How balancing technological tools with a personalized service approach is key to better reaching and serving clients.
Today’s travelers want the best of both worlds. They expect travel advisors to have the latest high-tech tools, resources and platforms, while at the same time are looking for more personalized, attentive service. So how do successful advisors balance these two demands? The answer lies in effectively leveraging technology in ways that foster connections with clients and improve the overall customer experience.
Managing high-tech tools in a “high-touch” business environment—that is, one that makes customer relationships a priority—is “critically important,” according to David A. Porter, president and CEO of The Roaming Boomers, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based independent affiliate of Cadence, a Virtuoso member.
“Some companies try to use technology only,” Porter explains. “But people don’t always like that. They’re lured in by a good deal, but then if something breaks, it can wind up being a very unhappy experience. In my opinion, technology is very useful in lots of ways, but it shouldn’t be used so heavily that you don’t have a relationship with clients.”
Indeed, for the travel advisor community, technology is most effective when it’s viewed as a means to better attract, serve and retain clients, according to David Locke, co-owner of Seize the Seas, a Parkland, Florida-based member of Avoya Travel. “Today’s technology helps us to maintain the appropriate amount of personal contact with our clientele thanks to tools like reminders and customized, automatic emails,” he says. “But when someone is spending over $20,000 on a luxury vacation, with someone they’ve never met, personal interaction is extremely important. For that matter, when someone has saved for a year for a vacation that only costs $800, they’re just as concerned about who they’re doing business with. Technology allows me to find the best deal for a guest, but it’s sharing an experience that closes the sale.”
Richard Aquino, vice president and head of sales at Allianz Global Assistance, a leading travel insurance provider, agrees about the need to balance technology and the human touch. “If you don’t master both, I don’t think you’ll succeed,” he says. “Technology is important, but the human element of travel is key. One reason why our industry has grown so much over the last few years is that the consumer base relies on that human touch.”
Finding the Best Tools
Travel advisors can find business-boosting technological tools in a variety of places, and through a multitude of industry partners and suppliers.
Locke, for example, looks to his host agency for technological assistance. “Avoya has remarkable technology for generating new leads, for quoting and reserving using their proprietary booking engine, and for keeping in touch with the guest, even after they return home,” he explains.
Such high-tech tools help Locke’s agency by allowing him to “price and book travel insurance in less than a minute, and find available rooms on almost every major cruise line and ship,” he says. On the human side, he turns to “relationships with vendors’ reservations agents, BDMs and even some executives, to help solve problems, or provide that extra incentive.”
Suppliers are another important partner when it comes to an advisor’s tech toolbox, as companies offer their own unique technological features and approaches to customer service. The right combination of helpful tools and personalized attention for agents and their customers can even be a determining factor in which partners advisors choose to work with.
“While the best, most complete and easiest-to-use technology may help us choose one supplier over another, that’s a minor factor,” says Locke. “We choose which suppliers to partner with based on the products and services they offer, and our personal relationships with the vendors—having someone who can help solve a problem with a personal phone call or email.”
What Porter looks for in a supplier partner is a company’s ability to easily unite technology and personalization. One technological feature he often relies on, for example, is “a cobranded website, so when the company comes out with an offer in the marketplace, I’m able to quickly wrap it in my branding and add it to our website, Twitter and newsletter.”
Finally, Locke also makes use of online information and travel professional portals, a simple but effective option for easily providing fast facts to clients. “Being able to quickly copy and paste terms and conditions, dining options, insurance details, or information on transfers and shore excursions into an email to our clients makes us look like experts, and makes us look very responsive,” he explains.
Making it Personal
The idea of using cutting-edge technology to build personal connections in business may sound incongruous at first, but savvy advisors are using the latest tools to connect with potential and current clients in new ways.
“In the early days, we built a Facebook following,” Porter explains. “But then Facebook changed the way they show ads and posts, so that became significantly less effective unless you’re buying ads. So we started putting more focus on building our website and putting content on there. It’s a big time investment to create all that content, but the website has created a significant amount of revenue.”
Porter’s content initiatives include a weekly travel newsletter, which is designed to “keep the conversation going” by sharing both practical and personal information he curates with his wife, the agency’s co-owner. “That tends to be the relationship builder,” he says. “I always include something where I'm ‘pulling the curtain back’ and letting clients see into our daily lives; I’ll talk about our grandchildren, let them get to know us as people. Plus, we have informative articles and features. A significant amount of time goes into that, but it’s paid tremendous dividends.”
Porter is always on the lookout for new ways to serve his customers better and increase their engagement, and he’s willing to change tactics when necessary. “We’re big believers in customer relationship management,” he says. ”We just signed up with Hubspot [a platform for marketing, sales and service]. You need something like that to manage all the things you have to do, so you don’t lose anybody. Once people become clients, there’s a whole set of tasks built into our system to make sure that none of the pieces that go into planning a successful journey for our clients get dropped.”
“My job, at the end of the day, is to talk to people,” Porter adds. “A tool like Hubspot or Salesforce will automate follow up, and then I can actually make a phone call rather than sending all those emails.”
Strategies for Success
Promoting an agency’s services is a logical part of any strategy to maintain and build business. But how do advisors convey an abstract service approach like the high-tech/high-touch balance to clients?
“We don't differentiate between high tech and high touch,” says Locke. “They work together. I think that just by being responsive and proactive, clients can tell that we are both tech savvy and personally available. Our efforts should be seamless, yet the clients should recognize the result. We don't care if they credit technology or just think we're magic.”
Porter agrees that the average client focuses more on the end result of an agency’s services than on the background approach for getting it done. “I don’t think our clients really know that we’re technologically advanced,” he says. “They just see all the human touches that we’re able to make because we use the technology. For example, before a client leaves, we might send an automated message like ‘send us a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower and we’ll put it on our Facebook page.’ Clients like that. We couldn’t do all those little touches without the technology and automation that we have.”
Ultimately, Porter says that a travel agency’s goal in using technology is “to take our relationship a little deeper. If we can earn our clients’ trust and find new and fun ways to get information to them and interact with them, it makes the relationship deeper. And if someone isn’t using tech tools, things can fall through the cracks more easily.”
Locke also notes that clients may have personal preferences about the high-tech/high-touch balance, and travel advisors should be prepared to adjust their approach to better serve each client. “Virtually all of our clients find us through our internet presence and marketing, so our first order of business is to establish a rapport without ever meeting face to face,” he says. “It’s good to know, for example, if the person prefers email or phone communications,” and whether they like to get down to business or enjoy a more extended chat.
In an industry as customer-focused and competitive as travel, it’s indisputable that properly balancing the benefits of high-tech tools with a high-touch service approach is crucial. As Aquino sums it up, “The advisors who make full use of technology, while still putting the customer first, have a recipe for success.”