The worst words in travel? ‘To better serve you’

to better serve you

When she hears the words “to better serve you,” Elizabeth Newcamp cringes. That’s because in travel, it often means the exact opposite.

“It’s used to make bad news sound like something I want,” explains Newcamp, an event planner based in the Hague. “How does it better serve me that your phone menu has changed? Or how am I better served by a change to your baggage fees?”

Airlines, car rental companies, cruise lines and hotels are serving up “to better serve you” with greater frequency.

“To better serve you”? Maybe not

For example, Frontier Airlines wants you to sign up for its email newsletter “to better serve you.” Also, so it can send you its latest fare deals. Princess claims its new Ocean Medallion, a key to your onboard digital identity that communicates your needs and wants, was created to “better serve you.” But knowing what you want also allows it to sell you more.

Sure, “to better serve you” can still mean what it says. But increasingly, it feels like a way of sugarcoating unpopular but lucrative policies and practices, like surcharges, convenience fees or restrictions designed to make you pay extra. But don’t worry, there are ways of telling whether the phrase is a genuine welcome – or a veiled warning.

What “to better serve you” really means (mind the split infinitive)

Traditionally, when a travel company says it’s doing something in order to better serve you, it’s meant as a statement of empathy, says Dave Wilton, an English professor at Texas A&M University.

“The company is doing or going to do something that inconveniences the consumer, so the company is attempting to claim a common ground,” he explains. “It’s working toward the goal of making life easier for the consumer.”

And to be sure, some travel companies still use the phrase in the traditional way. When Tom Peyton says he’s doing something to “serve” his customers, there’s no hidden agenda. His company, Kids Sea Camp, places representatives on location with families in order to better serve them, according to Peyton, a vice president for the company.

“We’re family-friendly,” he says. “It’s what we do.”

Travelers don’t believe it

Some travelers believe the phrase when they hear it, too.

“Mostly, I take ‘to better serve you’ at face value,” says Ayo Sopitan, who works for a venture capital firm in New York and travels frequently. For instance, when Hilton offers a guest survey in order to better serve him, he believes it. And that’s especially true if they listen to his feedback.

“I have heard the phrase in the context of maintenance,” he says. “They shut down the pool at the property I was staying in so they could serve me better if I ever come back there.”

But that is the exception, not the rule.

Whenever Virl Mullins sees “in order to better serve you” in emails from Delta Air Lines’ loyalty program, it is inevitably followed by a change that benefits the airline, but not him – an increase in redemption levels, new restrictions or a customer-hostile policy. Mullins, a retired executive from Lakewood Ranch, Florida, and a lifetime “gold” level frequent flyer, says Delta has treated him well over the years. Except now, when he’s trying to redeem his hard-earned benefits or is trying to get the flight times he wants on an award seat.

“When they say, ‘in order to better serve you,'” he says, “It seldom does.”

What to do about “to better serve you”

You don’t have to be an extreme frequent flyer to be offended. Jeff O’Hara, a meeting planner from New Orleans, still bristles when he thinks of the way American Airlines has presented recent changes to its boarding procedures, expanding them to nine distinct groups. It was done, he recalls, “to better serve” customers. It did not.

Ellen Hillery, a travel agent from Medway, Massachusetts, agrees.

“‘In order to better serve you’ means the customer is about to be inconvenienced and charged more money,” she says.

In fact, experienced travelers have begun to interpret the phrase as ominous.

“The notion of better serving you couldn’t be more self-serving,” says Michael Brein, a psychologist and frequent traveler based in Seattle. “It’s all about the bottom line, pure and simple – nothing more.”

How do you know the phrase is a welcome or a warning?

It depends on the context.
If the phrase is preceded or followed by something that actually better serves you, and is explained as a benefit, then you can believe it, says Kristin Fintel, who owns the Chehalem Ridge Bed & Breakfast in Newberg, Oregon. For example, Fintel has a check-in window between 3 and 6 p.m. for incoming guests rather than a check-in time, to better accommodate guests.

Watch for corporate-speak.
The travel industry often pens fake “to better serve you” in sterile language. Jim Brown, a former publicist for TWA, says he almost never used the phrase. “In my 25 years, I never once tried to get away with using that phrase unless it was an actual expansion of service,” he says. Today’s airlines don’t bother to draw any such distinction, he says.

Pay attention to the platform.
If someone tells you in person – not in a recorded conversation or online, but in person – chances are it’s legit. If someone conveys the message in writing, be wary. It could mean the opposite.

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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