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Qualifying Clients to Get the Sale

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Increase your sales with these tips on productive client interactions that translate into irresistible travel proposals. Part 1 of a 2-part series. 

As a travel agent, you deal with a lot. Planning and research, logistics and follow through, and probably most important, getting new clients and keeping existing ones. In today’s self-service digital world, customer service and personal attention are hot commodities—which is why travel agents will never go out of style. However, as superhero multi-taskers, it can be easy to overlook the basics in favor of getting through a task quickly.

One area that might fall victim to this is the sales process. For example, a client will walk in the door with a vacation idea and the agent books exactly that without digging a little deeper to make sure they truly understand the clients’ needs and wants. A vacation is so much more than the where and what; the how and why need to be part of every conversation.  

“For most consumers, the purchase of their vacation is going to be one of the largest purchases they make that year, both financially and for the value of their time,” says Gavin Tollman, CEO of Trafalgar. “Ensuring it’s right from the start is vital.”

Successful travel agents intuitively engage in the “consultative sales process.” This give-and-take sales interaction uses qualifying, strategic questions to get to the heart of what clients want from their vacation and then offers solutions by tapping into the knowledge and experience of the travel agent. When done right, the result is a win-win.

The basics will always be important—where, when and how much. But if the conversation ends there, the client isn’t getting the full benefit of coming to you in the first place. “If a travel agent simply books what the client comes in asking for, are they really adding value for the client who could just do that themselves online?” asks Tollman. “Clients come to travel agents for their expertise and guidance.”  

“We aren’t order takers,” says Dennis Morrell, manager of Perkins Travel in New Britain, Connecticut. “It’s our job to listen to clients, decipher all the information and come up with an ideal option for them—that’s why they come to a travel professional in the first place.”

Ask the Right Questions 

So, how does this work in real life? Morrell recounts a time when an East Coast couple came to him looking to book a self-driving trip along the California coast. Through conversation, he learned that they had traveled extensively around the U.S. but had never been to Europe. He asked if they had ever considered a locally hosted trip in a European country. They hadn’t—but they were interested in hearing more.

“I discussed the concept of a locally hosted rail trip with Brendan Vacations in Ireland. Like California, there’s an incredible coastline to travel along, great food and friendly people,” he says. “I thought Ireland was a great introduction to Europe because it is English-speaking. And, because they were based on the East Coast, it would take less time to fly to Dublin than it would to fly to San Francisco.” 

The couple was intrigued. The destination was not at all what they had originally asked for, nor was the style of travel. But the proposal tapped into the core of what they were seeking on their vacation—and then went beyond that to introduce an option that provided even more than what they had originally envisioned. “They got the flexibility they wanted, a few guided tours and the services of a local host acting as a concierge,” says Morrell. “They really liked that.”

The focus of qualifying a client should be on asking open-ended questions that go beyond the rational side of travel (i.e., budget, travel style, destination) to understand the experience clients are hoping to have on vacation. “It’s the subtle nuances,” says Tollman of Trafalgar. “If someone comes in your office and says, ‘I want to do X,’ ask them why they chose that trip or that destination. It will help uncover their motivations and interests.”

Once you understand what they want, you can also ask about the things they might want to avoid. “Sometimes when a client shares a negative experience, it could be as simple as not having roundtrip airport transportation included in their itinerary,” says Nita Cooper, owner of Stars N Skyes Travel, an independent agency affiliated with Cruises & Tours Unlimited. “I’ll ask them how that incident affected their overall experience. This line of questioning helps me avoid making those same mistakes with this booking.”

Cooper also likes to hear about the hobbies and professions of everyone traveling, as well as some of the accommodations they have chosen in the past. These answers can give an advisor further insight into a client’s real budget and overall expectations.

Need some inspiration? Here are some of the questions Tollman recommends agents ask during the initial consulting phase. He says Trafalgar, as well as other brands within The Travel Corporation, have found these questions cultivate robust, actionable conversation. Note that they’re all open-ended—and each one can lead to additional questions that can give you further insights into client desires.

  • Why did you choose this destination for this trip? Is there something in particular you want to see or do while there?
  • What are some of the must-do activities on this trip? Why are those elements important to you?
  • What kind of vacation did you take last? What did you like about that experience? What would you have changed if you could?
  • What’s the best vacation you ever took? What stands out as making that the best?
  • Tell me more about yourself and traveling companions: hobbies, interests, past travels, etc.
  • If budget were no issue, what would your dream vacation be?

One of the most powerful questions you can ask is about the best vacation they have ever taken and what made it so special for them. And again, the key is to continue to ask “why,” not just “what”—and to show clients that you understand their motivations.

Actively Listen

The consultative sales process goes far beyond simply asking the right questions; actively listening to answers is just as important. This can sometimes be a challenge, especially for travel agents who understand that their role is to provide answers and who over the years have formed their own opinions about specific destinations, travel styles and even suppliers. However, there is a great advantage to hearing out a client rather than rushing to provide solutions.  

“If you recommend something too soon, you might not catch some of the small details that can make a big difference in what they want.” says Sylvia Andrews, a travel advisor with AAA Southern California.

“Often times, clients will want to visit a particular place or travel a certain way based on a friend’s recommendation,” says Andrews. Keenly aware that no two travelers are exactly alike, she recommends hearing clients out to understand their perceptions before demonstrating your own experience and expertise to help them decide if that’s really the right choice for them or if another option you suggest will better suit their needs.

Morrell with Perkins Travel not only takes copious notes but finds it valuable to repeat the notes back to the client to ensure that he has understood fully. This method builds trust with clients because they know that they are being heard and that their opinions matter. 

“After we speak, I like to send them a note that thanks them for meeting with me and again recaps what we discussed,” says Morrell. “It’s the polite thing to do and shows a certain level of professionalism. And by recapping our conversation once again, it gives me the opportunity to make sure that I clearly understand the client’s wants and needs.”

Sending a follow up with detailed notes might seem like a no brainer, but in our busy worlds this can be an easy (and costly) step to overlook. Recapping the conversation also gives an agent the opportunity to get organized and start putting ideas together.

Reap the Rewards

No doubt, it takes more time to have complex conversations than it does to simply ask a couple of basic questions. But the payoff is undeniable. “When you take the time to really show you care about finding the right option,” says Tollman, “your clients will cherish and trust you—and you reap the rewards of loyalty. There’s the marketing truism that it’s 12 times less expensive to keep an existing customer than to find a new one. The whole idea is that if you do it right from the start, clients will return to you time and again.” 

That’s what happened when Cooper supplied two proposals to a client who had requested a quote for Barcelona that included flights and hotels only. The customer had never visited Europe before and was inspired to book Barcelona because she had seen the city featured on a television show. Cooper saw an opportunity for the client to explore multiple destinations in Europe, rather than spend nine days in a single city. So, she created two proposals, one with just flights and hotels, and the other a guided vacation with all transfers, excursions, hotels, flights and trains to Barcelona and two other destinations in Europe, as well as all the cool experiences that guided vacations offer.  

“When we really looked at the price comparison of the two quotes, it just made more sense for her to get the guided vacation instead of the other package,” she says. “Upon the client’s return, she thanked me for the recommendation and said she wants to return to one of the cities that she experienced to discover more. Not only did I get that sale, but I also gained a repeat client.”

Maintaining practice in the consultative sales process ensures that you can show your value with proposals that meet and exceed your clients’ expectations. It also provides an opportunity to upsell strategically—enhancing both the client experience and your own bottom line. Look for Part 2 of this article next month for tips on additional conversation points that can organically lead to bigger and better sales.

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