Stuck with an outrageous bill
After completing a recent convention, I received the typical final invoice, which was totally incorrect. I contacted the hotel catering department, which generates the billings within two weeks. But I continued to receive four more invoices, each with an increased final balance due and still incorrect. After the first invoice (the lowest amount due) was confirmed by the catering manager and approved by the convention board members, the hotel insisted we pay the highest balance and charged our credit card the highest amount instead of the agreed amount. This inept accounting made me look incompetent and could cost me my job. What would you do in this situation?
— Carol D., Meeting Coordinator
How to handle a disputed bill
Several been-there, done-that event planners who’ve faced incorrect bills from venues and vendors volunteer some solid advice about how to handle this specific situation — and how to prevent a recurrence. They recommended these four action steps:
- Take your complaint to the top.
- Notify the credit card company.
- Turn your boss and accounting team into allies.
- Next time around, insist on prior approvals.
Take your complaint to the top
Two anonymous event planners offer the same idea: Write a letter of complaint to the hotel owner or general manager, with copies to the head of sales and catering manager. “Provide copies of all documentation to support your complaint and be specific about the refund amount you are requesting,” one says. The other adds, “Pay only the charges you know are accurate (by matching signed purchase orders, banquet checks, ticket counts, etc.). Then, take your time to resolve the disputed charges with the hotel.”
“If you are planning on holding another event with this catering company, use this error to your advantage when negotiating the next contract to get a lower price,” says Arlene George, director of expositions for the United States Sign Council. “You have now invested time in fixing something that shouldn’t have been wrong in the first place, and they should compensate for it.”
Amy Drotar, a senior meeting planner, suggests using the “good cop/bad cop” approach with the venue. “Explain to the hotel that the group is very frustrated, and you are trying to come to a quick resolution so the hotel can get future business from the group. Don’t make it all about you; instead, help the hotel get what it wants by getting what you want.”
Notify the credit card company
Another anonymous planner says, “If the hotel already charged your card, call the credit card company to protest it until you have everything resolved.”
George agrees. “If they charged your credit card, you definitely need to dispute the charges,” she says. “This forces the catering company to prove the bill is correct — and helps with your reputation, since it shows you’re taking an active stand against an incorrect bill.”
Turn your boss and accounting team into allies
Drotar recommends you make your accounting team and the person you report to your allies. “Go to them and explain that you are trying to save the firm money, and you may need their support to get the refunds they deserve,” she says. “Don’t be defensive or act like a victim. Instead, be direct, and provide a proactive solution to the problem.”
Next time around, insist on prior approvals
To make sure this situation does not recur, several planners recommend taking a strong position on accuracy and approvals early on in the process. An anonymous event coordinator says, “It’s commonplace to have some discrepancies with final invoices, so it is imperative you do not leave an event without reviewing, signing and receiving a copy of the detailed banquet event checks. Discuss discrepancies then and there, and if necessary, have the bills revised prior signing off on them. Keep detailed records, and always follow up any telephone communications regarding your event with an e-mail communication asking for confirmation.”
Drotar agrees. “Signing off on banquet orders daily helps address issues before they hit accounting when they become more difficult to fix.” She also recommends including a clause in the contract that protects against credit card abuse. “The clause should say payment can be made by credit card only after the invoice is approved in writing.” Finally, tell the hotel up front that your accounting department will dispute charges on the credit card unless you get an accurate bill and credits within one week.”
As our readers say, a little preventative medicine goes a long way. Take these four steps, and hopefully you’ll be dispute free. Good luck, Carol!