Creating a hierarchy

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"How many of you have people in your agency who shouldn't be there -- and how many of you feel like you're held hostage by those people?"

Roughly one-third of the audience at the seminar on Agent Growth, held at the recent ASTA Eastern Regional Conference in Bermuda, raised their hands to answer this query in the affirmative.

"We're not in business to provide employment but to make profits," presenter Dick Landis then reminded the audience of agency owners.

Dick LandisLandis, an industry consultant and former owner of Travel Agency Management Services (TAMS) the Wayzata, Minn.-based agency networking group, also presented a TAMS plan for managing and training agents.

"The industry has had an ill-defined hierarchical structure," he said in this document, called Agent Growth.

"Almost every agency has an owner, a manager and the rest. Most [agencies] are of insufficient size to justify the existence of a formal hierarchy, and in fact ... [have] no formal delegation of authority/responsibility guidelines."

Addressing this lack, Landis suggested developing a system of four levels of agent advancement: new hire, agent trainee, associate and senior agent.

"Agency owners should make the hiring process an ongoing one" so there's always an opportunity "to upgrade their staffs. Historically, agencies have hired as an emergency measure and the quality of the process has been less than productive, at best," said Landis.

New hires undergo a 30- to 60-day indoctrination period during which they're required to "become fully familiar with all office equipment and procedures"; help out in the accounting department to learn about the problems that occur there; complete a course in telephone skills and spend a couple of days acting as a receptionist; begin courses in basic, non-CRS computer skills, and "provide evidence that they can write a normal business letter."

According to Landis, "agency owners should be vigilant at this phase to weed out those who do not show evidence that they are willing and anxious to get through this phase quickly."

Once these steps are completed, new hires can be advanced to the trainee level, with "appropriate fanfare!"

"Some ceremony will demonstrate the seriousness with which the agency holds these standards of performance."

Growing your agents

More on the next three levels of agent advancement in the Travel Agency Management Services' (TAMS) Agent Growth program (see story at above):

  • Agent trainees can be assigned to a senior agent for mentoring. For the first three to four months, they should "act only as support for that person," doing routine tasks to help the senior agent with productivity.
  • Landis' Agent Growth report is in ASTA's Eastern Regional seminar book. Trainees will then assume reservationist duties, still "in close proximity to their mentoring agent. They should have weekly evaluations and be aware of productivity goals" as well as complete the Travel Agent Proficiency test.

    Agents should remain at the trainee level for not more than 12 to 18 months. "If they have not mastered the skill levels required in that time frame, they should be considered for replacement."

  • Agent associates "will continue to be mentored by a senior agent but not as closely as when they were a trainee." Agents in this category "should be expected to advance to senior levels, but it should be recognized that sustained performance at this level is adequate and acceptable for some. It should be emphasized that although agent associates can elevate themselves to higher levels, they cannot go backward. Failure to sustain productivity levels should result in termination."
  • Before attaining senior agent status, associates must demonstrate "exceptional skills and loyalty as well as substantial productivity. They will continue to hone management skills because it is from these ranks that managers will be chosen."
  • Defusing the air powder keg

    If you sell cruises, I think I'm safe in saying that the vast majority of your client complaints have to do with getting to and from the cruise product -- and not about what happens aboard the ships.

    When you book a cruise with air included, you are providing a travel arrangement over which you have no control.

    Richard TurenThe contract airline receives passenger names about 30 days before sailing and scraps around for the best available seats at the lowest possible fare base. Your clients might be forced to get on flights with one or even two stops.

    To provide better service, many cruise agents now routinely include or discuss the option of an air deviation, which enables them to request specific air booking changes (which still may be turned down) for an additional cost of $35 to $50 per person.

    The air decision is the powder keg of most leisure bookings, the part most likely to explode without warning. That is why you should consider a requirement that all agents recommend the air deviation option. "Air deviation discussed and accepted/refused" might be a good phrase to include on a cruise invoice.

    Richard Turen is an industry consultant and travel agency president. Contact him at [email protected].

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