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8 Strategies for Turning Complaints into Leads

Travel Leaders Network Strategies

Key approaches for handling client complaints that will help you better your business and retain clients—and convert them into future sales

Microsoft founder Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Those words of wisdom are as true for travel agencies as for any other business. But turning complaints into repeat business? That’s an art that takes some practice—and a few key skills.

Esteban Kolsky, a business analyst and founder of the customer strategies company ThinkJar, provides even more insight about the importance of dealing with negative feedback. His studies have shown that 72 percent of customers tell six people or more if they have a positive experience, while 13 percent of customers share negative experiences with 15 people or more.

Here’s the challenging part: Kolsky’s research also showed that only one in 26 customers bother telling a business when they have a negative experience. So how can a travel advisor stay on top of potential hiccups and prevent negative comments from spreading out of control?

The first step is to recognize the value of customers who complain.

“I actually welcome complaints,” says Joy Gawf-Crutchfield, owner/operator of The Joy of Travel in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. “As long as my customers are communicating with me, I have a chance to keep their business. Their complaint gives me an opportunity to rectify the situation and provide good service to them—service that hopefully they will brag about to their friends and family. Their complaints also give me insight into what is happening within particular brands or resorts, which is important for me to know.”

When handled correctly, not only can complaints be educational for a travel agency, they can also present fresh opportunities to grow sales and build business. The following are eight advisor-approved strategies for successfully preventing and dealing with negative feedback.

1. Set Up a Process of Prevention
No doubt, the best way to deal with complaints is to minimize the chance of having any to start. Standard booking practices can play a role in preventing problems—as well as the complaints that might follow, according to Ingrid Ream, president of Superior Travel Service in Lapeer, Michigan. “No one is perfect, and mistakes happen from time to time,” she notes. “We do our best to double check all information pertaining to the reservation by having clients sign our agency agreement and initial in areas that have their full names, birthdates, travel dates, passport information and expiration, and more. This helps to catch any errors immediately. And the sooner they are found, the easier they are to fix.”

2. Make It Easy To Complain

In the event that something does goes wrong, to make sure unhappy clients actually share their displeasure, agencies should create an environment that encourages feedback.

“My customers know I always put their interests first,” says Gawf-Crutchfield. “I am completely honest with them, so they know they can be completely honest with me. I touch base with them via email upon their return and ask for their opinions about the trip. If they respond, I let them know how much I appreciate their feedback.”

Lisa Griswold, owner of Pixie Vacations in Canton, Georgia, also aims to keep the channels of communication open to clear up issues. “Most complaints stem from confusion and frustration,” she says. “If I can cut through that confusion so that we both see a clear path moving forward, we both win.” Encouraging clients to contact advisors directly with questions also keeps the dialogue flowing so that issues can be addressed openly as they arise.

It can also be helpful to give clients an easy and immediate way to provide feedback post-trip.  “We send out client surveys, asking for specific information about the service received,” Griswold says. “We have a good return rate on those, which is very helpful.”

Ream takes a similar approach: “All our agents will do a ‘welcome home’ phone call upon the client’s return from their trip, to see how they enjoyed their experience and ask for reviews. It’s important, especially if there was an issue, that the agent and the client reconnect at this point to build confidence for booking again with that agent.”

3. Work with Reputable Suppliers
Partnering with reliable suppliers can help ensure that travel plans go smoothly, thus minimizing the possibility that something could go wrong—and making it easier to address problems if they do arise.

“We let our customers know we have personal as well as professional relationships with key people at the resorts and within the brands that we book,” says Gawf-Crutchfield. “We have the contacts necessary to right wrongs and correct problems.”

Griswold agrees about the value of effective partnerships. “It is so reassuring to have strong supplier partners,” she says. “We build relationships with the suppliers we trust the most, and it is satisfying to know that they will be able to support us as needed. When the supplier cares about reputation and client satisfaction, we’re talking the same language.”

4. Devise a Response Strategy

An agency’s first response to a complaint is their first opportunity to set the course for a happy customer and repeat sales—and the quicker, the better.

“When there is an initial complaint, I will have the booking agent and client first speak with each other to clear up any miscommunication that may have occurred,” Ream says. “Often times, there is a misunderstanding that is quickly remedied. If it is not resolved, then I will meet with all those involved and determine how we can proceed to rectify the situation in an expeditious manner.”

Gawf-Crutchfield also has a process in place to address potential problems. “Initially I reach out to my advisory board—my top performing and most experienced agents within our agency,” she explains. “If we agree it is a valid complaint, we ask the rep for that brand/resort to step up and make it right for our customer.”

5. Show You Care
Among the most important things agencies can do is show the client that they’re valued and being heard.

“Every complaint that is received must be taken seriously,” says Griswold. “If someone is going to take the time to reach out to us, we know they have true concerns. The first thing to do is express that we want to hear those concerns. I feel that every complaint is valid, as most people aren’t going to take the time to contact me with invalid statements.”  

Griswold also points out the importance of listening carefully, without judgement or interruption, in order to get to the heart of the issue as well as validate the client’s feelings: “I always go in with an open mind and listen as long as the client is talking. Jumping in with a defense or comment is not going to be productive.”

6. Be Positive and Proactive
Staying upbeat in a negative situation may be trying, but it’s usually worth it. When a client complains, Ream, for example, stresses that her agency will do everything they can to help. “If there is a problem, whether the oversight is by client or agent, we reassure travelers that we will take care of it—even if it means we may have to contribute to the cost of the fix.”

Gawf-Crutchfield says that the travel advisor should be the one to take control of the situation. “It’s hard to be the ‘water on the fire,’ but that’s what you have to do when a customer is unhappy,” she says. “You acknowledge their complaint, express your profound sympathy with their experience, and let them know you’ll be in contact with the appropriate people to be sure this situation is reported and remedied. You provide enough caring responses that the situation begins to defuse. I always thank my customers for letting me know about problems, so that I have a chance to make sure they are addressed at the resort or within the brand.”

7. Follow up Effectively

The follow-up to a problem can not only help remedy the initial situation but can also boost clients’ confidence in your ability to handle problems.

“I always make a point of calling the client and speaking directly to them,” Ream says. “Email is too impersonal, and sentences and words can often be misinterpreted in writing. I will, however, follow up with an email to recap the conversation so everyone is on the same page.”

Part of Griswold’s follow up is to make sure that previously dissatisfied clients are comfortable booking again with her agency. “If I speak with a client who found issues with our services, I want them to feel confident in returning to us,” she says. “When a client reaches out with specific complaints, I follow up with a call, in most cases. I make sure they know they can reach out to me if they want, and most will receive my cell phone number for direct assistance.”

8. Seize the Opportunity

If all of the above steps go well, then there’s no reason why a formerly disgruntled client can’t become a loyal customer for years to come.

“Most reasonable complaints are opportunities for us to capitalize on our relationships, and make sure our customers appreciate the fact that they booked with an agent—someone who had the power to advocate for them,” says Gawf-Crutchfield. “Truly, the only complaints that do not provide opportunities for successful resolution are irrational complaints.”

Griswold identifies certain types of negative feedback as especially ripe for building relationships and sales. “The complaints that stem from confusion are the best opportunities for successful resolution and future sales,” she says. “Clients get nervous about travel plans when they don’t understand all that the trip entails. They hear things from friends or read things online that make them feel they might miss out on something. Keeping a good line of communication with the client and asking lots of questions is key.”


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