The No. 1 mistake agents make when first speaking with a prospective client is immediately going into reservation mode instead of first selling themselves as experts to that customer, according to Nolan Burris, founder of Future Proof Travel Solutions.
Burris, a former agent, understands why that happens. Most agents are at their computer, and learning the basics of what a client wants is a productive way to start a transaction.
"It's a little bit of a hard habit to break," he said.
But if an agent takes the time to first establish him or herself as an expert, that sets the stage for a more productive consultation and lessens the chance that the potential client will simply take an agent's research and book a trip online. It also sets the stage for informing customers of professional fees, if the agent charges them.
Burris said the first step when speaking with a potential client should be to "reverse the order" they would typically use, or, "don't start by talking about product prices and all that sort of thing."
"Start by talking about you, your value. And the best way to do it is to present yourself as a consultant," he said.
For example, Burris said, a potential client might call an agent asking for help with a trip to Jamaica. Instead of asking when and where they were thinking of going, the agent should instead say that while they are happy to help, their job is to make sure it's the right fit for that client.
"That set's the tone; this is a different conversation," he said. "This is not just about me quoting prices, and just by doing that you've already started down the path of selling your value."
After that, Burris said agents shouldn't jump into questions about reservation information. Instead, it's time for agents to prove themselves as travel consultants by asking the right kind of questions.
"It's asking experience-related questions," he said. For example, a good response would be: "So you think you want to go to Jamaica? Great! Mind if I ask you a few questions first? There are a lot of things that make a big difference in whether or not you will enjoy it."
At that point, the type of questions agents should ask are in the vein of, "What is the purpose of the trip?" "What kind of food do you like?" "What kind of social scene do you like?" "Do you want to be around other people, or do you want something quieter?" "What do you want to do when you get there?"
It's also the time to ask about the kind of environment the customer prefers (something more upscale, something more mainstream or something more discount?), Burris said, as well as cultural questions, like how they would feel being around people who speak a language that's foreign to them.
"Then, you wrap it up by saying, 'You know, these are the things that can help me provide you with the right kind of advice. If you'd like to set up a consultation, we charge $100 to do that, but I'm sure you can see why it's so important now,'" Burris said.
In that example, Burris used an agent who charges a fee, but the same tactic can work for agents who don't. In those cases, the agent should make it clear the consultation hasn't begun yet but could if the client is interested in proceeding: "If you'd like to set up a consultation I'd be happy to do that for you."
In addition to establishing themselves as expert consultants, Burris said he also recommends agents practice a little "preventative medicine."
Once a client has been given information on a potential vacation from an agent, including price, one of the first things they will probably do is look online and see what kind of deals they can find. To prevent a customer from booking online, he said agents should actually encourage their clients to look online but call them if they find something attractive.
He recommended they say, "If you see something else that looks cheaper or better, call me. If it's a legit deal we can almost always get it for you, but if it's a ripoff we're here to protect you from it."