Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have heard about the Costa Concordia’s tragic accident in Italy last week. It got me thinking about the many unpleasant things we need to be prepared to discuss with clients. Some examples are natural disasters like the Iceland volcano mess from last year, prominent travel companies closing their doors suddenly (hello, Cruise West?), and travel “professionals” taking client funds for a trip that never was, and absconding with the money. Your handling of the incident can go a long way in enhancing your relationship with your clients, or it can be a signal to the client to find somewhere else to take their business.
The best defense is a good offense, or so they say. It’s with this in mind that my first rule of thumb is to be proactive. I live about 3 hours’ drive from Kansas City, Missouri. In July of 2010, the city’s news media was filled with reports of an air ticketing scandal headed by “black market travel agents.” In this scandal, the “travel agents” used stolen debit and credit card numbers to purchase airline tickets which were then resold to unsuspecting buyers. The reports were rife with terms like “black market travel agent”, “scam”, “identity theft”, and more – all words you really don’t want to see associated with your business! I immediately fired off an email to my entire client list, mentioning the scandal they had no doubt read about, and reiterating my adherence to standards of ethics and professionalism, evidenced by my membership in professional organizations, among other things. I took the time to explain what was going on, and gave them whatever reassurance I could about the situation, and many of them contacted me again to thank me for being so proactive in calming their fears. Clients like knowing that you have a clue, and that you’re looking out for their best interests.
It’s also important to realize that when “stuff” happens, people will turn to you. You’re the travel agent they know, and they trust your word a little bit more than the talking head on the television. What are you going to tell them? Do your research, and stick to the known facts. The national news media does a bang-up job of speculating and airing theories that do nothing but raise undue alarm, frighten people in various ways and cause general needless mayhem. Don’t add to that cacophony!
Do what you can to reassure clients, but be careful about painting yourself into a corner. Don’t make blanket general statements like “OF COURSE you won’t be kidnapped on your next trip to Mexico!” That opens you up to legal liability if the client was, in fact, kidnapped on her next trip to Mexico. A better option would be to say, “Yes, the news media has reported tourists to Mexico being kidnapped. Let’s put that into perspective…” then explain how the crime is occurring in border towns, or in large resort cities but not in the tourist zones. Help the client be prepared, give them the information to make an informed decision, and then abide by their decision, whether or not you think it’s ludicrous.
Last, but not least, don’t belittle the client’s concerns or fears. We’ve seen it all, we’ve heard it all, and we have a unique ability to separate fact from fiction and to know when something’s being blown out of proportion. The client usually does not have that same ability, and they’re looking to you for answers. Be honest with them, empathize with their fears and help them understand the facts of the situation without making them feel like they were being childish or stupid for having them. Clients want to be heard and, just as importantly, they want to be counseled by someone who they trust. If they can’t trust you, you can count on one thing: they won’t be your client much longer.
Steve Cousino, ACC, CTA, LS is a six-year industry veteran and owner of Exclusive Events At Sea and Journeys By Steve, based in Springfield, MO. In addition to producing special events on board cruise ships, he specializes in escorted tours of Europe and the Holy Land and culinary-themed travel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his websites at http://www.JourneysBySteve.com and http://www.ExclusiveEventsAtSea.com.