In recent months, travel agent discussions at trade shows as well as online forums have hit upon the availability issue. Simply put, the client wants the travel agent to be available anytime they call, whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, or evening, weekend or holiday, and if the travel agent does not respond to the client quickly, they will move on to another agent or agency, or even book online.
There’s some validity to this perspective – today’s society of near-instant communication makes it difficult to delay a response to a client communication, especially when there is pressure to do so for fear of losing the client’s loyalty. But, guess what? The Perfect Client doesn’t care if you’re immediately available to them, as long as you are prompt. The client will SAY they like that you are available, but they understand that you have a life, and other clients, and as long as you communicate with them regularly they will understand if you can’t respond to their email inquiry right that very moment. Sure, there are some that expect that level of service, but they are rarely the one who pay your initial fee (you DO charge a fee, right?)
In fact, being available to clients 24/7 may actually be damaging to your business. For certain clients, being “available” 24/7 may be necessary – like when I had clients traveling in Italy last year, and their trip was interrupted by a small earthquake, and I was available to them at 4:00 AM to handle their alternate arrangements – but generally speaking, clients don’t need a 24/7 travel agent.
Whoa! I can hear you yelling now: “Of course they do!” “If I wasn’t available to them I wouldn’t have booked their cruise!” “How can I justify my retainer if I’m not available 24/7?” I hear you – but think about this. If you’re available 24/7, it can actually hurt your business. Clients are always on the lookout for the best deal. We usually assume that means the cheapest price, but most of the time that’s wrong. The client actually wants the best VALUE. If you’re always available 24/7, how are you able to provide the service and quality advice the client is looking for? We’re beat over the head that a relationship is what the client is looking for – someone who understands their needs, looks out for their desires, and is genuinely invested in making sure they have the right vacation experience they are looking for, rather than just another all-inclusive package. If you nurture this relationship, and give the client the value they are looking for, they won’t CARE that you aren’t available 24/7. Of course, you still have to respond to them in a prompt manner, but you won’t have the pressure of “OMIGOSH I must respond now!”
So how can it hurt your business? It makes the client too dependent on you. They become too demanding, and it becomes a time suck to handle their needs and answer their questions. You’re always available, after all, so why does it matter? You’ll cringe every time you see an email from them, or when their phone number pops up on the caller ID. With that comes stress, a rise in blood pressure, and by the time you’re able to calm down again, they’re contacting you once again.
So what does this mean for you? How can you prevent yourself from falling into the 24/7 trap? It’s surprisingly easy. Set the client’s expectations. Outline a period of time during the day when you will return client phone calls and emails, and let them know if they call or email you they may not get an immediate response, but they WILL get a response that day. Budgeting your time this way can help free you up to get the research done that you need to do, as well as all the other mini-jobs that need done. You’re still able to check the emails and voicemails, and respond to emergencies, but the “this can really wait a couple hours” type of communications actually CAN wait a couple hours!
Take time for yourself, as well. Get out of the office every once in a while for a weekend, even better to get out of town. Let your clients know in advance you’ll be gone, and set the email autoresponder. If you work in an office with another agent, or if you trust a colleague to do so, forward your phones and have them screen your calls and emails and respond to emergencies. Enjoy life, the company of family and friends, and don’t worry about the fact that you MAY have lost a sale because you weren’t available. The client who is worth keeping is the one who will be patient for you.
Steve Cousino, ACC, CTA, LS has been a travel professional since 2005 and currently owns Exclusive Events At Sea (http://www.exclusiveeventsatsea.com) and Journeys By Steve (http://www.journeysbysteve.com) with specializations in group cruising, individual ocean & river cruising, and personalized experiences in Europe, especially the British Isles. In addition, Steve heads up WordPressForTravelAgents.com, an email-based WordPress education system designed specifically for the busy travel professional. He can be reached at email@example.com.