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
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 --
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
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
"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
The executive offers a few pointers, too, for closing a
• 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
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
"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
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
"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
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?
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'
• 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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
Successful selling, Cakebread says, has two essential
components: the quality of the product and the quality of the
"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
"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 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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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."