THE SALES GURUS: The Experts Tell All...

thought you had a really good business idea that just didn't pan out? Most good salespeople have. But don't let that discourage you -- there's a world of good ideas out there just waiting to be implemented. How about partnering a travel agency with a local business? Branching out and selling non-travel items such as theater tickets? Building a Web site that tells the world what your agency specializes in? Travel Weekly asked 10 leading sales experts the keys to their retail success, and along the way uncovered a few tricks of the trade that will help agents discover new clients -- and along with them -- new revenue streams. The Sales Gurus offer some creative advice on cultivating business relationships and, most importantly, closing the deal when it comes time to complete the booking.

Guru: a teacher and intellectual guide in matters of fundamental concern; one who is an acknowledged leader or chief proponent.

When it comes down to it, travel agents are salespeople. With that in mind, Travel Weekly defined 10 leading sales gurus -- some industry types, some not -- and asked them to share some of the secrets of their success. With any luck, some of those secrets may lead you down a new path of retail -- if not spiritual -- enlightenment.

Be proactive. Now is the time to go out and knock on doors and visit new business prospects. That mind-set is the base of successful sales.U. Gary Charlwood is known today as the chairman of a large company that specializes in franchising, both in real estate and travel, but the experienced franchiser remembers what he learned on the front line selling products to consumers.

The product was houses. Charlwood recalls that, as a novice real estate agent, he sold 118 homes in his first 15 months, a lot for a beginner. The principles that worked then, and still work -- in travel as well as in home sales -- are pretty straightforward: Have a "decent" product and know it well, believe in it and show that passion, look at it from the customer's perspective -- and work very hard, he says.

"Buyers knew that I rejoiced with them over their new homes. I was interested in the welfare of the customers."

Charlwood also remembers working 18- and 20-hour days when he was just getting established.

Charlwood was named Entrepreneur of the Year in the early 1990s by the International Franchise Association, and he chaired that group's board for two years at the end of the decade.

He says that his businesses focus on "happy sales" because customers are buying the things that make them happy -- their homes and their vacations.

This is an advantage for travel agents, as well, despite the current trying times. "Now is the time to go out and knock on doors, visit new business prospects."

In other words, Charlwood urges, be proactive. That positive approach, he says, "is really a mind-set that is at the base of all successful sales."

The psychology of selling, which may be tested more severely now during wartime, remains the same at its root.

The most important question to ask the client, Charlwood says, is, "How can I help you?" in order to determine the needs of the buyer.

"You identify [customer] needs and then cause customers to want what you're selling -- and to want it now. It's how you position what you're selling. You create the desire, and this is affected by what you feel about what you're selling." The travel agent's passion shows, and it influences how buyers behave, Charlwood says.

The executive offers a few pointers, too, for closing a sale:

• The timing has to be right. "If you push too hard or too early, you will lose the sale."

• Nevertheless, it is necessary to create a sense of urgency. "You can control the timing" when creating a desire for the product, he says.

• Confirm that the travel purchase is right for the buyer.

Finally, when asked to describe what works best in selling, Charlwood states his theme in two words: persistence and sincerity.

A smart retail agent has an eye on trends and will adjust the approach to selling. Travel agents are facing some of the most difficult business conditions ever, but that doesn't mean there aren't opportunities for them to succeed, according to Roger Dow.Roger Dow, who began his career with Marriott some 30 years ago, said the key to being a successful travel agent is "understanding what's important to the client at that moment and tailoring your sales strategy to meet his or her needs."

"Too often, the salesperson starts the negotiation -- and that's what it is, a negotiation -- with what's inside their usual bag of tricks. My advice would be to wait to see what's in the client's best interests before reaching for what's inside that bag," he said.

The fear of travel that followed 9/11 left many travel agents and suppliers scrambling for solutions, but one solution turned out to be very close to home, Dow said.

"Suddenly, people were traveling again, but instead of hopping on a plane and going far from home, we were seeing clients taking part in much more regional travel.

"The smart retail agent had his or her eye on this trend and adjusted the approach to selling with this in mind," he said.

Over the past 30 years, Dow has developed a handful of simple selling techniques that he said any travel agent can employ.

"What has always worked for me is listening first and then responding. Find out what's important to the client, what vacation has been successful in the past, ask when they'd like to go on the trip, what they'd like to accomplish on vacation and what kind of budget they're on," Dow said.

"This final question is very important. If the clients tell you they have two children in college and can't break the bank, then you have to be reasonable and fair in your travel counseling.

"If, on the other hand, they say, 'We're celebrating our 25-year wedding anniversary and will spare no cost,' then you don't want to miss that opportunity."

One final question that Dow said agents often forget to ask is, "Is there anything else I need to know before booking this trip for you?"

"Travel agents do a tremendous job painting the picture of the vacation experience, but where they often fall short is sealing the deal," Dow said.

"Once you've collected all the pieces of the puzzle, it's time to close the sale. It can be as simple as asking, 'Can I go ahead and reserve this for you now?' or 'Can I put down a deposit on this trip?' "

Partner with another business: One agent drops dry-cleaning coupons into cruise documents.Tom Cogan has worked as an outside sales agent for Continental Airlines and then as the manager and now as the director of training for the Cruise Lines International Association's agent education programs. In those pursuits, Cogan has spent a lot of time around the word "commission." And he hates the word.

"I try to get agents to change their minds about how they make their money," he said. "Substitute commission with the word profit. Look at products that offer the highest profit opportunity."

Cogan is a practical guy, and CLIA's training program, which he designs and teaches, offers 14 seminars that range from Sales 101 to world geography to going after corporate incentive business. To add value to a sale, he said, partner with other businesses: "An agent I know was looking to give something extra to her clients. She approached the manager of a dry cleaner. Now she puts dry- cleaning coupons into clients' cruise documents.

"A person gets back, they've spilled cocktail sauce on their lapel ... they take it [to the cleaners] ... whom do they think of? That agent."

Qualifying your clients -- asking questions and, especially, listening to them -- is the most valuable tool.

"It's in the interest of the seller to get the client to open up," he said. "You can never learn too much about your client. That's how you polish off a relationship."

And it's important to take notes. "Because you thought they said Cayman, but they really said Cancun."

Asking open-ended questions is the key to getting the client to expound. The yes-or-no question, he said, is in the sale's close: Are you ready to buy now?

Cogan said his classes teach about six or seven different closing techniques. But his favorite is what he calls the blame close: "When it comes time to take the money, blame it on the cruise line. If you say, 'All we need at ABC travel is $3,000,' that's when the client starts to shop around. The travel counselor should say: It's the cruise line that requires the money; it's the hotel that needs that credit card number."

Know how to use the Web for travel research -- because your clients do. The founder and former CEO of Travelocity wouldn't make anyone's list of people most likely to use a traditional travel agent. But that's what Terry Jones did last summer, when he and his wife were planning a trip to Greece.

Through Virtuoso, Jones found an agent to help plan the trip, offer hotel suggestions and arrange a private two-hour tour at the Palace of Knossos in Crete. The agent even called the family in Greece to find out how the trip was going.

Jones said his experience demonstrated how travel agents

can market themselves as providing value and then prove they're worth the price. But how can an agent promote that message?

The Internet helps make it easier by expanding an agent's potential market to the entire world. If you're an expert and can advertise that on your Web site, "then your customers can be anywhere," Jones says. With that in mind, here are some of Jones' tips:

• Build a Web site that answers the question: Why me? Show off your expertise in a region, trip type or market segment such as Greece or honeymoons.

• On the Web site, be sure to provide ways for visitors to contact the agency, perhaps with a toll-free number and certainly via e-mail. A survey last year found 50% of online consumers prefer customer service by e-mail rather than by phone, Jones says.

• Make sure the agency's Web site shows up on as many Internet search engines as possible. An agency can "buy" keywords on some of those sites so that they show up higher in the search results or are listed separately as a "sponsored link."

• Participation in entities such as Virtuoso also helps, as do advertisements and phone-book listings. Listings work better if an agency brands itself, such as "Senior Travel by Bob and Edith."

• Know how to use the Internet for travel research because your clients do. When Jones connected with his agent for his Greece trip, she referred him to sites she found particularly helpful.

• Be knowledgeable and keep adding to your expertise, via fam trips and other methods. Find "whatever is that you can know deeply and convince the customer you know it deeply," he said.

Everyone must be imbued with the selling spirit. It's a positive spirit. Without that, nothing will work. Although bookstore shelves are lined with books about the latest sales techniques, the techniques that work best often are tried and true. That's what John Stachnik of Mayflower Tours has learned in his more than 30 years as a tour operator.

When it comes to selling, "There's nothing new under the sun," said Stachnik. "It's more about attention to detail. Don't assume anything. Don't skip anything. Make sure [the buyer] gets the flier. Even if it's an old customer you know."

And attitude is key. To make an agency thrive, "Everyone must be imbued with the selling spirit. It's a positive energy. Without that, nothing you do will work," Stachnik said.

Constantly changing conditions make travel a difficult industry, but new challenges also bring opportunities, Stachnik said. Adaptability is a key to success. Agents are in a great position because they can change their focus to different destinations or niche markets.

"If I have a refrigerator store and no one wants to buy refrigerators, I'm in trouble," he said. "[Right now] domestic travel is a better sell than international travel."

Selling customers what they want requires finding out what they want, he said.

"Instead of forcing product down their throats, we try to get the demographics and the psychographics," he said. "If they like more upscale or more exclusive products, a higher level of meals and hotels, we are able to offer them that kind of opportunity."

Stachnik also stresses partnership as an important sales principle. "Our greatest success has come from our belief in strategic relationships," Stachnik said. In his case, he means the relationship between tour operators and travel agents. "The basic buyer-seller relationship -- where you go into a store and plunk down $10 -- that's OK. But if you want to really be successful, you have to form partnerships. We try to get away from the buyer-seller frame of mind."

For agents and operators, being marketing partners is more than just words, he said. "Agencies that set up a group department and become partners with just two or three suppliers, those are the people who succeed greatly."

A well-conceived process takes pressure off the salesperson, particularly when that process focuses on the client. "Selling is a process, not an event." That's the motto at Ziglar Training Systems, one of the country's foremost sales training organizations. And Bryan Flanagan says salespeople get into trouble when they don't have a process.

"A lot of salespeople think that their personalities are strong enough, and they try to sell their way along on that basis. But without a process, they get into trouble."

A well-conceived process takes pressure off the sales person, particularly when the process focuses on the client.

"The process should be client-centered, not salesman-centered. If you have such a process in place, it enables you to know where you are in the course of the relationship and where the customer is.

"Sometimes salespeople think that they are at the end of a selling situation when they're actually in the middle of it. That happens when the process is focused on the salesperson rather than the client."

Flanagan says a sales process has five steps that spell out to the acronym "Trust." The steps are "Think. Relate. Uncover the concerns. Sell the solution. Take action."

The "Think" stage involves determining what you want to accomplish before making the initial contact with a customer. "You have to have a clear objective in mind when you set out," he says.

In the "Relate" phase, the salesperson is building rapport, with a focus on the customer. In this step, the salesperson is asking questions to learn as much as possible about the customer's business. Again, the focus must be on the customer.

In the third phase, "Uncover the concerns," the salesperson is probing to determine what needs, issues and concerns the customer may have. The customer also is being encouraged to describe actions that have been taken to address these concerns.

In this way, Flanagan says, the salesperson can discover areas of frustration that can be addressed. He says it's important that the salesperson stay in this phase until the customer acknowledges that he is dissatisfied with his current approach to a problem.

In the "Sell the solution" phase, the salesperson addresses the client's

concerns by offering solutions. These should be closely related to the specific issues the customer has raised.

"You must make sure that you are tailoring your solution to fit the client's concerns."

The final "Take action" stage, Flanagan says, should be the logical conclusion to the earlier stages of the process. This stage, the closing of the sale, should not be adversarial.

A few good questions to ask in this closing stage include: "When do we get started?" or "What else do you need to see to make your decision?"

Continue to communicate with customers after they've used your product to know what they thought about it.

The Cakebread family makes wine in northern California's Napa Valley.

Like many businesses, Cakebread Cellars was born by a chance occurrence. In the early 1970s, Jack Cakebread and his wife, Dolores, were running a car-repair business in Oakland.

Jack had an interest in photography, having studied with photographer Ansel Adams, and in 1972 a publisher asked him to take some pictures of vineyards for the Treasury of American Wines.

Soon after, his interest grew and he bought a small winery. Today, the family business has developed a good reputation for its sauvignon blanc, chardonnays, cabernets and merlots.

Dennis Cakebread, one of Jack's sons, is the sales and marketing manager. When you ask him for advice on successful selling, he starts with this simple proposition: You have to like the products you set out to sell. More than that, you have to love them.

"We set out to grow what we think we will enjoy. We determine if what we want to grow can be grown, and then we go ahead and develop it. But before we can sell anything, we have to know it's something we enjoy ourselves. To sell anything, you need first to be sure that it's something you'd buy yourself. You have to have tried it, enjoyed it, and then you have a good chance of selling it to someone else. ... Passion for the product is essential to success."

Successful selling, Cakebread says, has two essential components: the quality of the product and the quality of the service.

"You can sell someone almost anything the first time around, but if you want to keep a customer, you're really not selling ... they're buying. To keep them coming back, you have to maintain product and service quality.

"On the service side, it's all about understanding how the customer feels. You have to understand that your job in sales doesn't end when you sell something. In fact, it's just beginning.

"To keep customers coming back, you need to know how they felt about what you sold them. That means communicating with them after they've used your product to know what they thought or felt about it.

"It also means you must take a personal interest in your customers. You must learn as much about them as possible and develop techniques to remember everything you've learned."

Cakebread says you'll know when you've succeeded in taking the proper care of your clients.

"The good word-of-mouth begins to spread, and instead of your having to sell them, they're out there selling for you.

"Your business will really take off when you've got customers out there talking you up."

Customers 'buy' the sales-person before they agree to buy anything else. Slinging hash at a New Jersey diner doesn't sound like a sales job, but everything is a sales job to Barbara Corcoran.

Working as a waitress at a diner 30 years ago, she couldn't get customers to come to her side of the counter. So Corcoran emblazoned her pigtails with ribbons and soon her side of the counter was drawing traffic. She caught on: People want to do business with people they like.

Not long after the diner job, she borrowed $1,000 and started a real estate business in New York. It grew into one of the most successful brokerages in the country, handling more than $4 billion in condo, co-op and town house properties in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Two years ago, she sold the Corcoran Group to NRT for $80 million. She remains chairman of the firm.

Whether it's waitressing or real estate, Corcoran says, customers "buy" the salesperson before they agree to buy anything else.

"We do most of our business on the phone. We give every salesperson a desk with a nameplate and a mirror. The mirror is there so the salespeople can observe themselves as they speak. It reminds them to smile and be personable."

Another technique that works is to stand up while on the phone.

"When you stand up, you're a head taller, you feel more upbeat and confident, and it's reflected in how you sound on the phone."

Corcoran says that travel agents selling vacations involving resort hotels, tours or cruises would do well to follow two suggestions that have worked for her business:

"First, you must always be sure the customers feel as if they're in charge of the process. No one wants to be told what to do. They want to be offered options.

"When you present the options to people, give them several, including one that is somewhat below the price they say they want to pay and one that is somewhat higher.

"People will appreciate that, and you won't have to worry that they will buy the lowest-priced option. In fact, if you lay out several options and impartially explain the benefits of each, they will take the highest-priced one."

The most important thing an agent can ask is: 'What do you need?' Motivational speaker and author Philip Wexler has some advice for travel agents: Don't ever try to sell him a cruise.

"If a travel agency ever called me and said, 'Phil, we've got a great cruise,' I'd know right off the top they didn't give a damn about me," he said, adding that he's never been on a cruise

vacation, doesn't want to and "nothing I ever told my travel agent indicated I was a cruise prospect."

Lucky for her, Wexler's travel agent knows better; for the last 20 years she's kept an up-to-the-minute dossier on his travel likes and dislikes and his wants and needs -- long before commission cuts, online competition and the economy began to force agencies to differentiate or die.

"Before you present product, you've got to gather information," he said. "Agencies that will succeed need to learn not what the market wants, but what customers want, one customer at a time."

And that's the thrust of Wexler's best-selling book on salesmanship, "Non-Manipulative Selling," which preaches the primacy of pleasing clients over pushing product.

"The most important thing a travel agent can ask is: 'What do you need?' " noted Wexler, who also co-founded corporate-concierge and personal-assistant firm Les Concierges. "The whole concept of nonmanipulative selling is not to sell what you've got but to get people what they require."

For example, Les Concierges -- which Wexler sold two years ago -- found a successful niche as a "one-stop shop for just about anything."

Likewise, Wexler said, agents have to redefine themselves and come up with different ideas on how to be

of service. "If a client wants theater tickets, get them," he said. Without such differentiating, current moves to service-fee models may prove of little value in the long run. And what of the trend toward specialization in niche markets, products and destinations? In the end, is it worth agents' time to limit the range of product they peddle? "If an agency can specialize in a highly differentiated segment and get well known for it, maybe customers will come to them," he said. "But I don't think that's the answer for the masses of agents."

In other words, instead of "pushing the 17 cruises they've got to sell" by any means possible, agents would better off calling clients and saying: "I just wanted to catch up on what's changed with you recently. What good or bad travel experiences have you had that will help me guide you?"

Service begins with the impression you make in the first few seconds.Harry Beckwith says having a good product to sell and a great gift of gab aren't enough unless you also have another indispensable quality: the ability to establish a relationship of trust with a customer.

"The sales relationship is based on the same considerations as any other human relationship," he says. "You can't expect to have a relationship with a customer unless you have done everything possible to build trust.

"You do that by being utterly open, honest and frank with people. If you're not being truthful with them, their bull detectors are highly sensitive. They'll know if you're making it up as you go along."

Rather than separate sales and service, Beckwith says the two are inextricably linked. In fact, he says, good salesmanship starts with good service. "Think of the times when you have received extraordinary service. How much more did you end up spending with that company?"

He says that good service begins with the impression you make in the first few seconds of your initial customer contact.

"If you depend on telephone contact with people, you'd better have the friendliest, most congenial folks answering your phone. And if you're meeting your clients in person, the way you dress may be the most important factor in the relationship."

Beckwith says good service provided by well-dressed people rates higher than good service provided by others. He also sees a breakdown of proper etiquette and manners, reflected in the way Americans behave toward each other. "We've come to associate rudeness with strength ... and we need to cure this problem fast. There is an acute need for training in etiquette and manners."

Beckwith says the best salespeople are those who have a high level of confidence in the products they sell. "Good sales people must have a passion for them. You can tell when a sales person really believes in what he's selling. There is no fear of closing because the salesperson truly believes that he's doing something good in selling the product."

When it comes to travel, "I would think salespeople would feel great about helping people have wonderful experiences."


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