Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

Rodney Dangerfield built an entire career around the notion of respect -- or, in his case, the lack thereof. The comedian was said to have been $20,000 in debt in 1958, entertaining in clubs so far out in the sticks that his reviews appeared in Field & Stream. And he didn't have a hook.

Aretha Franklin made a bazillion dollars singing Otis Redding's take on respect, a song originally written as a ballad about a hardworking man look forward to getting home at the end of the day.

But the Staple Singers, an R&B/gospel crossover group, perhaps said it best in their 1970s hit "Respect Yourself."

So much of life is about respect. We learned at an early age (or at least some of us did) to respect our elders, even if we privately thought they were dumber than a sack of hammers. It didn't matter. They deserved respect.

So then, why can't travel retailers respect themselves?

A central focus in determining whether we will hire a job applicant is our perception of how they feel about themselves. It is my fervent personal belief that I can tell how someone feels about themselves by how they communicate. Poor grammar and syntax is an instant deal breaker.

I see posts on a variety of travel agent-focused Facebook pages and other community boards lamenting the fact that the writer had invested a significant amount of time in an inquiry from a prospect, providing extensive information about a destination or a vacation only to learn later that the person booked with another source.

What comes next is a seeming paradox. Professional travel consulting is not a place for an easily bruised ego, and it is a place where those who are successful of necessity have substantial egos.

Some who feel wronged vow they will never speak to the "offender" again or seek validation from others for a particularly pointed riposte that they intend to send to assuage their hurt feelings.

Other agents fret over what they did wrong to so offend someone that the prospect would take advantage of them and their efforts and book with someone else. It takes time, but most of us falling into this category eventually figure out we're not the bad guy in all this.

Those who have endured this costly experience would do well to write it off as tuition in the learning process of becoming proficient at recognizing early in the process those who would waste our time. There's nothing wrong with respecting oneself enough to decline to continue down a path that experience teaches is not going to be fruitful.

And start charging a fee. Too many travel retailers have an inordinate fear of asking someone to compensate them for expending intellectual capital they have accumulated over some period of time.

We'll come back to this in other ways later, but the analogy can easily be drawn that one pays a physician, a lawyer, an accountant or other professional for what they know. That professional charges a fee for that knowledge, and those who avail themselves are happy to pay it.

It should be the same for an agent.

The difference perhaps is that these other professionals are confident of their value and believe they should be paid. Far too many in the retail travel sales industry do not respect themselves enough to assign a value to their knowledge and expertise.

It is time for that to stop. A travel retailer can take pride in the fact that she/he has rendered the best possible service to a client. Practice believing in you. It's good for you, and it's good for your business.  

As important as self-respect might be, it occurred to me that clients ought to respect the professional rendering them a service as well.

That set me to wondering what cues a client took from an agent that might affect their relationship, so I posted the following on my Facebook page (note that there is no mention of travel):

Hypothetical question: You're considering a purchase of something that costs a fair amount of money, say $10,000. This thing is available from more than one source, but the merchant you are considering has some feature that makes their offer more appealing.

In written communications, the merchant consistently misuses "their" for "there" or "they're," uses the verb "were" for the direction "where" and more.

What influence does this have on your ultimate merchant selection? How do you act on that influence?

The 55 or so responses to the question ranged from "They would get no consideration at all" to "You're purchasing merchandise, not the seller."

I next posted: OK. Now let's change the scenario a bit. The $10,000 expense is for a surgery that your primary care physician has ordered. The same scenario involving grammar applies. Is your surgeon selection decision affected?

Some of those who responded voiced the suspicion that the surgeon probably had an assistant who sent out the communication. Some indicated that they would absolutely go elsewhere, while others again indicated it would have no influence on their decision.

I have to confess that until the advent of Facebook, it never occurred to me that anyone who had made it beyond sixth grade in school would ever misuse "your" for "you're," "they're" or "their" for "there" and worse. Grammatical errors like these are far too common. There are times when I have to read and reread some sentences three or more times to be sure I understand what the writer intended to convey.

Other examples of spoken words that make me cringe include someone mentioning that they have observed something by saying, "I seen it on their website."

Simply put, I believe I have such sensitivity to this because if the professional missed these details in their education, I'm left wondering what other things they failed to learn that might materially affect me?

Whether it's a family doctor, a lawyer, a tax accountant or a brain surgeon, I need to feel confident that the person is competent to take care of me, intelligent enough to be sure nothing goes wrong with my case and won't make a mistake that puts me in jail or leaves me paralyzed.

The same holds true with taking into one's hands the responsibility for the single most precious, nonrenewable asset a prospect has: their leisure time. I cannot shake the belief that if I communicate poorly and leave an impression of semiliteracy, it can and will negatively affect the client's confidence in and respect for me.  

Travel retailers ought to be no less professional than any of the other disciplines mentioned in this column. I believe that given a choice between two agents offering similar products and services, the prospect's belief in the intelligence of one agent over the other based on their grammar can play a deciding role in making the selection.

As proof that I don't communicate as clearly as I like to think I do, I had a couple of travel agents ask what I would do if a client walked into my office ready to spend $10,000 and had poor grammar. Would I decline to do business with them or be a hypocrite and take the money?

My posit had nothing to do with the client's grammar or lack thereof and clearly illustrates that not nearly as many people read my column as I thought, because my column from June 8 ("Don't judge a book by its cover; qualify the prospect") clearly illustrates my thoughts on that topic.

It's like this: Maybe poor grammar doesn't have any effect on your business at all, or maybe it does. I believe that in the long term it is better for business to err on the side of having a staff that builds confidence in and respect from your clients by being completely professional in every way in every contact.

For many, written and spoken communications will be the only benchmark the client has.

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