When you call up travel agencies in anger, remember that there’s a person on the end of the line – me

Knowing that I would be walking back into a storm and dealing with people who were angry day-in, day-out, was incredibly daunting (Picture: Ella Byworth for

‘Charlotte, if I could kiss you now, I would,’ he said.  

I couldn’t help but smile. The lovely gentleman on the other end of the phone must have been at least my 30th customer that day, but as a sales consultant for holiday company TravelUp, not all my phone calls are so positive. 

When he told me he would leave a review saying how helpful I’d been, I could have cried with gratitude.  

Like many people, I had conflicting emotions about going back to work when I returned to the office on 1 June. 

On the one hand, I was ready to be busy again and I was excited to see my colleagues after being on furlough since the beginning of April.  

On the other, I was very anxious. The travel industry has been in the news every day in the last few months with problems mounting up around refunds, cancellations, and quarantine. 

Knowing that I would be walking back into a storm and dealing with people who were angry day-in, day-out, was incredibly daunting. 

I had never worked in customer service or refunds before. Pre-coronavirus, my role was to sell holidays but, with tens of thousands of customers requesting their money back and very few booking trips, we all had to pitch in. 

I was dealing with systems I wasn’t familiar with, and even though we were given training and warned it would be tough, I couldn’t get away from the fact that I was being thrown in the deep end. I was really scared of saying something wrong or failing. 

The first four weeks were as hard as I had envisaged. The volume of enquiries was so high that all customers had been directed to get in touch via email and contact forms, after which we would call back, prioritising them by the date of their order. 

It was the right way to do it but, ultimately, people want the reassurance of speaking to another person. Unfortunately, that can turn into frustration towards the person at the other end of the phone, especially if a customer had already been waiting weeks, or even months. 

Our call centres in the UK and Pakistan were closed at the height of the pandemic and there was no choice but to put people who weren’t due to travel until later this year at the back of the queue.

Near enough every customer started their call by venting for five minutes about how long they had been on hold, so often conversations began from a place of anger. Most started wanting to know what their options were and usually ended up requesting a refund. 

I was still taken aback by the way some people spoke to me. The toughest conversation I had happened a few weeks ago. From the moment I answered the call I could tell that the customer wanted to intimidate me. He told me that the law was on his side (almost everybody who phoned up seemed to be a ‘solicitor’) and that I didn’t know what I was talking about. 

I’m not sure if that customer realised that one bad conversation is what you remember even if you’ve had 30 positive ones, or if he just didn’t care

In those situations it isn’t so much what people say but the way they say it. His condescending manner made me feel utterly worthless. I’ve never cried at work but that was the first time I had to take myself out of the room and calm down.  

I’m not sure if that customer realised that one bad conversation is what you remember even if you’ve had 30 positive ones, or if he just didn’t care. 

Emotionally, it is quite draining taking call after call for hours and saying the same thing over and over again – we have a script to follow on email, but not on the phone. 

I always try to get to know a bit about the person I am speaking to, where they are from and what their background is. Empathy is a must; it’s a worrying time for customers so I have to show I’m truly there to help.   

I try to look at things positively and think that the sooner we get this all fixed, the sooner I can get back to selling holidays.  

I work on commission when I’m doing that so I’ve suffered the financial impact of the pandemic, too. I am taking home about £500 less each month, which is a lot for me. It has forced me to be responsible with my money though, and as my partner works too, we are getting by. 

One lady I spoke to was not so lucky. She had booked a flight with Kenya Airways, and as they fall outside the EU, they aren’t bound by the same rules that entitle EU customers to a cash refund.  

She had the option to re-book or accept an airline voucher, but Kenya Airways were not offering anything beyond that and she had lost £5,000. 

I felt so awful for her that I gave her my direct line. She kept calling me in tears, explaining that she was high risk and couldn’t realistically book new flights. I wanted to help her but ended up stuck as the middleman between her and the airline. It does take mental strength to be the person that delivers bad news.  

Eventually, she accepted a credit voucher to use at a later date, and I let her know that I’ll be available to help her rebook when she is ready. 

I am careful who I give my details to. A couple of months ago, somebody created a Facebook group that criticised TravelUp, and customers would ask for your full name and then post it on the group to try to put pressure on you. That was really scary – some of my colleagues were targeted and I worried about people getting in touch with my family. Thankfully the group was taken down. 

Things have improved a lot since lockdown has eased and we have been able to process more requests. I would say that nine out of 10 calls now are constructive, and ultimately people just want to hear a human voice. 

I try to put myself in their shoes and think about how frustrated I would feel if I had lost money on a holiday and was faced with so much uncertainty. 

In July, around half a million Brits were set to lose the entire cost of their holiday when Spain, the Canary and Balearic Islands were added to the Government’s  no-travel list. Further research from GlobalWebIndex reports that 31% of Brits asked have had to delay their holiday and almost a third would only consider re-booking in four to six months. 

People just want you to be honest with them, and once you explain how much the travel industry has been affected, I think they start to understand the pressure we are under and that we are really working as quickly as we can to help.  

Some people have even apologised over the phone for the emails they wrote, saying they regretted how aggressive they had been and had forgotten there’s a person on the other side of the screen. 

There are real positives to what I do at the moment, too. I am a chatterbox who loves getting to know people, and I get to speak to people from all over the UK about their lives.  

I feel really lucky to have my job. Having colleagues and managers who are so supportive in such a difficult time has made a big difference; now I just want things to get back to normal so I can start selling holidays again, instead of refunding them.

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