So I am sitting on a couch with my wife in the ladies' shoes section at Nordstrom, when the woman seated across from us begins berating her salesman because he didn't have the Jimmy Choo Luna open-toe pump in size 4½. She was loud and belligerent, and then came the coup de grace: "I can assure you that my size is always available when I shop in Manhattan."
The hapless salesman could only offer apologies, but he could do nothing when she stormed off the couch and out of the department. Slowly, he stooped down to repack the half-dozen or so shoe boxes he had displayed for her consideration.
You see, at Nordstrom the customer is just about always right. There is a story I always considered an urban myth, though a Nordstrom executive told me it was actually true, about an elderly couple who walked into a Nordstrom store one morning wheeling a pair of truck tires. They walked up to the first sales desk they saw and complained that they really trusted Nordstrom, but they were extremely disappointed in the tires they had purchased. They really needed to return them. The couple were given a prompt and courteous refund, even though Nordstrom has never had an automotive department and has never sold tires.
But I trust you would agree with me that in retail travel sales, we just can't indulge the concept of the customer always being right.
In fact, every travel agent can tell stories of rude, nasty and outright belligerent customers. Add in the price shoppers and the "what you gonna do for me" customers, and just about every agent with whom I speak seems to feel that the number of client undesirables is growing.
You also have to add in a new breed of travel consumer: the 15-minute Internet expert. They've gone and Googled, gathering their little bits of disconnected information like squirrels storing acorns, and now they are calling you to confirm the biases they've already nurtured online.
Imagine consumers starting a search. They are first drawn to the huge discount sites, most of which get away with listing fares that are not actually available. Try to find information about a high-end escorted tour and you land on sites that claim the tour companies they're representing are actually ripping you off. They can make those tours more "affordable."
Look for cruise information and you will have to scroll through dozens of boiler room-type operations whose essential purpose is to point out that the pricing offered by both reputable cruise agents and the cruise lines themselves are rip-offs. In a subtle way, they imply that the executives who run the very suppliers they are selling are deliberately overcharging and that only they, the discount online seller, has received permission and special pricing to undercut those rip-offs.
So, after scanning all this information, checking dates and itineraries, if you are lucky, the potential client then calls you.
Dealing with the "insta-experts" all too often makes the travel agent experience stomach-churning moments of self-doubt and the thought that perhaps she should have listened to her parents many years ago and gone into law or medicine. At least no one thinks they can try a case in court or perform an appendectomy because they spent 15 minutes Googling the basics.
And then there's social media, the Moroccan bazaar of travel commerce, where sneaking a coupon in among the cliched claptrap is the end game. This encourages price-based decisions, never the best way for any consumer to make an informed travel decision.
Villa and destination specialists are all experiencing the growth of belligerent clients, even though they still represent a small minority of total client sales.
All of which brings me to the question: "What can we do with these customers if it is unreasonable to assume they are always right?" A few observations on handling belligerents:
1) Don't even try. You demean your own self-worth and that of your staff when you allow anything other than zero-tolerance of jerks and wannabes.
2)Make certain that you are able to document the 5% of your clients who are the most difficult, most demanding and most time-consuming to nurture. Then, after you have identified them, remove them from your mailing list. If necessary, explain that you have decided to work with fewer clients and that you are now working with those with whom you feel the greatest sense of compatibility.
3)If you spot a difficult potential new client before he or she actually books, explain that you are extremely busy and that you can only take on a limited number of new clients at this time. Then, politely explain that "this just doesn't seem to be a good fit." Ask if they would like a referral to someone closer to home.
4) Do all you can to avoid one of the major issues with social media. Most travel-related posts are offered by agents or companies that are trolling for business. There is something inherently pathetic about that. Do you really want the whole world to know that you don't currently have enough business to support yourself? Instead of appearing desperate, design an approach to social media that somehow reinforces the notion that your clients are carefully selected and truly fortunate.
5) Do not think about the sale. Concentrate on the relationship. If there is no hope for a relationship, the sale will likely go sour at some point.
6) If you fire a client, do it nicely, diplomatically, and always put it in writing. That way you can carefully control the conversation. You do not want to get into a phone conversation in which you try to communicate that the client is not worthy of your care and concern for their welfare.
7) Imagine your personal physician in times of stress. Demand the same levels of civility and respect that are accorded to those in other professions.
8) The reality is that there are, sadly, growing numbers of travelers who feel that if they complain enough about a trip, however unreasonable their complaints, they will receive an immediate or future credit for some of what they have spent. These are the same clients who are likely litigious. Learn how to identify and eliminate them as you would cockroaches in your home.
Contributing Editor Richard Bruce Turen owns Churchill & Turen Ltd., a luxury vacation firm based in Naples, Fla. He is also managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales training and marketing consultancy. Contact him at [email protected].