We had a very unpleasant experience with Jean-Claude, a local tour-guide in Madagascar. We had booked Jean-Claude privately through a personal suggestion and later found out he worked with ToursByLocals. For those who do not know, ToursByLocals is a peer-to-peer travel company connecting local guides with travellers.
During our trip, Jean-Claude said that ToursByLocals provides counsel when an issue arises with a customer; hearing this and going through their website I was impressed with their attention to quality and perfection. I wrote and told Jean-Claude to discuss the matters that caused our conflict with him and ask their opinion if he didn't believe or agree with my points. I had no doubt that ToursByLocals would be backing us up on both issues: how to do the fuel cost and protecting customers from being hassled.
But it was obvious he was not going to consult them. So I took it up on myself to inform ToursByLocals. The answer I got was this:
“All the guides on our websites are independent guides who are provided marketing through our websites. As a 5-star company, we provide assistance to assurance to all travellers who book tours through our website about the standard of service and experience they will receive.
While we take all claims against our guides seriously and we will monitor Jean Claude's behaviour in the future, we have no authority to provide any compensation for tours not booked through our website. I suggest that you take this up with the company that you booked your tour through, or if you did it directly you will have to take it up with Jean Claude yourselves.
It is a shame to hear of your disappointing experience and in future, if you book through ToursByLocals we will ensure that a 5-star experience is given.
I wish you luck in being able to sort your issue.”
I couldn't help the snigger. Wish me luck in being able to sort my issue?!! What a disingenuous, feigned wish is that! Nobody ever pays money back unless they are very honest and they wouldn't have done such a thing in the first place if they were honest. We live in an age where even the big companies making the big bucks resort to cheap tricks with the bills, TIM charged me 15 Euros for 10 KB of downloads even when my billing type was not supposed to be like that. Get it back from them if you can. You just let it go because it's not worth your time and energy. That's how most companies work today.
I underlined the important sentence in their answer. Yes, it is a shame to hear of my disappointing experience. It is a much much bigger shame that ToursByLocals tells me so openly they will ensure a 5-star experience if I book through them and do not care if their guides cheat people not booking through them! I am in awe, with disgust.*
May I say I was not much surprised but disappointed by this response. I wrote back:
“From your message, I get it that you are saying 'We do not care if our guides cheat their customers while working privately, as long as they do not cheat our customers and we make sure they cannot and do not cheat our customers anyway.' Is that right?
I'm supposing it's not. And I'm sorry if I couldn't explain myself very well again. We are not looking for compensation, we already took it up with Jean-Claude even though we were sure he wouldn't compensate us at all. He got the money, why should he be giving it back? Nobody really ever does apart from very quality companies. Not even the big name ones. As long as there is no threat to his earnings and no sanction from a higher authority, no reason for Jean-Claude to do it.
I did NOT write to you to sanction him, but to advise him on the matter of calculating gas money, as I am sure it is general knowledge how it is done with renting a car and you'd confirm what I have told him.
Also, I wrote thinking you might advise him that it is his duty to take care of and watch over his customers. This is no light matter. Being scammed while with a tour guide, especially after we have asked if it was a scam. You can be sure, if we were alone, that never would have happened. It was Jean-Claude's duty to keep unsolicited hordes of people away from us and we trusted him.
We wrote to you because we believe you would not want bad publicity for one of your tour-guides on travel groups and on the internet, we believe it's not good for one's reputation to be associated with such people.
We wrote because from your values, we thought you'd want to work with people with integrity.
Thank you for your concern anyway.”
I did not hear back from them again. Not that I expected to.
Moral of the Story:
Jean-Claude doesn't resort to cheap tricks when working with ToursByLocals, he knows he will get a negative return on it, he knows he will have to pay the price of his cheap trick. He cannot risk his means of livelihood. He will never act the way he did with us when working with customers of ToursByLocals.
So where does this leave us?
a) We either always have to go through sites that guard our back in case of a problem, paying them 20-30 % extra. Which may be fine. You may think of it as an insurance of some sort. After all, they are adding value to your experience by finding trustworthy guides and making them behave.
b) We take our own risk and pay for any mishaps.
I'll be honest with you, as I always am... As I said, I heard about ToursByLocals through Jean-Claude, it was not vice-versa. So it wasn't that I stole their guides going around them. Had I known ToursByLocals before booking Jean-Claude, I still wouldn't have booked it through them. Even taking into account the amount of money we paid extra for fuel and got swindled, we are still in the plus.
So was it wrong of me to write to ToursByLocals and expect them to help me out in this situation?
I wouldn't say so... I am a strong believer in integrity and for the right things to be done. I had some hope that a company like ToursByLocals would have integrity and sort out the issue by advising Jean-Claude. I was wrong. No big deal. I tried. All life is an experiment and experience; you test people and companies. I sure won't recommend ToursByLocals to anybody even though they might provide value.
It's not fine for a big company to say “It's fine with us if the people we work with act 'wrong' or immorally, as long as they do not act that way towards OUR customers.”
Perhaps I am asking for too much. Companies, after all, are institutions set up to make profit. They are not supposed to be moral. Perhaps it's my high standards that do not align with the realities of the world. Oh well... It almost never does. I got used to it by now, and came to accept it. Still... I cannot help but wish for a radical change of mentality in people and institutions.
Please at least say “Amen”.
Even if it is hoping for the impossible...
* Upon re-reading this piece some time later on, I realized I was too harsh. 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.
Please read the update on ToursByLocals and Jean-Claude, Self-Interest versus Integrity to see how this ordeal progressed and ended.
PS: Please also read Scandal at Booking. The giant company who keeps on working with a business doing illegal transactions. They just shush the rare customers who realize the disguised sneaky swindle by giving them a refund. Then, It's business as usual.