Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

I loved the Chevrolet Corvette from its introduction in 1953 when I was in junior high. It was 16 years before I bought a 10-year-old 1956 that had been painted at least six times. The wipers didn't work, the interior was ratty, the engine near death.

But it was a Corvette, and it was mine, and I was going to restore it and turn it into a beautiful car.

Working as an engineer with DuPont in rural North Carolina made finding parts a challenge, but once in a while the local Chevrolet dealer could get the things I needed.

One day as I was picking up some parts, I watched as a man dressed in overalls and a sweat-stained denim shirt, wearing rough farmer's boots, spent several minutes scrutinizing a new Impala. Several salespeople nearby paid no attention to him. Another salesman came back into the showroom area and immediately walked over to the man. I observed one of the other salespeople nudge another and chuckle at the newbie wasting his time.

I could overhear bits and pieces of their conversation, and in just a few minutes time, the "farmer" had decided to buy the car. He proceeded to reach into his pocket and pull out a roll of cash to pay for it. How I wish I could have captured the expressions of the salesmen who had blown off a prospect based on physical appearance.

A few weeks ago, I went to a men's store to buy a couple of suits. It was Saturday, and I had gone out on the spur of the moment wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I sensed a disconnect when I entered the store, because though I made eye contact with one of the salesmen, not only did he not smile or acknowledge me, he looked away. And though I was interested in $1,300 suits, I couldn't get anyone's attention.

I'll likely not go back, but it got me to thinking about the retail travel business.

Some 25 or so years ago, a prospect came in the office late one Friday evening. Dressed in heavily worn jeans, a sweatshirt old enough for Social Security and ratty Reeboks, sporting a three- or more-day beard growth, this didn't seem to be the sale-of-the-month in the making.

One of our agents chatted with him for few minutes, then disappeared to get brochures. I was working on my "List of Seven Qualifying Questions" at the time and took it upon myself to use the occasion to try them out. In short order, I learned that he and his wife dined at very upscale restaurants, considered the Ritz-Carlton the minimum hotel, and that he, his brother, and his dad had just sold their tool-and-die company to Cincinnati Milacron, then one of the world's largest manufacturers of injection molding equipment.

I'll just bet you know where this is going, but stay with me.

Excusing myself, I went to the brochure room to learn that the agent was going to offer Carnival and Royal Caribbean for four nights. It was true the man had specifically asked about an extended cruise to the Southern Caribbean, but "he's never cruised before, and besides that, he was asking about a luxury cruise and did you see how he's dressed?"

Regrouping quickly, the agent took out a brochure for Royal Viking Line and sold a 10-night, $12,000 suite to the Southern Caribbean. The client paid in cash.

So what have we learned so far?

  • Don't dismiss someone out of hand because of the way he or she is dressed.
  • People dismissed out of hand aren't likely to come back.

Qualify a prospect thoroughly before anything else. If one went to the doctor and said, "Doc, I don't feel well," and the doctor said "Well, get over here and let's put a splint on that arm," when the patient had a stomach pain, that patient would likely be uneasy. In similar fashion, if someone walked into a retail travel sales office and said, "I want to go on a vacation," and the consultant's first words were, "You need to go to this all-inclusive in Jamaica for a week," the prospect would have every reason to be wary.

Successful executives at any number of suppliers tell retailers they need to be "differentiators" to know how to "diagnose" the vacation wants and needs and recommend the product that fits best.

Let's look at some ways to do that.

  • Avoid letting external signals create prejudice that can lead one down the wrong path.
  • Avoid selling what you like rather than what the client prefers.
  • After collecting a full name as it appears on their proof of citizenship document, address, city, state, ZIP code and date of birth for each person traveling, ask the following questions in the order shown (hint: if the person won't provide this first data set, get off the call, as they're wasting your time).
  1. If you were going to dine out locally to celebrate something really special (50th birthday, 25th anniversary, retirement, etc.) where would you go?
  2. When you travel on vacation, what types of hotels do you prefer?
  3. What types of evening entertainment do you like?
  4. Do you want a vacation with visits to lots of places or to stay in one place?
  5. Is the main purpose of your vacation to rest and relax (recharge your batteries) or to be out on a new adventure every day?
  6. Shopping is a fun part of most vacations. Would you be more interested in good values on gold, diamonds, jewelry, and cameras/electronics or handmade items, leather goods, coral and silver?
  7. What is your total vacation budget?

I'll add an email address at the end of the column for those who would like more information on what the answers mean and how best to use them with a prospect.

Perhaps the most important of these questions is the last one. Many have an aversion to asking it for fear they will be seen as prying, or as one of my clients once said, "Are you trying to find out how much money I have in my pocketbook?"

I will explain how to ask the question and deal with possible push-back from prospects. But a travel retailer who values his or her time knows the information is necessary.

A travel retailer acting as much in a consulting capacity as in a sales capacity will have learned a lot from asking these questions. The prospect might want something not in the agent's field of expertise, or it might be a specialty. The client mix (age, number of travelers, etc.) might not fit your niche and expertise. The budget might be insufficient for the type or length of vacation desired.

The result is that the travel consultant might well walk away from the opportunity for any or all of the above reasons. Or the retailer is going to put together the best vacation the prospect has ever taken.

In any event, the retailer can make an informed decision on whether to proceed and won't wind up wasting his or her own time or that of the prospect.

If you would like a white paper listing the questions above and what the answers mean, send an email to [email protected] and put "Question list" in the subject line.

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