If you are reading this column, you may be either doing the most difficult job in travel and looking after customers, or supporting those people on the frontline looking after customers. I say the most difficult job because it is the one with the most responsibility.
A business exists to find a customer and get them to stay with it – and, for many, to use that success to make a positive difference to its wider communities and society.
Historically, many travel businesses used a high street presence or a marketing department to find customers, and it was the responsibility of the agent – in a shop or call centre – to convert the prospective customer into a booker. The agent was the booking engine. The power of the impression left by that agent with the customer, alongside the holiday experience itself, determined whether that customer would return.
As businesses got more mature in capturing data about customer preferences, marketeers could augment that first impression to get customers to rebook.
With the development of the internet, some businesses began using data and technology to remove the need for the sales agent: the company’s marketing activity found the customer, the technology enabled the enquiry to be converted into a booking, and advanced – yet impersonal – marketing sought to develop a digital relationship with the customer.
But that story doesn’t give the full picture. It doesn’t take into account those agents who do such a good job of caring for their customers that they don’t need the company’s marketing or shop premises. Everything a customer chooses to book with their personal agent, they could also book online, but they choose not to do so because they like the person in the travel company they do business with. In fact, they like each other so much that they often become friends for life. The customer loves the care they receive and the agent loves the job they do.
The fundamental building block for this model to work is for the person who does the most important job – looking after the customer – to be empowered and trusted to make decisions about what is right for the client: which holiday choices to offer, which suppliers to use, what prices to offer, what margins to make, which words to use when dealing with a customer and what hours to work to meet the needs of the customer and their personal life.
Clearly, support will need to be in place both in terms of people and parameters, but the essence of creating a travel experience under this caring model is trusted to the professional.
So empowerment is fundamental to caring and building trust between people, between customers and sales people and between employees and brands. And that is not unique to travel. The most successful businesses that believe in the role of the human being as part of the sales process are such because they trust their sales people to make the important decisions.
Steve Byrne is chief executive of Travel Counsellors