travel agent I had never met e-mailed
a tip for a news story to me recently, and below his name was this
quote: "A client who complains is a client to be cherished!"
Was the tagline sarcasm or simply an atypical outlook? Most
businesspeople I know regard complaints as the unfortunate side
effects of a mistake, and see time spent resolving them as a part
of the cost of doing business.
I called the agent, Chris Nicholas, and asked what the phrase
meant to him. He said it was an old Chinese proverb that a tour
guide had quoted to him when he was on a fam trip to Beijing.
"She said that when clients tell you something is wrong, they're
giving you an opportunity to fix it, not only for themselves but
for all future clients," he said. "On the other hand, a client who
doesn't tell you about a problem may just slip away, and tell his
complaints only to your potential clients."
In other words, as painful as a complaint may be to hear, it's
potentially more painful to have it remain unsaid. Nicholas,
president of Nicholas Travel in Chesapeake, Va., carries that
philosophy to all aspects of his $6 million corporate firm.
He gives clients his personal cell number ("I want to make it
much easier for them to reach me than my competition if there's any
problem"), and his Web site has prominent feedback forms.
"Most of the companies I serve are small -- they do less than $1
million in travel a year," he said. "They can't afford their own
travel department. But we encourage them to think of us as being an
extension of their company, as their travel department. When they
think of it like that, they tend to open up."
He credits this positioning with maintaining a low client
turnover rate. "The average time an agency holds onto a corporate
account is about four years. Currently, we have about 40 clients
and, over the last seven years, we've lost only one. Well, only one
we didn't want to lose."
Nicholas and his wife opened their agency shortly after the Gulf
War. "Travel was just starting to rebound. It was exciting until
about February 1995 (when the first commission caps were
instituted). And then it became really exciting.
"Yes, I was upset about the caps, but I remembered a formula I
once learned: e + r = o. That's event plus reaction equals outcome.
You can't change the event, so if you want to change the outcome,
you have to change your reaction.
"What I realized was that I never really worked for the
airlines; I worked for the clients. That's who was really paying us
all along, and that's where we needed to continue to keep our
focus. That realization not only helped us survive, it helped us
thrive. Last year was a tough year, but we were up 19%, and this
year we're tracking even better than last."
Nicholas said soliciting feedback was critical when his agency
instituted service fees. "We knew that was a point when things left
unsaid could cost us business -- if we didn't have a good
understanding with our clients, they may well have left us without
To justify the fees, Nicholas said, you have to give great
service. "I just finished a site inspection on a hotel where one of
my clients wants to hold a meeting. He asked me to, so I said,
'Sure.' I suspect many agencies would have said, 'No.'
"We have a client that's a film company. The way I pitched them
was to say, when an audience sees a movie, they see only the end
product, and judge the work from that. They don't see what effort
went into the filming, editing or lighting, or any of the other
work that goes on behind the scenes. The same is true with travel.
In the end, we want to hand them a beautiful, finished
The agency holds an annual business travel seminar for travel
planners representing about 25 companies -- some clients, some not
-- and he explains to attendees the ins and outs of arranging
travel to meet the needs of businesspeople.
He got the idea from something he observed in his former career
as a pharmaceutical salesman. "A couple of brothers who were
dermatologists held seminars on dermatology for family practice
physicians. All the other dermatologists were upset, saying they
were giving away the business. They were worried that, armed with
knowledge, the family practitioners wouldn't need their services
"But what happened was that they got more referrals than ever.
Once the family practice doctors realized how complicated
dermatology was, they were happy to make referrals. The same is
true in travel -- this is a complicated business, thanks to the
airlines with all their rules. The more our clients know about the
process, the more they realize they need someone to help them
navigate. And, fortunately for us, the big six airlines don't have
a clue about customer service."
As for training his staff in his philosophy, Nicholas says it's
very simple: Hire nice people. "You can train people to do any task
but you can't train them to be nice. It's an important point --
clients are willing to bring complaints or problems to someone they
perceive as being nice and wanting to help them."
And when they do bring those complaints, Nicholas gives his
clients sincere thanks. There is no sweeter music to his ears than
the sound of an opportunity to retain business.