The idea sounded simple enough -- use a Web site to book bed and breakfast facilities in England and Scotland to produce a flexible vacation schedule. The end result was how the Web can turn seemingly minor issues into major ones.

Oh, the vacation ended up extremely well. It just turned out that the technology used in the planning was as much a barrier as it was a help. And therein lies the lesson for businesses of all descriptions.

The endeavor started with difficulty. The instructions were to use the Web site of CIE Tours. Upon logging in, the system recognized key details, such as the arrival date. But the minute I hit the “Make a Booking” button, the system responded with “Microsoft OLE DB Provider for SQL Server error '80040e14' Line 1: Incorrect syntax near '='./search.asp, line 60.”

Informed of this, CIE responded with the famous, “We aren’t having a problem with this system” and “We haven’t had any other complaints.” The company referred me to Discover Travel and Tours, the English company that provided the e-voucher service that CIE utilized. At first, Discover responded with the “It’s working fine for us” approach. I told everyone, “This is not a user error message.”

Before proceeding further, let’s stop for a lesson in pre-Internet customer service.

Lesson No. 1: Telling the customer that nobody else is having a problem or complaining only inflames the complainer. And most people give up, instead of complaining.

Supplied with the error message, Discover then conceded that the two companies’ servers weren’t talking properly. And different entries prompted different error messages -- I was paying to troubleshoot the Web site.

By the way, the only contact with CIE has been by telephone. The company has yet to reply to a number of e-mails sent to its reservation and help desk e-mail addresses. Lesson No. 2. Make sure your contact points actually contact somebody.

After numerous e-mails, and a real “how can we help” attitude, Discover got things on track and we booked seven nights in four B&Bs in England and Scotland. The first three nights went well, but the fourth night in England’s Lake District, a puzzled hostess had no record of our arrival, but had a vacancy anyway. At the next stop, a sheep farm in the hills on the Scottish/English border, a more-puzzled owner told us, “We don’t accept guests during lambing,” but helped find a participating B&B in nearby Jedburgh. The nice people there discovered the cause of the confusion and the fact that the last B&B also had no record of us. Even though we linked through CIE Tours, located in New Jersey, its service, the Discover Web site, used the British date format, April 4, 2004. While 04/04/04 accidentally worked for the three-night London bookings, 04/07/04 through 04/10/04 reserved arrivals on July 4, August 4, and September 4.

And this is the killer error, the kind of cultural error that companies in any field can easily make. The system could have been programmed to flag booking of non-consecutive nights. It could have instructed visitors to use a DD/MM/YY format. But it didn’t. Meanwhile, the various B&B owners were also muttering about the new system, including the fact that instead of getting paper vouchers they now had to call into one of those tortured, automated phone systems. There was a lot of “Discover used to be really good…” talk.

Lesson No. 3. Your reputation as a business can go dive very quickly without you even knowing it until great damage has been done.

And the final lesson? Everything journalists experience makes for good copy. The average unhappy customer tells seven other people. We can beat that average in a minute. You never know who is on the other end of your Web transaction.

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