesn't work that way. I know I am hard to satisfy. I know I am expecting too much. But I am not actually asking for much. I am not asking integrity over self-interest from people who are struggling to make a living. I do not expect a poor man to act with integrity at the cost of his and his family's well-being. But yes, I do expect integrity from people, companies and institutions who are well above the standard. I expect integrity from people, from companies who can afford it.
I do not blame the people who actually swindled us. Why? Because as much as it is not correct what they did, as wrong as it is that is, I believe they needed the money. Sure, there are other honest ways, but not always available to everyone. Sure, there are people under dire circumstances who do not resort to fraud, scams, thefts etc. However, I still have clemency for them. (Don't get me wrong, I'm not condoning them, I'm not condoning any cheating, BUT, yes, no, I do not blame them. At least not as much as I blame people with means, people pretending to be civil doing wrong things.)
For Jean-Claude, I don't have it. Giving back some of the money he has made a lot of was not much to do. As for ToursByLocals, I'm not sure if their involvement served anything. What did Jean-Claude get out of this incident? Of course I don't have any knowledge of the conversation between him and Gavin, but what I gather from Gavin's account is this:
“Oh, okay. Even if it's not a ToursByLocals customer, whatever I do may get back to me. But, ToursByLocals will cover my back.”
The exact opposite of what I wanted him to get:
"I should be careful with every single one of my customers, not just ToursByLocals; otherwise, I might be losing my bread."
I believe Gavin should have pressured Jean-Claude to pay us (or any ONG), made him write to us too. Or alternatively, he could have provided me their phone conversation recordings. Some kind of solid feedback to make me see Jean-Claude got what I was trying to say. The best would have been, of course, Gavin writing to Jean-Claude, and BCC me, so that we could discuss it openly. With Gavin doing the intermediary.
Was he obliged? Sure not. Would it have been nice? Sure yes. Should that be a standard? I sure do believe it would help for a better world if things were done like this in every area. Courts and the justice system is just so crap. Howard Zehr's “Changing Lenses” should be standard compulsory reading for everyone at school, our methods for solving conflict/clashes should be updated.
Would such a thing have damaged ToursByLocals relationship with Jean-Claude? Probably yes. Still, as I said, I think companies can afford that. They should be able to put their interest at risk for doing the right thing. They should impose right behavior on their employees. Anybody who has any power should impose right behavior. Actually, it works in the other direction as well. I believe people should be resigning from their jobs if they witness the company they are working for is doing unethical business. So anybody who interacts with someone acting wrong should cut contact with that person/company if they do not correct their ways.
Perhaps I am wrong. But I feel this strongly.
Whatever... I seriously do not wish to deal with such things any further. Life is too short to spend trying to correct all the wrong in the world. Yet I know I cannot just accept and shut up. I need to speak my truths. Only then can I have a quiet mind.
So now, with your permission, I go on with my life.
Moral of the Story: Nobody puts any pressure on anybody if they have a symbiotic relationship, if they have an interest involved. And we will never achieve civility, civility in its true sense that is, unless we can overcome this obstacle and put integrity above our interests.
There is a very nice answer from Paul Melhus, the founder of ToursByLocals about their response to a challenge with a guide in an interview on Leisure. They are a 5-star company, if there is any lower evaluation for a guide they take it seriously. What's more, they even go further. They see how many customers provide feedback. Because people generally do not bother to comment if the guide is not especially good or especially. ToursByLocals seriously seek perfection, at least in theory, that is what they aim for.
“We’re not into average. We’re into awesome.”
That is such a nice and strong statement. I really wish they had owned up to their aspiration and showed they were into awesome.