Build a client-centric approach to exceed customer expectations, win ongoing loyalty and generate lucrative referrals.
Good customer service is crucial for any travel agency. But agents who want to take it to the next level—and gain a competitive advantage—must create a truly client-centric environment, with an even greater emphasis on the needs of customers.
Being client-centric goes beyond the role of customer service (responding to client needs, most often when there’s an issue) to putting the client at the heart of all a company’s business decisions.
“Customer service is more reactive, and customer-centric is more proactive,” says Linda M. Raymer, president of the vacation division of Travelink in Nashville. “Being customer-centric means knowing your customers and thinking of things for them before they think of them.”
“The old idea of a good travel agent was someone who would give clients what they say they wanted,” Raymer adds. But she continues, in today’s world, clients have a reasonable expectation that their travel agent will know and understand them and their travel needs and desires—and be able to go beyond what they can do on their own. Quite simply, she says, clients “don’t have time to mess around with someone who just gives [them] what they get the best commission on or is their hottest promotion.”
To that end, a client-centric company is focused on its customers’ needs every step of the way, from effective data collection and partnering with responsive suppliers to streamlined technology, effective communication and customized proposals. The goal is a seamless end-to-end experience, one that gives your clients even more than they expect or hope for.
And the rewards are multifold. “Our most important benefit is customer loyalty and recommendations to family and friends to use our agency,” says Peter A. Scocca II, president and CEO of Vista Travel in Colonia, New Jersey. “Word of mouth is the root of our success. Advertising promotes our brand, but repeat business and recommendations help us grow as an organization.”
Are you ready to bring your service to the next level? These guidelines provide insight into how successful travel agencies keep the spotlight on the people they serve.
Learn from Outside the Industry
Tom Varghese, owner of Travel Tom in Rockville, Maryland, learned from his previous career when developing his customer-centric approach. “My background is Wall Street,” he says. “In my role, I was the troubleshooter, the one who they’d send in when things went wrong. For me, it was about understanding what went wrong, how to satisfy the customer. Being customer-centric has to be the root of being a good travel agent, too.”
Raymer looks to several retailers for inspiration—including Zappo’s, which she says excels at making customers feel appreciated. “Another good example is Nordstrom,” Raymer adds. “If I’m getting a dress, they’ll say ‘Let me go get a pair of shoes for you, or some jewelry.’ They always try to delight you by making the experience about you. They’re not thinking about the next customer. That’s what we’re trying to do in the travel business. Just like Nordstrom and Zappos, I want us always to see what else we can do for a customer. Our goal is not to simply issue the airline ticket they request and thank them for the call—it’s to see what other plans they have for this vacation, and what other services we can provide.”
Scocca teaches his team to approach every new client like it’s a new job. “When a new customer walks in, clicks in or calls into our establishment, I tell my advisers to feel like they are being interviewed for a new position, one that fulfills the individual needs of this potential customer,” he explains. “By doing so, we are focused not only on the destination and price, but also on the total experience, from start to finish.”
His goal is simple: “to make this customer feel as if they are our only customer,” he says. “We are engaged in planning their trip and we will provide them with tools along the way to help them make informed decisions, as well as provide them with an array of great opportunities while away.”
Know What Clients Want
To satisfy a client, you obviously need to know what they want. And for truly client-centric agencies, the qualification process is even more important. “When the engagement starts, I give what I call a homework assignment,” Varghese says. “It’s about personality, likes and dislikes, what’s important to you.” And he insists on a phone call, rather than leaving important communications to email. “For me, there are a lot of touch points. It all takes place over the phone.”
Scocca aims to understand his clients before making recommendations, using “a series of open-ended questions that requires feedback: What has been your favorite destination? What do you enjoy most when vacationing? What type of restaurants do you enjoy going to? This keeps the client engaged, and lets them know we are truly interested in making this an exceptional program that we build for them.”
Raymer says that getting to know each client is square one for any growth-minded agency. “This is a relationship business,” she says. “We are trying to earn respect and customers for life, and the only way to do that is to make it all about the customer. It’s all about personalizing and finding somebody’s individual style. When we begin talking to someone about their vacation, we try to get into what’s really important to them, rather than just listening to what they say they want.”
Create Unique Experiences
Varghese has found success in curating special experiences that have surprised and delighted his clients. “It’s not just about creating the vacation, whether it’s Mexico, the Caribbean or Europe. It’s about finding the off-the-beaten-path experience,” he says.
This approach provides additional value for the client with experiences that they could not know about or plan for on their own. For one client in Bora Bora, for example, he arranged for them to go to dinner on a private island. “They didn’t even know about it,” he explains. “I told them it was just going to be a sunset excursion. That trip to Bora Bora resulted in one of the best thank-you letters I’ve ever received.”
Foster a Client-Centric Mindset
Encouraging a client-focused company environment requires dedication, according to Scocca, who recommends ongoing evaluations of processes and procedures. “If you are an established agency as we are—47 years on November 1 and counting—it’s not necessarily about creating a new structure, but adapting to new methodologies and understanding the needs of the client in ways we may not have thought about in the past,” he says. “Efficiencies, communication and transparency are the backbone of any successful organization, and we are always discussing and looking for new creative ways to become better at all three principals.”
Raymer’s agency keeps staff attention focused on the client-centric concept through meetings. “We talk about it every day,” she says. “We have a weekly staff meeting with the whole division, and another with the luxury division. We always start with kudos from customers. It’s about keeping the goal of this level of service in front of everybody, all the time.”
Invest in Your Staff
Creating a client-centric environment doesn’t happen automatically. “The investment in time is the most critical component here,” says Scocca. “Time to learn about new product, new experiential opportunities, the wealth of available assets we have at our disposal—all of which help us focus on the customer and their needs. Hiring new talent is not as difficult if you are willing to bring in someone who may not have the worldly knowledge but understands the basics of ‘customer-centric.’ ”
Raymer agrees that finding the right people is crucial. “Part of is it about hiring people who are passionate about travel,” she says. “Getting some of the legacy staff to see themselves as customer-centric is a constant education issue. So when we put out an ad for a staff member, we’re trying to find somebody who loves to travel, who is open to education. Unless you’re interested in lifelong learning, you’re not going to do very well. Every day, there’s an opportunity to hone our skills and be better communicators.”
Spread the Word
Sure, it’s admirable to be a customer-centric travel agency. But how can agents assure that existing and potential clients know about their client-focused approach to doing business?
Varghese relies on word of mouth. “I don’t even have a website,” he says. “I’d rather have customers talk about me. If you Google me, you’ll find hundreds of comments on various boards.”
Raymer, whose agency has nearly 20 travel advisors, encourages her agents to stay in touch. “One of the things we started doing this year is to have our advisors start sending out emails specifically to their customer base, with their photograph and a message from them. We personalize a message that has something to do with what we already know about the customer, what they’ve done in the past and what they might like in the future.”
Raymer says she gets a good response to emails specifically because of the customization aspect. “It’s because we don’t send the same message to everybody,” she explains. “If an advisor has 200 luxury clients in the database, but 20 have said ‘Don’t market cruises to me,’ we would be stupid to send cruise information to those people. So the reason that it’s resonating is because we’re trying the best we can to pinpoint what is appropriate, based on what we know about each person.”
In addition, Raymer notes that her company is “reimagining” its website. “It’s going to be highly focused on our personal service, so people who don’t know us hopefully will be able to see that we are customer-centric, based on how we present our staff and their expertise.”
Embrace New Tactics
Encouraging new methods to create a personalized and complete experience is a good investment. For example, Raymer’s company now uses an app that goes directly onto clients’ smartphones with all the trip details, streamlining and simplifying the process for clients. “Those are the kinds of things that we try to focus on,” she says. “We truly believe that it’s about the customer—it’s not about what’s the most convenient or easiest for us.”
Varghese agrees that everything has to come back to the client and how an agent can make the experience better for their clients. “People today are focused on the business, but you have to go back to the brass tacks,” he says. “The experience that we can create, the expertise that we can provide, you can’t get that on Expedia.”