When the Customer is Wrong, What Do You Do?

Last Updated May 19, 2011 6:34 AM EDT

Yvonne Hall thought she's booked a one-way rental from Miami to Valdosta, Ga., through Priceline.

She thought wrong.

"When the confirmation returned it was originating and ending in Miami," she says. "I contacted Priceline within minutes to ask it to adjust the terms of my rental. They said they'd get back to me within 12 hours."

But no one got back to her, she says. Hall asked me to help her get her $500 back â€" after all, a deal's a deal.

"Please help," she told me. "I have been through the wringer with this one."

All is not what it seems
When you see an ad for Priceline, you could be left with the impression that it sells airline tickets, rental cars and hotel rooms on the same terms as other travel sites.

But that's not always true. When you use its "Name Your Own Price" service, which offers deep discounts, they're completely non-refundable. It turns out Hall had booked a "Name Your Own Price" rental. Unlike other rentals, which don't even charge you until you arrive at the counter, Priceline had billed her credit card when she clicked the "buy" button.

And one other detail: "Name Your Own Price" cars can't always be booked one way. So while Hall may have believed she had a one-way car, she in fact did not. It wasn't available at that location.

Businesses face this kind of situation routinely. Their customer is wrong, and they know it.

And because it is a popular discount travel site with unusual restrictions, Priceline gets requests like Hall's more than the average business â€" hundreds, and perhaps thousands every week.

Here are its options:

Tell her she booked a nonrefundable rental car -- take it or leave it. Hall agreed to the terms and conditions when she booked her rental car. Although this won't make Hall happy, it is fair to all of the other Priceline customers who may have had buyer's remorse but were stuck with a nonrefundable purchase.

Offer her credit and let her rebook. Priceline could have allowed Hall to cancel her reservation and reuse the credit for another one-way rental, not through "Name Your Own Price." While this would be a little tricky, from an accounting point of view, it would allow Priceline to keep the money and Hall to get the car she thought she was getting.

Refund the car. Of course, Priceline could also refund the entire purchase. Sure, Hall made a mistake. But won't the goodwill generated by the return encourage her to give Priceline another chance, and even to recommend the site to friends and family?

Update: Priceline refused to refund her money, citing its policy.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.

Photo: y-cart/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.