Discussing peer reviews with clients

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Marc ManciniI'm sure you've heard one particular question countless times: "So, what's the best cruise line?"

An agent I know answers this way: "That's easy. The best cruise line is the one that best fits your needs."

That's not a response her clients expect, and its wisdom might leave them thinking she's the Yoda of travel, or whatever.

Of course, the key to making this response work is the follow-up interview. She asks precise, well-chosen questions, the type that give her the insight to make the right recommendation.

Here's something else you probably hear every now and then: "Well, my brother-in-law (or whoever) stayed at an Acme Resort, and he loved it."

Here's all you need to say: "So you're just like your brother-in-law, right?" That will stop them cold, but more importantly, like the earlier example, it demonstrates that you are focused on their needs, not yours.

Here's a third, oft-heard comment: "I read this blog where everybody says this is a great tour company." Unfortunately, you've never heard of it.

There's no doubt that there are some truly bright and perceptive consumers out there who contribute excellent ideas and insights to online opinion sites and blogs. People like you and me consult peer review sites every now and then, finding a real gem of information.

Others, however, aren't convinced that peer review sites are to be trusted, believing peer reviews amount to nothing more than demon offspring of the Internet. How else to explain otherwise sensible people believing that everything they read must be true, even if it exists in a medium with no editors and few safeguards, a place where people with legitimate insights share space with vigilantes with an ax to grind, fakes who prey on people's gullibility and misanthropes who take joy in attacking the opinions of others. (They're usually at the bottom of the message string.)

Why are opinion sites so popular? Well, as Internet gurus are fond of saying, opinion sites encourage interactive consumer dialogue, provide a forum for democratic discussions and empower people to take charge of the marketplace. Sounds good, I guess.

There's another factor, I think, to account for the popularity of peer evaluations. Beginning perhaps in the Watergate era, Americans became distrustful of everyone and everything.

A slogan from the TV show "The X-Files" summed it up best: "Trust no one" convinced us that "authorities" might know a lot less than we thought. There have been well-reported incidents of surgeons who removed the wrong kidneys, contractors who installed air conditioners upside down and, yes, a travel agent who sent a client wanting to go to Oakland to Auckland. Experts, authorities, salespeople -- did they really know anything? Maybe the guy down the street is a better source of opinions than so-called professionals.

That's one reason why consumers have come to believe that they can arrange their travel on their own. When they come to you, it's often for a second opinion.

So how do we overcome this lack of faith? Let's start with one strategy most of us have already figured out: Sell tours, cruises and all-inclusive resorts. Here's where lay opinions can be seen as a matter of taste, easily challenged.

Even more important, reinforce your professionalism, but do it in a subtle way. Put a little bio on your website that describes your travel experiences. If you're a CTC or ACC, put those letters after your name. Share any "insider" tips you might have; it helps validate that your knowledge is not just broad but deep. Bring immediacy to your blog or your Facebook page by sharing your observations while you travel.

Here's another tip: When counseling your clients, don't present yourself as an authority figure. Remember, "authorities" have become suspect. Instead, be your clients' partner, one who guides them in a discovery of what will work best for them.

Also, you may want to help your client achieve a more realistic perspective about opinion sites. The best way might be to email them an article that addresses the strengths and weaknesses of online opinion sources. A quick search will yield plenty of them to cut, paste and send.

You could even create a list of pluses and minuses yourself. It could be a sort of litmus test for your own efforts, too, one that can help you sift out good sites from dubious ones. Here's my version:

• A site topic must reflect at least a dozen opinions. When there are only two or three reviews, the sample is too small to put much faith in.

• If the date of the review is indicated, the newer assessments are more reliable. They reflect what's going on now.

• If the dates are clumped together -- many on a single day or two, few before or after -- it might suggest that the supplier or a competitor has been planting fake reviews. (It happens more than you think.)

By the way, this issue has become a huge one with major opinion sites like Angie's List, where they're trying to develop computer programs that flag bogus reviews.

• Are all the reviews great? If so, proceed with caution. Even the finest suppliers make mistakes. A universally positive set of reviews is certainly possible. Just remain a bit skeptical and try to verify glowing reviews through additional resources.

• If all the reviews sound alike, be very careful.

• People tend to pay attention to negative opinions much more than to positive ones. A few critical reviews might mean nothing. Keep in mind that a person who has a complaint is about six times more likely to post their thoughts on an opinion site than someone who is happy with their experience.

So, there it is: my take on how to deal with clients who consult peer reviews. Then again, they're just my opinions.

Marc Mancini is one of our industry's leading speakers, writers and consultants and the most prominent designer of training in the travel field.

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