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Written by Samantha on October 7, 2020 Share on

Handling refunds during Unprecedented times

On a not so fine morning, when the entire world had been hit with the COVID 19 pandemic — it’s no doubt that things in a travel company would have been quite a bit of topsy turvy. Things at Pickyourtrail was no exception.

Though the first break of Corona had happened in December, the world or the travel industry hadn’t really come to a stand still yet. In fact, in February, Pickyourtrail had a record number of Europe bookings for 2020 summer (We didn’t know then that this also means a record number of cancellations that we would have to tackle later)

It was only in March — when the COVID outbreak happened in Italy, the world got a glimpse of the entire scenario.

On one such morning, Srinath Shankar, one of the co-founders at Pickyourtrail asked if I would be able to pitch in with Refunds and Cancellations. I haven’t had much experience working on the backstage operations and supply. I was predominantly working on the customer facing product side — but that is the best part about working in a start up — the opportunities and learnings are numerous. Even more during a pandemic.

The travel industry on an average only had to handle about 3% cancellations out of total bookings — in the current scenario the industry had to handle an overwhelming 100% cancellations.

And that’s why we call it handling refunds during unprecedented times — and like the word suggests — it was unprecedented. There were no benchmarks, no reading material to learn from, no real playbook to refer — the only thing we had was our core values and our north-star metric — Customer Happiness.

Let me quickly jump into what were some of main challenges that were set in front of us

  • Scale — We had thousands of vacations that had to be cancelled and it just doesn’t stop there. On an average each vacation has about 17 line items. If you haven’t heard about us already, Pickyourtrail is a one stop travel platform which combines multiple API and offline suppliers to plan, customize and book all your flights/hotels/trains/car rentals/activities at one place. Which means one vacation cancellation also meant cancellation through various suppliers and partners. The operational complication was nothing short of crazy
  • No existing Tech — While the entire industry has solved bookings through centralized booking systems (CBS) — Cancellations on the other hand have not been solved through tech fully. As mentioned earlier, there was no need to have solved cancellations for a large scale up till now. Hence cancellations were mostly done through call centers and long laborious ticketing systems
  • Continuous change of policies — Without prior notice, Airlines that were supposed to give cash refunds would change their policy to provide the entire refund as a credit voucher. This literally means the entire cancellation policy for the customer has to be revamped. Government around the world could never plan or announce their policies more than one month in advance — we had to keep adapting and take things as they come
  • Customer Anxiety — Customers were unreasonable, panicking and restless. And sometimes also expected us Travel Experts to answer their numerous queries including when will Corona come to an end. Here’s a little truth — nobody had answers. Uncertainty was the only constant

In short, we had to sort out the chaos while we were in the middle of the chaos.

Nevertheless, we had to act and we had to help our customers. We had to do things that were within our control and keep pushing our limits. With that in place, here are some of the strategies that we implemented at Pickyourtrail

  • Communication. Communication. Communication

As simple and as laymen as this may sound — we knew this had to be the single non-compromisable factor when it came to service from our end. We universally agreed that over-communication was better than no communication. Communications went out from the Onboarding team, Refunds team, Customer happiness Team and even from the Co-founders time to time. Delays were not in our control — but we knew we had to keep our customers informed.

  •  Executing cancellation basis departure dates

We strongly recommended our customer to wait initiating cancellation until the Government policy was issued. Understandably, all our customers were in panic and even those who were travelling in July wanted to cancel in March itself. If we cancelled the flight — there was at least a 40% cancellation charge however if the flight had gotten cancelled due to the situation — customers were eligible for a full refund. While this meant we had to wait till last minute — this was the most beneficial way for the customer. This also worked in giving us some breathing space and made us concentrate on the upcoming month’s cancellation

  • Restructured teams and processes

New teams were formed overnight — folks from across teams were pulled in together, roles and responsibilities decided and new processes were formed. Not to forget — all this happened while we were working from home. These teams had to stretch beyond working hours and had to extend even during the weekends — but the beauty is how the entire team and all the folks at Pickyourtrail really came together to bring this through

Forming a new Recovery team was instrumentalYou know how in banks — you would have a team which would recover bad debts. That was exactly this. We figured soon that a lot of follow-ups were needed for the suppliers to process refunds. Hotels and any line items that were booked as non-refundable had a chance of being recovered at least in the form of credit vouchers. Also in the current scenario, the refund isn’t received until the refund was actually processed to our account. This team had become instrumental in following up relentlessly and ensuring the refunds were processed to us.

  • Did things that wouldn’t scale — Being nimble

We had a product that had solved refunds — but again not solved at this scale. We had to keep reiterating the process. We had to build something that we could adapt easily while fueling us to keep moving forward. At the same time we also built tech on the go — things that helped us operation quicker. We also used google sheets and other non scalable methods of implementing — and in retrospect it is safe to say it worked quite well.

  • Processing Partial Refunds

Like I had mentioned earlier — each vacation has multiple line item bookings. Which also meant, on cancellation, we did not receive all the refunds for one vacation cancellation at the same time. Invariably airlines were taking much longer to process refunds. We thought it would be unfair to keep our customers waiting to process refunds only after we received all the refunds. While this was a huge accounting nightmare and tax implication — we put the customers ahead of us. We took more operational backlog on us and went ahead and processed partial refunds wherever we could

  • Empathise but not give false promises

This was an important one — our customers had booked this vacation with their life savings and were really looking forward to this vacation. This could have been for their honeymoon or their first abroad trip as a family. It was unfortunate that the entire trip had to be cancelled. Our hearts went out to them — we wanted to help in every way possible but there were limitations. Even though the customer never went on the vacation, the entire holiday has been booked and is being cancelled now. There are operational costs, some minimal cancellation costs, remittance charges and taxes that were incurred. Some refunds were provided only in the form of credit vouchers and some cancellation were unfortunately just not recoverable. We really did and will continue to help our customers in every way we can but we had to ensure that we only provided correct information and not give any false assurances to our customers especially during such an uncertain time

After 6 months of our relentless efforts in Refunds and cancellations — We currently stand at refunds being processed to at least 85% of our customers. The war isn’t over yet but I guess it’s safe to say we have survived the storm.

A break in service was probably inevitable in such a situation but as a team and as a company we did everything we can in the best interest for the customer. We did ideate, innovate and compromise to make the entire refunds and cancellations work.

Could this be a case study when something like this happens again — We hope so

Would we ever want such a pandemic to hit us ever again — Definitely not!

But does such an experience give us the confidence that we can tackle anything that comes our way — Absolutely Yesss!

We know that it has been a really difficult and testing time across industries — more so in the travel industry! And all we hope is for a speedy recovery and growth for everybody!


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