Sales rep heroes

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Sometimes, it seems, the glass is really half full. When we asked agents to write in with stories on what's best and worst about working with supplier sales reps, we got -- surprise -- a selection of faxes and e-mails from retailers, all celebrating their favorite reps. No one chose to address the negative at all. So it seems that even in the face of corporate cutbacks and decreased visits from suppliers, there are still some heroes out there.

Agents who wrote in say that if you need some help, these are the right names to call.

Sheila LeBlancFor example, there's Sheila LeBlanc, district sales manager at US Airways Vacations (the only company affiliated with an airline that agents mentioned). LeBlanc "saved the day" for Merle Toon, a travel consultant at Aquarius Travel in Canton, Mass. The problem: Toon had booked a group of six to New Orleans, but when she checked on documents for three of her clients, she was told their bookings had been canceled due to lack of payment. "I had called in a credit card for payment, but for some reason it never showed up," said Toon. Of course, flights were sold out or available at a much higher rate than the original.

Desperate for help, Toon called around at US Airways Vacations and finally was told to contact LeBlanc. "She called me back within 24 hours and managed to get my clients on another flight. We saved the booking, my clients' business, and us from a possible lawsuit," said Toon.

LeBlanc is a 12-year veteran of the industry, based in Franklin, Mass., who covers all of New England for US Airways Vacations. She services more than 2,000 travel agency accounts. "The best part of the job is my relationships with agents," LeBlanc said. "That's what keeps me going."

Toon also celebrated Marilyn Dean-Emmett, her Holland America rep. "I had an $11,000 booking to Alaska that I almost lost to an agency on the Net because it had a lower rate than I'd first offered the client." Dean-Emmett was able to get Toon a rate for her clients that was actually lower -- by almost $2,000 -- than the Internet agency's. "I retained the booking, as well as a big, fat commission check," Toon said.

Professional but humble

Samantha HammerEnthusiasm, a willingness to go the extra mile. These qualities aren't yet extinct in supplier sales reps, according to Grace Opolski, general manager of Leucadia Travel & Cruises, Leucadia, Calif.

For example, she praised Samantha Hammer, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based rep, as "professional but humble." Hammer is an independent contractor for AIM, the company that handles field marketing for Avis as well as such suppliers as Sheraton Hawaii and Universal Studios Hollywood. "Our agency is a leisure agency, and once I mentioned to [Hammer] that Avis, on the leisure side, tends to be more costly," said Opolski. "She passed the information on to her manager, and during the next visit, she made sure to bring me coupons and upgrades for Avis, which showed me that she'd listened to me and had acted upon my complaint."

Hammer, who works with 218 agencies in San Diego, said she's come to know most of them very well. "So many of them don't have somebody they call on when they have a problem," she noted. "The industry has lost the idea of service." Hammer does give good service "because I feel a responsibility to the people I represent, and to myself, to do something of value."

It's a nice feeling to be able to help someone," she said.

The best service

Stacy FletcherStacy Fletcher, Mid-Atlantic sales manager for Couples Resorts and Swept Away, working out of Aston, Pa., is another supplier sales hero, praised by Denise Whitmoyer, a travel consultant at the Travel Store, Royersford, Pa. "If we're putting a group together and somebody has a special request, she always calls the hotel directly to ask if her contacts can do us a favor," said Whitmoyer. "She always comes in to update us on her products, and if we call her with a question, she almost always knows the answer -- or she'll get back to us within an hour."

Fletcher's 10 years as a travel agent have a lot do with the good service she gives the agents in her territory. "I know they don't need an answer in three weeks. They need an answer now," she said. Fletcher moved into the supplier side when she realized she wanted to stay in the business but still needed a change. "Now I have the chance to work with a really educated client -- the travel agent," she noted.

The better the sales rep, the more the agency will sell her product -- a phenomenon noted by Vicki Cox, owner of Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Burlington, Wash. Her favorite is Seattle-based Michelle Ott, a multiline rep from Comprehensive Travel, a company that reps World Explorer Cruises, B.C. Rail and Rocky Mountaineer Rail Tours. "Her enthusiasm for all the suppliers she represents pumps up everyone in our office," Cox wrote. "She will call or fax my office with special offers and encourage us to promote them. Never is there a word of discouragement, only encouragement for a job well done."

Cox said it's surprising that Ott is a multiline rep, since, she noted, most of those reps "breeze into the office, drop off their card and a zillion brochures for suppliers that we don't even sell. They are usually too busy to provide training -- and seldom return calls. "But Michelle comes in and does training, sometimes on a one-to-one basis. She often has the suppliers call us direct. Her [ability to] follow through is wonderful."

Efficient Web searching

So you're checking out luxury hotel options in Nice, and you decide to see what you can find on the Web. You go to your favorite search engine, type in Nice hotels -- and get a million choices.

There are ways to narrow the Internet search efficiently, according to a piece by Matt Lake in the Sept. 3 issue of the New York Times' weekly at Circuits section. Here's a summary of tips from the article:

  • Know the difference between search sites to find the kind best suited to your needs. First, there's the directory version, such as Yahoo!, which is best for researching general topics. Then there are search engines such as Hotbot and Alta Vista, which work best "when looking for specific information -- things like the author of a book," Lake wrote. The third kind of site does the broadest search, providing the user with a list of choices culled from other Web search sites. Called metasearch tools, they include such sites as Metacrawler, Ask Jeeves and Dogpile.
  • Read the instructions for each site.
  • When using the search box, "type in several relevant words instead of just one or two," Lake wrote. "In general, the fewer words you enter, the more general your results will be."
  • Put phrases in quotes -- for example, "Strawberry Fields" to tell the search engine that you're looking for a phrase instead of two separate words.
  • A critical look at search sites

    The New York Times article on efficient Web site searching also critiqued 11 Web search sites. Yahoo (www.yahoo.com), for example, is "excellent for researching broad general topics but tends to return too many results."

    Ask Jeeves (www.askjeeves.com) is "an excellent beginner's site that's also good for anyone's general queries." Infoseek (www.infoseek.com) "produces very accurate and relevant results" for those "searching for Web pages, news stories and Usenet postings." Metacrawler (www.metacrawler.com) is "excellent for getting a quick hit for what's out there," canvassing seven search engines and then tabulating the results.

    Better, faster surfing

    For more tips on how to surf the Web more efficiently, check out the following books and articles:

  • The complete text of the Sept. 3., 1998, New York Times piece on efficient Web searching, "Desperately Seeking Susan or Suzie NOT Sushi," written by Matt Lake, at www.nytimes.com/circuits. This article also includes favorite search engine picks by assorted Internet-savvy experts, including film critic Roger Ebert, who writes a movie column on Yahoo! Internet Life magazine.
  • "World Wide Web Searching for Dummies," by Brad Hill (IDG Books; $24.99).
  • "Internet Search Techniques," by Karin Rex (Ziff-Davis Education).
  • "Finding It on the Internet: The Internet Navigator's Guide to Search Tools and Techniques," by Paul A. Gilster (John Wiley; $24.95).
  • "Searching Smart on the World Wide Web: Tools and Techniques for Getting Quality Results," by Cheryl Gould (Library Solutions Press; $40).
  • "Researching Online for Dummies," by Reva Basch (IDG Books; $24.99).
  • "Secrets of the Super Net Searchers," by Reva Basch et al. (Cyber Age Books; $29.95).
  • "Search Engines for the World Wide Web: Visual Quickstart Guide" (Visual Quickstart Guide Series; $16.95)
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