Charlie FunkSeveral months ago my wife, Sherrie, and I started a Facebook group called Travel Agency Best Practices, a forum for those on the retail side of the travel industry.

The purpose is to provide help with day-to-day operational issues, marketing tips, destination advice and more. Many of the 500 or so members say they appreciate the group because neither commercials nor non-travel-related content is allowed, nor is venting and bashing anyone or anything allowed. They also like the fact that they can express themselves freely.

Some recent threads dealt with supplier sales contacts. Whether they're called district sales managers (DSMs), business development managers (BDMs) or the like, they're usually the retailer's first supplier contact point. A series of recent posts prompted memories of the good ones and of the others (in this column, all referred to as BDMs for simplicity).

We've had the opportunity to work with the good and not-so-good. Turnover ranged from 18 different BDMs in the first 18 years with one supplier to the same BDM for 20 years with another.

A good one sets meetings and training sessions with owners far enough in advance to enable preparation by all involved. We've had a lot of good BDMs, but once in awhile there are issues.

One of our most disconcerting experiences occurred some years back when a BDM called the day before she wanted to visit our office. She explained that she was headed to Kentucky to go antiquing and needed an agency visit or two in order to justify charging the trip to her expense account. We made time for the visit only to have her come to our office, sit down and begin reading to us from a brochure. Our sales for that supplier suffered until she was replaced.

Our best BDMs arrive ready to discuss business results, sales and booking trends and to work on marketing and promotions for the next six months or so.

They value our time, and we certainly value theirs sufficiently to avoid excessive talk about unrelated matters. I say "excessive" because these BDMs understand that as high-tech as this business is, it is also high-touch, and relationships are important.

In that same vein, BDMs who take time to interact with our agents in their capacity as instructors, resources and motivators (often before they even come to my office and Sherrie's) are far more effective than those who are perceived as nonconstructive critics and taskmasters. One BDM who matched the latter description managed to drive down our business with his company more than 40% in two years.

Good BDMs assiduously guard information shared by owners or relevant to the agency. Some years back, one of our agents had a child who attended the same school as one of our BDMs' children. One afternoon at pickup, the BDM publicly took our agent to task for actions that our agency was or was not taking, souring a relationship that caused sales to slump significantly.

The best BDMs are eager to conduct training sessions for our agents and independent contractors (we require at least two sessions a year) that differentiate their product from those of competitors.

They know our agents can read the brochure for themselves as well as they can read it for them. In short, the best BDMs don't just teach the product. They teach how to sell the product, and they do it with passion and enthusiasm. They understand they are selling our agents on selling their products.

And just as there are good and bad BDMs, our BDMs tell us there are good and bad agencies and agency owners.

We produce a marketing plan for every preferred supplier each year that sets forth our expectations and the commitment needed by both parties to carry it out. As much as this would seem a standard business practice, BDMs tell us it is far more common that they have to submit their plan to the owner for the coming year if one is to be done.

Good agency owners refrain from getting the BDM involved in issues that the agency can usually work out for itself, such as dining and the like.

And good agency owners and agents never call the BDM for assistance on things the owners clearly should do themselves, such as the one who asked the BDM which vacation she should recommend to her client and the best travel date.

Good agency owners understand they are selling the BDM on giving them marketing funds from a finite (and, we are told, ever-shrinking) budget and must offer well-thought-out plans with measurable sales growth results.

They understand that the BDM, having to choose between such a plan and one that offers only "increased exposure for the brand and goodwill creation" will almost always choose the former.

I once overheard a senior executive with a major supplier characterize the BDM genre as overpaid brochure deliverers.

While that may be true in some cases, for the vast majority nothing could be further from the truth.

A good BDM is the single most valuable sales asset a supplier has if the supplier's long-term sales model includes retailers.

How a supplier views and treats its field sales force should speak as loudly and clearly to -- and be given as much weight by -- the retailer as any other supplier pronouncements on how important the retailer is going forward.

Travel retailers who wish to join the Travel Agency Best Practices group are encouraged to go to!/groups/travelagencybestpractices.  

Charlie and Sherrie Funk own Just Cruisin' Plus in Brentwood, Tenn., and have provided agent and agency-owner training throughout North America on every facet of travel agency operations. They are the authors of several books, including "A Recipe for Travel Agency Success," "Creating a Blueprint for Growing Your Agency" and "You're Invited," a complete guide to hosting consumer travel events. 

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