This was not one of my better weeks.
I found myself spinning in place, buried in paper, trying to adapt to this new process at work for handing a whole new division of our main client – a division that’s completely and never will be, because they won’t ever have company corporate cards. This forces us into an untenable situation – arrange travel (mostly hotels, some air, a few cars) that is completely paid for by the the division, and handle all of these reservations not by phone, but by forms that are either faxed or emailed as attachments to us.
It was described as “easy.” One person per week would be designated to handle all their requests, and the air and car portion really is easy to set up and pay for. The hotels were supposed to be “goof proof,” using a special credit card designated as for direct billing.
They are not.
Problem is, WE know it’s a direct bill card, but the hotels don’t, and a significant fraction of them require more documentation than a bit of verbiage in the reservation comment section indicating “direct bill ghost card.”
It is not “easy.” The request forms are designed to pack a lot of confusing information into the smallest possible print in the smallest possible boxes of a highly colored, backgrounded spreadsheet, and when they are printed in black and white they’re somewhat less distracting but still hard to read.
Up to six people can be booked on each form, not always for the same destinations, dates, or needed elements (some only need hotel, some need air and car too).
The admins and those travelers that submit their own forms are not travel agents and so they don’t know airport city codes. Most often, we get a hotel request with something cryptic for the location like “Hanford” or “Martinsville.” No state, no zip code. Did you know there’s a Hanford in California? I only knew about the one in Washington. One traveler typed something in the “location” box that was so long, it was truncated on the printout. The cell sizes are “locked” so anything that’stoo long is invisible unless you’re looking at the spreadsheet on the computer and click on the box.
When they are faxed, the most critical information is most often a black or dark gray block, completely obscuring the sender’s contact information and email.
Quite often, the same form is sent again and again, with minor changes that are not highlighted in any way. Notations about the changes needed are in the cover email, which most often is NOT printed along with the attachment.
The designated agents find themselves calling on these request forms a lot to clarify confusing information or to advise that a hotel choice is sold out. That’s where they bleed off a lot of time, chit-chatting or waiting on hold or leaving voicemails and waiting for them to be returned.
Late last week, after a month of handing the duty around to just a few designated agents, we started to identify a lot of problems and hear a lot of complaints about the hotels not letting guests check out without charging their personal credit cards. So we kept changing the verbiage we were transmitting to the hotels, which has to be typed manually. This was to avoid having to stop and fax something on letterhead that my team leader had put together. I’ve since modified the form a lot – the letterhead imagesand copy are still there, but now there’s a table into which you can copy and paste hotel address, phone and fax quickly from their property record in the reservation system. The travelers change hotels constantly – CONSTANTLY – either because they don’t like them and check out, or they finish their install or their sales presentation and check out. So I’m seeing the same guys’ names for the same or similar dates, over and over again, for different hotels.
Plus there’s disputes where I have to call the hotel, persuade them to transfer their charge from the traveler’s personal card to the “ghost card,” and fax them the authorization letter. This is mostly for those reservations made before the middle of last week, which was when we realized we really needed to fax every hotel until the great majority of them became used to our process. Previously, this division was using a different agency just to do their direct bills – and the hotels don’t have our documentationon file.
It’s a bother.
Did I mention that we have to use the “new” booking software (I’ll just say it’s a highly programmable graphical interface with many bells and whistles) to do these in? Because this interface is so feature-rich, it’s a total hog on system resources, and proceeds with all deliberate speed (which is to say, not much). Also, the hotel part of it is the worst in terms of finding the properties you want. You have to know where it is to find it, basically, and for all these little rural podunkpodunk, that’s atrick. Even with the fancy global-positioning package it uses to locate hotels by town name, it often comes up blank when my “old,” reliable reservation software finds it fast and truly easy.
The generic template for this division is set up with the special “direct bill” credit card but needs some tweaks. Also, it’s a slow process at the best of times, and these booking forms are so time-consuming to digest and translate into reservations. Much of the time, the hotel specified is not available, and although we’ve got a disclaimer saying “we may substitute a less expensive hotel within policy or book elsewhere due to availability” we’ve found that in practice, the admins don’t really READ theemails we send them and assume that we’ve booked their techs at the hotels the specified
This means that techs are driving up to the wrong hotel, and have no idea they should have gone to the hotel we booked. This would have been avoided had we picked up the phone every time we booked a tech somewhere other than specified, but the whole thing was sold to us as “just book what they tell you on the form, no need to call them, just email them the itineraries.”
It became clear that the single biggest thing driving the problems we were hearing about was some hotels wanted documentation of the direct billing that was more than just a comment from us to direct bill the card used for the guarantee. And they were hassling the techs at check in, at check out, and in between. Since we didn’t know which hotel required it, we were stuck with printing and faxing every single hotel a direct bill authorization letter, on the account company’s letterhead. And as the weekwent on, I took that on, very much to the detriment of my own work.
Meanwhile, I was covering for 1, 2, or 3 people all week long – another reason I couldn’t do my own work.
Monday – covered for groups agent, ticket support agent. Did not get everything done.
Tuesday – covered for ticket support agent, got well stuck in with hotel faxes. Apologized to groups agent.
Wednesday – covered for team leader, support, groups agent again, faxed hotels. Day from hell.
Thursday – covered for team leader, support, faxed hotels. Gradual progress on my own backlog.
Friday – covered for team leader, support, faxed hotels. Spun in place but made progress late in day.
At all times during the week, I was interrupted numerous times or had to break off and do something completely different from what I was doing at any one time, and multitasking was not an option due to the way various tasks do not play well together. I can’t run file finishing programs on records, for example, and do anything else on my computer (email, print faxes, etc.) because the file finishers take focus.
Here’s a list of the kinds of things I can be interrupted for at any time, sometimes several at a time:
- Phone calls from hotel group arrangers wanting to book a new or change an existing group
- Emails, ditto. I tell them all apologetically that I can’t get to any hotel groups until next week.
- Phone calls from international travelers who seem to only want to talk to me and no one else
- Emails, ditto. These can’t be put off until next week, and they usually totally derail me for a while.
- Agents complaining about something not working, errors, password resets, programmable keys.
- Agents calling to tell me some long-winded story about this guy with this problem at a hotel
- Have to drop everything and print up an authorization letter for this guy with this problem, etc.
- Walk to printer, walk to fax, make sure acknowledged from hotel fax machine, file and document.
- Call hotel and speak to human, document fax acknowledgment with name and “OK” problem fixed.
- Talk to team leader covering for my TL about call stats and the backlog from the “easy” division
- Walk to desk of designated agent doing “easy” bookings, drop off fresh requests
- Pick up one or two “finished” request sheets after dropping off 5-8, some with multiple names
- View with alarm the backlog stack on agent’s desk, which is getting taller, not smaller
- Realize with some horror that agent is spending a lot of time documenting, calling, chatting.
- Encourage, beg agent to just pump them out, offer tips for more efficient handling of requests
- Panic inside, think about the many emails and messages from “my” groups and travelers pending
- Repeat all of the above several times
- Go through several ticket support queues after several requests from other agents needing stuff.
- Print tickets, do refunds, issue invoices or send to file finishing programs as the case may be.
- Troubleshoot records, identify typos or other errors preventing something from ticketing or invoicing.
- Waste time here and there kvetching and moaning on phone to sympathetic callers.
- No more kvetching! Nose to the grindstone! No more inefficient popping back and forth!
- 2 minutes later, realize it’s been a while since went through email catching up on changes
- Find a bunch more urgent requests in email for same day, received in late afternoon
- Wonder if blood pressure medication can handle it; wonder what “lunch” concept is about.
- Check queue for more hotel reservations needing authorization letters (my idea, that worked well)
- Print emailed requests, print hotel authorization letters, pick up and go to fax machine
- Find several more new incoming requests that were faxed and are therefore nearly illegible
- Fax authorization letters in a batch, leaving them ready for a return visit for acknowacknowledgments
- Drop off new requests to designated agent (at least 7-10, with multiples on each)
- Pick up 2 finished request sheets from agent, listen to how time-consuming each one is.
- Commiserate, panicking inside, think “need to make a change here, need TL guidance.”
- Speak to covering team leader and get agreement to change designated agents.
- Advise designated agent to take calls and relax, since they’re celebrating something today.
- Speak to new designated agent, who is speedy but leaves early every day, give big stack of sheets.
- Repeat all of the above – print, fax, distribute, read email, use “shotgun” approach on easy stuff.
- Bid farewell to deliberate agent, who is leaving us to get married. Sorry I screwed up your last day!
- Bid farewell to speedy agent, who is leaving for the day, take remaining sheets and hand off
- Brief the new new designated agent, who is not speedy, but not slow. Give sheets. Pray.
- Return calls when possible – actually do some hotel groups of my own (one for next week!)
- Send several records for ticketing, but will realize later about half will fail for weird reasons.
- Check queue for more hotel reservations, set up authorization letters, print, fax, file (15 or so)
- Feel sense of relief that backlog is being beaten back into next week or later. Thanks, agents!
- Discover a number of request sheets from May 1 required air reservations, but travel date is farther in the future so the original designated agent had marked them up and collated and sorted them to farther down in the pile where they wouldn’t have been worked until next week
- Hear scuttlebutt from several agents that some travelers and arrangers have called numerous times screaming for their air reservations – find all pending sheets with air reservations, pull from pile, put on top of stack for immediate attention, make sure they get booked and ticketed.
- All through day, take calls from “high volume” request sheet senders resolving problems
- All through day, think about how to improve process so it’s less labor- and time- intensive
- All through day, think about how my many unticketed international reservations require callbacks
- All through day, think about hotel groups that I haven’t been able to work on for a week or more.
- All through day, think about how every night this week, have left work at 8pm, 9pm, 930pm.
- End of day. Late-working agents depart. At last, blessed quiet! Too late to make callbacks, though.
- Work after hours, catching up on personal backlog, issuing tickets, checking error queues
- Call husband, advise coming home Real Soon, get order for Chinese takeout.
- Go through all critical queues, including overnight emergency queue, looking for “easy” records
- Find several records in emergency queue regarding “easy” travel needing authorization letters
- Print final batch of authorization letters, more than expected because last agent caught up some.
- Print final batch of request forms that can be left until Monday, leave on team leader’s desk.
- Mark up problem requests, customer service issues resolved, and leave all on team leader’s desk.
- Clean out personal queue, find a number of tickets that didn’t issue, fix and issue manually.
- Bitch, moan, complain, swear under breath (actually, this is a constant during the day)
- Chat in Spanish with housekeeping guy about being tired and having too much work
- Call Chinese restaurant and order
- Go home.
I’ve got several ideas for how this ridiculous process that I saddled myself with could be semi-automated, and one of them has to do with the email program we use at work. As it happens, David runs a discussion list for users of this program who are also programmers on the midrange computer that is his area of expertise. He will put the word out to find out if there’s a way to get the file attachments to print automatically. I’ve already got it set up to filter the emails from a generic inbox to my own and myteam leader’s inboxes, but then all the emails have to be physically opened to and then the attachments opened in order to print them, and that’s the tedious part. I can “batch print” the cover emails all at once, ,but most of them don’t have special notes so it’s a waste of paper.
Another thing is if I didn’t have to make the trek halfway across the office to the printer, it would be less wear and tear on me and the carpeting. My TL has her own printer and originally was doing all the printing, and then I cover for her when she’s out but have to use the “shared” printer that’s between my desk and the even more distant “shared” fax machine. I told her Monday it was ridiculous for her to spend all her time printing requests and authorizations, so here I am doing it – and it really isan all-day job. Today, someone brought me a printer to be directly connected to my computer – oh joy of joys – and it’s a fax printer too. However, it’s missing the power cord and the phone cord, and it’s somebody’s castoff and I’m told the “fax part is busted.” Maybe Monday, I can find the needful things to hook it up. I’ve got the cable for it, at least.
If we could get this old and busted fax printer hooked up and working, that would be a huge time saver. Based on what I know of the new division, buying a new fax printer is probably not in the cards, so I’ll take whatever I can get for now. If it only prints, that’s a help.
If we could get or have access to a fax-to-email program, for those happy few, those band of techs that don’t have email with which to submit their approved travel requests, I would be one happy agent. That would solve the problem of the illegible faxes that get scuffled into the “general” pile and buried at the shared fax machine.
There was no file system for the sheets in place when this began a few weeks ago, and they are in a pile that is now 10 inches high. We are waiting for some fancy file thing that my TL ordered. It’s probably the box that’s been sitting at her desk since just after she left. She has a number of completed sheets and “problem” files stacked all over her printer and monitors. I had found a numbered accordion file for her, and it was still unused, so started putting just the faxed authorization sheets (with “ok”transmission acknowledgements) in each numbered pocket by arrival date. It’s to be cleaned out monthly, ie., when we reach June 1, all the sheets for May 1 will get filed in a 12-month file. Or thrown out, as the case may be. There’s not room to put the request sheets and all the fax acks together in the accordion file, I think. I was originally taking the time to collate them all together, but can’t do that and get anything else done.
Now, the agents are putting all hotel records they book on a holding queue. I print the authorization letters from there, and move the records to a second queue as I go. Anything in the second queue has been printed and is being faxed or waiting for the fax acks to print. I document and remove from the second queue asacknowledgments fax acks come in. When I manage to work efficiently and not send to a wrong number, the records are in the same order as the letters, as are the acknowledgements. It allcomes together beautifully in the end, and then the letters and acknowledgements are stapled and put in the date file. I’ve learned to keep the acknowledgements because sometimes the hotel wants a re-fax if we call them to extend the tech’s stay. ARGH. Why you do this?
A small, a very small number of hotels have refused to honor the request for direct billing in the reservatiion comments, and also refuse to honor the faxed authorization letters, and have to be called and cajoled. Most of them eventually agree to the arrangement, though they may ask for a slightly different authorization letter to put in their permanent files or binders. A smaller number of THOSE require that we fill out a form of their own that they insist on faxing to us. Some of them flat refusethe direct billings in any way, and the techs will remember the agony and embarassment of having to pull out their personal credit cards knowing that it’s a pain to get reimbursed. However, the admins won’t remember those specific hotels are to be avoided and won’t warn against them on future requests, so we’ll have it all to do over again with some other hapless tech that happens to stay there.
I’ve designated a “customer service problems” queue for my team leader to review on Monday. By coincidence, I co-opted a queue she was using for the same purpose for a previous project that has now ended.
The admins I’ve spoken with have all been satisfied once we’ve worked out a resolution – there is one lady that will be a tougher nut to crack, but we hope that the process will improve and the angst be reduced.
Meanwhile, the persistent cough is with me always. One night – one of the days from hell – it got very bad again and I wondered what the hell was going on – I was taking all my prescription meds?? Then I realized that it must have a stress trigger, too. Dammit. So amidst all of this, I have to work even harder to keep an even keel, laugh things off, and make friendly and supportive noises at all times to all cow-orkers.
This is not in my nature, the interpersonal schmoozing. I’m good at laughing things off, but can let things get away from me to that point that nothing at all is funny when constantly fielding questions, calls, and demands for action or help. I cried like a baby, a big fat blubbering baby, on Monday night. And that was with my team leader still in town!
David has been my rock. But then he was out of town Sunday and Monday, hence the blubby baby act. I went home to an empty house, getting there at about 1015pm after stopping for gas, Wendyburger, and more goddamn discount cough drops from Walgreen’s (I’m on my third bag of 100).
That’s about it. Oh – and what the hell is with the price of gas all of a sudden???
I’m going to bed.