It was a Thursday in October 1976. I was working for a cruise line out of Chicago, and I had called on three agencies the day before. Today, I would see two more agency owners, and then I would head over to my doctor's office for a long-scheduled, follow-up appointment.
I loved what I was doing, talking with agency owners and learning how they approached the business of selling travel. I was comfortable with public speaking (some might say too comfortable), so I was often on the road doing sales training. My bag of cruise-selling tricks seemed to entertain my audiences. I was a vice president of sales, and I suppose I was selling. It all seemed plausible, and I believed in what I was doing without much thinking about it.
My second call, just before heading off to my doctor's office, was at a large, successful agency in a busy, upscale shopping center. As I sat with the agency owner, I was surrounded by desks and rather busy agents. I counted 11.
As I said hello to the owner, she asked me if I could sit at her desk while she took an emergency call from an overseas client. She dashed off to the back room.
As I sat waiting, I couldn't help but hear the agents -- one just behind me, the other off to my left -- as they tried to close their clients' trips, one to Cancun, the other on a 10-night Caribbean cruise.
They were upselling. They were trying to get the guests to pay more for a better hotel. They were upselling the air. They were trying to get one of the couples to do a vacation several days longer than the client seemed to want. They were quoting room rates from the top down, talking about space and placement. One of the agents kept telling her client, "Come on, you know you deserve better than this."
None of this was surprising. I had done a sales-training seminar for this agency, and I was hearing some of my own words float back at me through the ether.
The agency owner came back to her desk, and as we started talking, she began telling me that every agent on her staff was taking "all of the sales training we can find. When I finish with these folks, they will be able to sell a week in Reykjavik to an Eskimo."
Thinking it was what I wanted to hear, she recounted stories of agents who had received fam points for "selling up" and getting clients to double "what they said was their budget." At one point, she asked me to walk to the rear of the agency where a huge sales chart listing agent sales hung for all to see. It looked like the sales manager's office in a Chevy dealership.
I had a brief lunch and headed off to my doctor's office. I was greeted when I walked in, and then I was asked to update parts of my medical profile.
After a few minutes, I entered the doctor's consulting room, where he spoke to me about test results. I had prepared lots of questions, and he carefully considered each one. He listened more than he talked, and he asked me a number of questions.
I knew his medical background. He had graduated No. 1 in his class at Loyola's medical school. I trusted him. I trusted his advice. The tests had gone well, and he didn't feel the need to see me for a while. He never rushed me.
"Have we missed anything?" he asked.
There were several people in the office who assisted me, including receptionists, techs, nurses, etc. They didn't make the medical decisions, only the doctor did that. But it was a team taking care of me. And not one of them had ever tried to sell me anything.
As I walked back to my car, I started thinking about what had just happened. It was a cool day, and I remember rolling down the front window, picking up my small notebook and reflecting on what I was feeling and why I felt that something important had just happened.
I had just had an encounter with a trusted professional who, I believe, placed my needs and my welfare above any possible financial considerations.
He did not try to sell me a thing.
He offered advice. He counseled. He spoke with knowledge of me, my medical background, my family's medical background and my goals. He was not selling medicine; he was selling compassionate expertise that was, at its core, client-centered. But really, I could not detect a moment where he tried to sell me anything.
I wrote some of this down in my notebook, and then I wrote, in large letters, "BUT WHAT IF HE HAD?"
I sat there thinking about my last appointment with my attorney, someone I had met with twice in the previous decade. The last time, it had to do with my estate. We talked about all of the things you talk about related to a will. I tried to remember if he had tried to sell me anything, any additional service, any unwanted future work. Of course, he hadn't. BUT WHAT IF HE HAD?
Finally, I thought about my accountant. He tried to save me money. He mostly answered our many questions. He asked a few of his own. But I couldn't recall that I ever felt he was applying any sales pressure to buy anything. BUT WHAT IF HE HAD?
What if the professionals in our lives suddenly started taking sales seminars? What if we left every professional encounter feeling that sales tactics and strategies had been used to try to get us to spend more money? What if the professionals in our lives were less trusted advisers and more salespeople? Suppose you suddenly realized that the doctor in front of you was trying to sell you products and procedures you didn't really need.
That's when it hit me: We've got this all wrong. We are not often regarded as professionals because much of the time we don't act like professionals.
From a spend point of view, we compete with lawyers and doctors. Unless they are being investigated by Robert Mueller, the majority of our clients spend less on annual legal fees than they do with their travel adviser. The same is true of one's accountant and one's physician. These are the professionals with whom we ought to be comparing ourselves. And none of them use sales techniques to run up the bill. At least the ethical ones don't.
But for too long, we've seen ourselves as salespeople, and the thousands of sales trainers out there have been only too eager to lead us down that primrose path.
Instead of lawyers or doctors, our skill set has more often mirrored that of the folks who sell used cars and cemetery plots. It has been all about selling up at every opportunity, assuming, of course, that the client is just too dumb to know what we are doing. Our industry trade publications tout sales training and sales skills.
Suppose, I thought that day, we've got it all wrong. Suppose we need to become trusted family advisers, who would never subject a client to a sales pitch, no matter how subtle.
I never did a sales seminar again. I pledged to never consciously sell travel again. Then, 31 years ago, I launched a business modeled on the physician model rather than the agency model.
Do real professionals "sell" or do they self-educate to the point that their expertise is in demand? Is it better to be a travel agent or a "trusted adviser" in terms of your long-term business goals?
I hope you will consider this question: Is it possible we've had it wrong all these years?