Service of Gagging Customers

May 7th, 2012

Categories: Complaining, Customers, Dissatisfaction, Gagging Customers, Travel, Vacation

gag-rules

In radio discussions after the Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Tuscany, I heard someone say that you sign away your rights to sue when you take a cruise.

That’s not the only place a customer can lose his/her traditional rights.

According to Christopher Elliot, whom Arthur and Pauline Frommer interviewed on their Sunday radio travel show a few weeks ago, there’s a creeping trend in the vacation rental property business to require clients to sign non disparagement clauses. Break the agreement and you’ll be fined.

Arthur Frommer said that he feared the custom would leak into the hotel industry as well. And doctors have begun to ask patients to sign such forms, according to Elliot.

vacation-rentalsIn his post about vacation rental gag agreements, Elliot illustrated what happens with the Darows’ experience. They wrote a negative online review about their Scottsdale, Ariz. vacation rental that cost $3,500 for five nights. A letter from the rental agency which Elliot quoted went as follows: “It has come to our attention that you have written an unauthorized review regarding your stay at a home managed by Progressive Management Concepts,” it said. “If this review is published by VRBO.com, you will be in violation of the confidentiality clause of the rental contract you agreed to when you made your reservation.”

500Indeed, Tom Darow had signed a form that stipulated not to “discuss or disclose the occupancy of the subject property with any entity not bound by the terms of this agreement without the expressed written authorization of the homeowner and the property agent representing the homeowner.” The price of doing so: $500-precisely the amount that appeared on the Darow credit card. Eventually, the Darows removed their review from VRBO.com and got their $500 back–plus a $200 refund.

Wrote Elliot: “The vacation rental industry may be warming to rental contracts such as Progressive’s. Several property owners echoed the sentiments of [Chris] Barski, [Progressive’s attorney] saying that non-disparagement language is the only way owners can protect themselves from negative reviews. ‘Just a small comment can slide a slight negative sentiment to a disaster like, ‘Avoid this house,’ and boom! You could lose everything and go into foreclosure, simply because of that one review,’ says Ken Silverman, a principal for a land development company based in New York who owns a vacation rental property at a New Hampshire ski resort. ‘It would have to be offset by tens or hundreds of positives to not make a difference.'”

And Elliot opened the discussion to cover user-generated reviews, many of them faked and inappropriately glowing to make a property [or a product, book, experience-you name it]-appear better than it is.

He also provided a good reason for a property manager to ask to approve a review-because the writer might disclose information that might “make the rental unit vulnerable to theft,” such as a lock combination or street address.

The solution is simple: Before signing, read the small print. And before agreeing to a vacation rental property, find out whom you can call on the spot if something isn’t right. Call them in advance to make sure they’ll be there when you are coming, so if something happens, you’ll know what to do. The idea is to have zero reason to complain afterwards.

Do you know of other instances where customers can’t share their displeasure publicly without incurring fines or where their rights are restrained in other ways?

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4 Responses to “Service of Gagging Customers”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    It’s no surprise that a shady enterprise or indifferent to incompetent professional would not welcome negative remarks made at his expense. The gag rule for future services rendered should serve as a bright red flag which one would do well to heed by taking ones business elsewhere.
    It pays to read terms and conditions before signing contracts.

    My dentist seeks comments from patients, and follows up each visit with such a request. For the fun of it, I checked his on line references and found over 150 glowing reports. Nice guys don’t always finish last!

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    You echo the blogger’s suggestion that a vacation renter look for a company that doesn’t gag.

    There is also something else you can do–based on what an old friend advised me to do at a hospital. She warned me to read carefully what the hospital asks me to sign because inevitably, there will be a line something like this about who is to do the operation or procedure: “Dr. XYZ or someone he/she assigns.” She said to strike out the “Someone he/she assigns” part and to initial it. Same goes for the gag clause. Strike it out, initial it and get a copy.

    As for your dentist–kudos!

  3. Simon Carr Said:

    Years ago, when I was in my twenties and just starting out, a friend and I rented a spacious, beautifully furnished Georgetown house with a marvelous garden, from the ex-wife of the founding partner of one of Washington’s leading law firms. I am not even sure that we had a lease, and we paid a pittance. She wanted someone in the house for security reasons. (With changing demographics and the rapid growth rate of drug use and of the federal government, the city’s crime rate was rapidly rising.) It never occurred to either of us to misbehave or even to complain about anything. If we had done either, our budding professional careers would have probably been irretrievably damaged.

    Those were different times, and things worked differently. Given today’s “I’m entitled” and permissive society, and the elevated expectations of so many bargain seekers, especially those born since 1960, I am in complete sympathy with both the cruise line’s and the rental agency’s efforts to protect themselves. In the businesses they are in, they would have been fools not to. If their customers don’t like it, they shouldn’t go on cruises or rent timeshares. In my experience, bargains now are often no bargains to live through.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Simon,

    If I were given a wonderful house for almost nothing in a beautiful city like Washington DC you can be sure that I wouldn’t complain about a single thing either!

    But when you pay a ton of money for a stress-free vacation, you want things to be as billed. There are always scammer clients who will say that the windows are two inches smaller than in the advert so they want their money back or a discount because the TV didn’t have the newest gizmos and gadgets.

    I had a horrible time at a Bermuda hotel that was under siege by its labor union. On my return I wrote to headquarters in London and got a favorable response and money back for a service I’d paid for–breakfast and dinner in the dining room–but couldn’t use because the staff was belligerent and the thought of entering the place gave me a stomach ache.

    I can’t tell you what I would have done had headquarters ignored me. There was no Internet at the time and the Better Business Bureau of Bermuda would not have been interested in me but the Bermuda department of tourism staff and travel writers at newspapers and in magazines might have listened. I would not have appreciated being told I couldn’t complain to venues that reached the public.

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