New mission statement for agents: 'Why?'

By Arnie Weissmann

Arnie WeissmannFormer System One president Bill Diffenderffer once compared mission statements to wallet-size photos of one's children: "You take them out and show them around, but nobody else really cares." When you look at yours, however, it keeps you future-focused and makes you proud.

I thought about that recently after viewing a video clip of Simon Sinek, author of "Start With Why," speaking at the TED conference. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It's a nonprofit group that convenes the brightest, most inspiring minds of our day and gives speakers exactly 18 minutes to express their ideas.

If you're not qualified to attend TED (one has to apply just to sit in the audience) or can't afford it (entrance fee: $6,000), you can watch videos of the presentations on the organization's website (www.ted.com). Exploring that site always provides a sure dose of inspiration, as well as nourishment for the brain.

Sinek doesn't talk about mission statements, but his clip suggests that the successor to the "mission statement" might be the "mission question."

He describes what he calls "the Golden Circle," composed of concentric rings. The outermost represents "what," the middle one "how" and the center is "why." Most companies are pretty good at describing how and what, he says. It's the "why" that gets ignored. (He anticipates a typical response to "why?" and pre-emptively notes, "I don't mean 'to make a profit.' That's a result.")

Sinek points to Apple as an illustration. Most computer companies' sales pitches, he says, stick to "how" and "what": " 'We make great computers, and they're beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. Want to buy one?' "

This is uninspiring. Apple begins with "why." " 'Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. Want to buy one?' "

And we buy, Sinek says, because this pitch resonates in the limbic portion of our brain. It is the nonlinguistic center, the seat of our feelings and, importantly, where we make decisions.

On the other hand, it seems to me that most mission statements simply lay out intentions in the flattest of language ("We will maximize shareholder value. We will treat our employees with respect"). Language disconnected from feeling doesn't reach the part of the brain that moves us to act.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to inspire in part because he began so many sentences, "I believe," Sinek says, which gets straight to the part of the brain that responds to emotional rather than logical appeals. King "gave the 'I have a dream' speech, not the 'I have a plan' speech," Sinek notes.

I thought about Sinek's clip while speaking with Vacation.com CEO Steve Tracas at his organization's 12th International Conference and Trade Show in Orlando last week. I wondered if the "why" of travel agents might surface.

We spoke for some time about the "what" and the "how" of the present agency-supplier relationship. He said he understands that suppliers must make independent decisions they believe are best for their own businesses, and he respects that. But many of these independent decisions, in aggregate, result in pressure on agencies, and the full weight of these independent decisions might actually endanger the agency business model, he believes.

Suppliers could end up inadvertently creating instability across all products and "choke the golden goose" that brings them both their greatest volume of customers and their highest yields, he said.

Tracas wishes suppliers would better understand the impact of their collective initiatives and ease up on additional pressures or, better yet, relieve pressure. He points to the initiatives of two of his preferred suppliers, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.'s ASAP program and Viking River Cruises' decision to go all-inclusive (i.e., all-commissionable), as moves that recognize agents' challenges.

His analysis raises an interesting question: Does a business owner have the luxury to focus on "why" when the present environment is one of constant change and challenge?

The answer, I believe, is that focusing on "why" becomes more necessary in times of challenge, change or even crisis.

While the specific "why" will vary from agency to agency, it might end up being an emotive refinement of the following views expressed by Tracas during our conversation:

"I can't help but think that a well-educated channel that can talk about the details of a ship, tell [clients] what it means, is a necessity," he said. "Or look at the airlines, look at United. You check in at a kiosk, and it asks do you want more legroom for $35, and you click no. If an agent says, 'You can have more legroom, board first and make sure that you can have access to overhead bins, and it's only $35,' I can't help but think [United would] get a lot more sales."

In other words, Tracas is saying that, unlike kiosks or websites, agents are in a unique position to communicate with a client's limbic brain. Restated into a "why," it might come out as, "I believe my agency transforms people's lives through travel."

Whether it's providing the perfect cruise for a family to reconnect, exposure to culturally enriching experiences or removing a traveler's worry about having enough overhead space and legroom en route, agents are in the best position to engage travelers and motivate them to act.

In other words, "I have a dream trip" presents a much better proposition to suppliers and clients alike than "I have an itinerary."

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter.
This column appeared in the July 5 issue of Travel Weekly.

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