I was interested to read an article last week on a new entrant into the market offering the opportunity for people to become an agent and work part-time with absolutely no experience needed.
I, as I’m sure others did, raised an eyebrow of concern. Not for the fear of competition, but fear for those who may join on that proviso and, most importantly, for their customers.
The company’s argument was that by working outside of what we would traditionally call the standard working week – including the option to run a travel business as a second job – the new recruits are meeting customer demand. I wholeheartedly disagree.
Working flexibly and with agility is an option many in this industry support. Our focus must be on creating outstanding booking and travel experiences for our customers, which means we cannot simply shut-up shop at 5.30pm on a Friday afternoon. We’re there for our customers whenever they need us – such is the advantage of flexible working, being your own boss and nurturing a loyal client base. The most successful agents are the ones who are flexible for their customers as opposed to themselves.
The next sticking point comes with the idea of not needing to be an expert, nor have any experience. I can use a packet mix to make fairy cakes, but it doesn’t make me Mary Berry.
Being an expert takes training, knowledge sharing and experience. It takes passion, some knockbacks, patience, practice, time and, ultimately, care. Lots and lots of care.
The tragic events in Sri Lanka alone should highlight that being a travel agent isn’t a part-time job. Providing a constant human point of contact is not only essential customer service in times of crisis, it’s simply the right thing to do.
From a travel supplier point of view, we recognise it makes good business sense to investigate and create relationships with new agents in the market.
However, I believe working with many part-time agents is going to create a bigger cost base ultimately for the supplier (at a minimum), or more likely a worse experience for the customer.
Maybe some suppliers have lost sight of what you pay agents commission for. It isn’t just to “refer” a booking, it is to refer the right customer to your product. It is to service the numerous queries pre-travel and amends that customers may make. It is to be there and offer support when things sometimes go wrong.
I’m sure most people in the industry would agree with this view. Delivering amazing travel experiences is not a hobby, despite the fact we get a great amount of enjoyment from it.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t offer a warm welcome to people and experience from outside of our industry. At Travel Counsellors, we have a 32-week market-leading training course doing just that.
Progressive change will happen, but change must always support the best interests of our customers first. It’s a responsibility and a duty of care we should all take very seriously. Caring for our customers is not, and should never be, a part-time job.
Kirsten Hughes is UK managing director of Travel Counsellors