That customer service sinking feeling

My wife and I are driving over to the UK next month, so I went online to the P&O Ferries website this afternoon to make a booking for the trip across the English Channel from Calais to Dover.

I’ve used P&O’s online booking system many times before and it’s definitely the easiest way to sort out your travel arrangements.

Today, though, the website was misbehaving grandly. The end result was that, after I got through the various screens for choosing sailing times, etc, entered the credit card info and hit the submit button, the resulting response page simply said “Server error. Return to home page.”

Uh-oh. Was the booking actually made? Did the system get the payment info? Where’s my booking ref?

So I call P&O’s number here in Amsterdam which, after drilling through some menus on the voice response system, gets me routed to the UK where I encounter a very pleasant and friendly customer service agent.

Yes, she has the booking info so the computer captured that. Not the payment info, though, which I guess corresponds with the server error. A simple matter, then, to just give her those details.

Not so. Can’t do it that way. After she talks to her supervisor, she says she has to erase the booking (that’s the phrase, not cancel it) and start again.

Ok, so I give her all my details again. I did wonder that obviously the customer service folk manning the phones don’t have access to the customer records from the online bookings database: my info is in there as a profile. I had to point out twice during our conversation that my outbound route is Calais to Dover, not Dover to Calais which she mentioned.

She then tells me there’s a £2 ‘administration fee’ for making a booking via phone. Excuse me, I say, but the only reason I called you is because your website crashed, so I’m not too keen on that admin fee idea.

She agrees that my point is a reasonable one. So I ask her to confirm that the price I’m going to pay is exactly the same as the price quoted on the website, to which she says yes.

So we conclude the transaction and I get my booking ref. She then asks me for my email address. Great, I think, confirmation by email. Er, no, she says. No email confirmation. The system can’t do that. But can I have your email address? she asks again.

My lighthearted response that I assume this means I’ll be bombarded with e-mailings for evermore by P&O and, no doubt, ‘carefully-selected partners’ was met with a slightly stony silence. Anyway, I declined to give the address saying that if there wouldn’t be a booking confirmation by email, what was the point. I think I could hear a smile then.

So, how do I feel about P&O, that experience with their website and with customer service on the phone this afternoon?

  1. I’m not entirely confident that when I show up at the dockside in Calais next month to get on the car ferry, that the person who checks me in won’t say “Uh, my computer shows that you’re sailing from Dover today…”
  2. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that the charge which hits my credit card is £2 more than I’m expecting (I will know that in a day or so when I check my online credit card statement).
  3. While my experience today hasn’t really affected what I think about P&O as a company, it’s certainly left me with little confidence in their online booking system or their customer service system. This means that I may well use a competitor (Sea France, for example, or even Eurotunnel which isn’t my favourite way of travelling across the Channel) for my next trip if the competitor’s online booking system actually works. But I suppose I ought to tell you sometime about my interesting experiences with Sea France’s online booking system which, by comparison, make’s P&O’s look like a wonder of IT innovation.
  4. All of my concerns would likely vanish entirely if I received confirmation by email of what was agreed over the phone. Such a small thing yet big in terms of customer satisfaction and confidence. Airlines do it – every booking I make with KLM or BA always results in a detailed automated email confirmation – so why not P&O?

The bottom line for me today – I have a rather sinking feeling about my forthcoming trip with P&O. Pun entirely intended.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Janine

    Interesting. I too was trying to make a booking yesterday, from here in The Netherlands, with P & O ferries, and kept having problems with “unknown error encountered”. OK, so my booking was not straight forward, I was trying to book one person outbound from Dover, 2 people and a cat inbound, and of course the system could not deal with this. So I rang directly to the P&O UK website this morning (I suspected it would be easier than calling via the suggested Luxembourg number) and got through to a very friendly person. The booking was duly made, but with no mention of a 2 GBP booking fee, so I too look forward to seeing my statement. She did try very hard to sell me an upgrade to a special lounge, she did ask if I belonged to the AA, and she wondered if I wanted a cabin, but no mention of a booking fee…….

  2. neville

    I had those sales pitches too, Janine. Clearly part of the customer service script. Fair enough, but I declined those as well.

    Re the Luxembourg number, P&O does have a local number in Amsterdam (020 201 3333). The good thing about that is that while it does route to the UK, you’re only paying for a local call.

    So it looks like we’ll both be checking our credit card statements!

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