From the initial inquiry to post-vacation follow-up, top-notch customer service paves the way for repeat customers. Part 1 of a 3-part “Travel Agents Rock” series.
When it comes to building business, there’s no substitute for the human touch. That’s the word from a variety of travel agents, who say that—in spite of ever-evolving technology and ever-expanding access to information—customer service gives them a distinct advantage over any online platform.
Customer service is “everything,” says Kim Hatcher of Time to Geaux Travel Concierge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “If you don’t have the customer service, you’re just a booking engine. It’s the customer service that sets you apart from the Internet. You’re developing a relationship, and hopefully not just for one trip.”
It’s not just travel agents who are aware of the importance of the personal touch: Even as potential travelers can find more booking options than ever on the Internet, the appeal of hands-on customer service from a live travel agent is growing. Last year, for example, travel agent usage hit a six-year high according to MMGY Global’s 2016 Portrait of the American Traveler. And a survey by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) found that 47 percent of travelers who book online would consider using a travel agent if it could save them money and help them avoid mistakes.
Just how much of a role does customer service play? “Without excellent customer service, a travel agent will not stay in business,” says Kelly Hardesty of Be The Tourist, a Tampa, Florida-based travel agency. “There are so many options for the consumer that if we are not giving great customer service and meeting their every need, the consumer can easily walk away.”
Make Personal Connections
Hatcher points out that a travel agent’s personal connection with clients can be a big selling point. It’s that deep knowledge of a client—where they’ve been already, their goals for a vacation, their personal interests and so on—that allows a travel advisor to make customized recommendations for clients.
“When you call some Internet booking engine, there’s no telling who you’re going to get,” she says. “With an agency, you know who you’re talking to. I get to know my clients. I know whether they have kids, grandkids, pets. And I can offer ideas and suggestions.”
Adolfo Perez, vice president of sales and trade marketing at Carnival Cruise Line, also stresses the importance of understanding each individual client’s interests. “The first step is to truly get to know your client,” he advises. “Understand what they like and what they don’t like. Understand what type of vacations they’ve taken and enjoyed. Then a travel agent has the necessary information to offer up vacation options that they know their clients will enjoy.”
Share Your Expertise
In addition to understanding your clients, a key asset travel agents bring to the table is their knowledge of the various travel options available to clients. “People are overwhelmed,” notes Hatcher. “They can spend hours trying to figure things out and read reviews, whereas we go through training, we’re constantly updating and reading and learning and going to different classes. We have the knowledge.”
Long gone are the days when a travel agent was simply an “order-taker,” someone who booked hotels, cruises, airlines, etc. because they had the inside edge in booking. To be sure, travel agents still have that insider’s edge, but they also have the knowledge and ability to cut through the clutter of available information to become a true advisor and partner in planning.
To that end, agent travel, experience and training become crucial factors in the ability to provide top-notch customer service. “The more knowledge and in-person inspections the travel agent has, the better we are able to match our clients,” says Hardesty. Noting that she personally has visited numerous resorts, destinations and cruise ships, Hardesty emphasizes: “A travel agent must be able to travel a lot. The role of the travel agent is to understand the clients’ priorities and match them with the vacation destination that best meets their needs.”
Customize the Approach
Just as each individual vacation recommendation needs to be customized, so too does the approach a travel agent takes with various clients. “We have to redefine what customer service is in today’s marketplace,” says Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing at Travel Planners International, a Maitland, Florida-based host agency that works with thousands of agents around the country. “Successful agents aren’t treating each customer as if they’re in a database. They customize their interaction—which is something an OTA [online travel agency] can’t do.”
To that end, Lee aims to use each traveler’s preferred method to stay in touch. Agents “have to pay attention to how the client is already communicating with them,” she says. She also recommends going a step further and asking clients their preferred method of communication: phone calls, text messages, Facebook Messenger, emails?
Regardless of the chosen method of communication, prompt attention and fast follow-up go a long way towards conveying a customer-centric approach. “I think the ultimate area where I provide customer service is my impeccable follow-up,” says Deborah Fogarty, of Be Well Travel in Pembroke Pines, Florida. “Whether email or phone or text, my clients never wait more than 15 minutes at the most to hear back from me.”
Keep in Contact
In addition to the regular communications in the form the customer prefers, Carnival’s Perez suggests going a step further. “Be sure that you stay in touch with your clients in a personal way,” he says. “Emails are efficient, but they’re a dime a dozen. Phone calls, handwritten notes and cards go a long way. And don’t forget to send a handwritten thank-you note and make a post-vacation call to see how things went.”
For Lee, outstanding customer service is something that begins long before the booking and doesn’t stop until well after the trip is over. “One of the most-missed opportunities is touching base while clients are traveling,” she says, noting that she will sometimes even follow clients on social media, or send them text messages while they travel. “Agents are super busy, I get it. But doing that while clients are traveling tells a traveler: ‘I didn’t just book a trip for you, I planned an experience.’ ”
Be Their Support
By the same token, customer-focused agents also encourage their clients to reach out to them at any stage of the trip with questions, concerns or problems. “I repeat that I am here for them, no matter how silly they think the question is—and that they can text me or email me or call me,” says Hardesty. “I make sure they know that I am available to them at almost any hour.”
From the initial inquiry through to the actual travel, agents bring a sense of security to clients. “My clients range in age from early twenties to late eighties,” says Hardesty. “Some of them are well traveled and some are new travelers. They just want to make sure the transaction is real, that there is someone on the other side of that transaction that has their back should something go wrong.”
When clients ask about the difference between her agency and an online booking site, Fogarty emphasizes that she’s always there for them. With online booking, she points out, “Once they press enter, they are on their own—and if they change their minds about something, they may have done something non-refundable.” When they book with her, however, “I am the one on the phone to make any changes with suppliers, so their process is seamless.”
Fogarty recounts an instance where she was able to show her value with a last-minute change. “I recently had a client with a large group booking where the deposit was non-refundable,” she says. “One of the guests didn’t think she wanted to go with the whole family, and the group leader asked me to cancel. I let the supplier know.”
But that wasn’t the end of it. “A few days later, the group leader called to say the guest wanted to go after all,” Fogarty says. “I said ‘Let me call and see what I can do.’ Because the supplier was so busy, they hadn’t gotten to officially cancel the guest, and all was well—no money lost on any end, and the large group is looking forward to traveling at Christmas as originally planned. The client said ‘I’m so lucky to have you as my agent. You take care of everything immediately for me.’ ”
Go the Extra Mile
Beyond trouble-shooting, customer-oriented agents also act proactively to ensure a successful trip. “I always think that you should go the extra mile. I always offer my clients just a little bit extra,” says Hatcher. “I like to have little surprises for them. They appreciate the personal touch. One of the things I like to provide is door decorations for clients on cruise ships.”
Fogarty also values the interactions she has with suppliers, which makes it easier for her to add special touches to a client’s vacation experience. “Having incredible business development managers [BDMs] that I know personally makes a big difference,” she says. “I’m lucky to live in South Florida—home base to most of the cruise lines and to the big travel shows in Fort Lauderdale—which really gives me an edge with my clients. If I have a large group or a VIP occasion, it’s great to reach out to the BDMs to add an extra touch.”
Hatcher notes that preferred suppliers can also help agents treat clients to customer-pleasing extras. “If I know that a client is celebrating something special, I notify the supplier,” she says. “Having a personal relationship with suppliers is awesome, and it can really change what you can offer.”