Who's crazier -- agents or their clients?

By Charlie Funk

Charlie FunkWe've all had them: moments with clients and other agents or suppliers that are amusing, hilarious, frustrating or even left us shaking our heads with incredulity.

While mystery shopping other agencies as we sought to learn more about our competitors, I called on one that was promoting a big band cruise. I advised the agent that I was 63, my wife was 61, and we had never been on a cruise.

In short order, the agent advised that an inside cabin with upper and lower bunks was what we would want. The agent said the ship had seven layers, but that wouldn't be a problem, even though we were on the bottom layer, since there were elevators to get around. The agent went so far as to comment that being on the bottom layer was actually an advantage, since if the boat capsized we would be closer to the surface.

We received a call on the last Friday in October from an anxious client flying out on Sunday. The time on the ticket was 7 a.m., and since daylight saving time ended on Saturday night, were they supposed to be at the airport at 7 daylight time or regular time? It took a few minutes to explain that the time on the ticket was the time in effect for the day of travel.

A client from Paducah, Ky., called on the verge of panic because the Ohio River was flooding, wouldn't reach maximum flood level until the following Wednesday, and her Alaska cruise started on Saturday. How was the boat going to be able to pick her up? She hadn't noticed that they had purchased air transportation and would be flying to Vancouver. While we were happy we could allay her fears about getting to her ship, we resolved to do a better job of explaining itineraries in the future.

A call from someone interested in an Alaska cruise became a classic. It was obvious she had never cruised before but was working hard to come across as a savvy traveler who wasn't about to have the wool pulled over her eyes. Only the first or second week of September would work. And the caller was ready to give the agent a credit card as long as she could "guarantee the glaciers would still be out." My advice to our agent was to get the credit card, because if the glaciers weren't out, we had a lot worse problems than a chargeback.

A good salesperson reads body language. Talking to clients on the phone leads that same agent to train his or her ears to do what the eyes can't. Some years ago, I had a call from a man planning to take his wife on a cruise to Hawaii for their 15th wedding anniversary. As I gathered address data, he fairly gushed about how luxurious the cruise was going to be, how expensive it was, etc. In my mind's eye, he was bragging to someone in the room. As he went on and on, I realized his audience was his wife. Having entered his information, I asked for his wife's first name and her last name. Then I asked her date of birth. Dead silence. As the words "Sir, don't do that!"came out of my mouth he turned from the phone and said, "Honey, what's your birthday?"

In the background I heard a female voice exclaim "WHAAT?! We've been married 15 ..." and he put his hand over the phone. In the background, I could hear her wearing him out. After 10 or 12 seconds he removed his hand and muttered, "I'm gonna have to call you back."

I never heard from him again. 

We moderate a Facebook group on which I posted a request for anecdotes from agent members. Several had tales of strange requests:

  • Train transportation from Miami to San Juan or from the West Coast to Hawaii.
  •  Have the ship stop in Encinitas, Calif., on the way to Catalina to pick me up.
  • Several examples of guys booking family cruises and then booking their paramours a few weeks later on the same sailing.
  • Customer who quit using an agency because Delta ran out of beer between Montreal and Boston following a Bruins game.

Some are sweet, like the lady who received direct mail pieces from an agency and always called on every one to thank them for the invitation but said she wouldn't be able to go on whatever trip was advertised.

Nor are agents immune from telling stories on themselves or others.

  • Agent puts a call on hold, yells out to the sales floor, "I forget -- what's the ocean on the California side?"
  • Same agent announces to the client she has to put them on hold because she has to go to the bathroom, only her wording wasn't quite that classy.
  • A call to a major car rental company with a request to rent a car in Alaska got transferred to the international desk.

And for all the fun times, we have our share of frustrations. A recent reaccommodation for 10 seniors after a flight cancellation led to a two-hour conversation with the airline. Flights that were carefully chosen so that connection time wouldn't include running through airports put the passengers at their destination three-and-a-half hours later than originally scheduled. I don't need to tell you what came next, but no good deed goes unpunished.

We also hear a rising chorus of questions about all the personal data we have to collect in order to register clients for cruises or issue air tickets.

Explanations of airport security procedures have increasingly led to questions about incidents involving Transportation Security Administration officers at checkpoints. Traveler unhappiness and complaints about the TSA are frequent.

It would be unfair to imply that actions of a small percentage of TSA agents represent the norm. But charges of theft from passenger baggage occur often.

All too frequently we read of some incident involving screening an elderly wheelchair-bound traveler or of passengers declining to be scanned and asking for a private pat-down. The reports of being punitively delayed, causing flights to be missed or being, in the words of one passenger, "physically assaulted" or searched "vigorously" seem to be on the rise.

And declining to participate seems not to be an option once the process has begun. Indeed, imprisonment and fines up to $11,000 are possible for walking away from the airport security process.

Such "enhanced pat-downs" might be at least palatable at some level if anyone had ever been caught trying to get through security with a weapon or destructive device as a result of using this procedure. Perhaps that is because the "pat-downs" are ineffective since, according to seasoned law enforcement officials, they are not properly conducted.

No rational person wants anyone to slip through security that might endanger others. But let's agree that if the 85-year-old grandmother in the wheelchair who had to undergo a physical pat-down were to stand up on the plane, one of us husky men could probably take her.

And lest anyone think this is personal, it's all business. We increasingly have clients tell us that for any destination within 350 miles (some say eight hours), they will drive rather than endure the ordeal that air travel has become. If the intent of terrorists is to disrupt an economy and cause our nation and its citizens to spend more money and time, they seem to be succeeding.

It's time for some sense of balance to be restored to the process.

Charlie and Sherrie Funk own Just Cruisin' Plus in Brentwood, Tenn., and have provided agent and agency-owner training throughout North America on every facet of travel agency operations. They are the authors of several books, including "A Recipe for Travel Agency Success," "Creating A Blueprint for Growing Your Agency" and "You're Invited," a complete guide to hosting consumer travel events. 

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