This week, TRO’s 365 Guide is looking at some of the typical clients you might encounter as a travel planner. Businessman Bob is one of them. Like many corporate travelers, Bob is a professional road warrior. He spends many days of his life in airports, rental cars and hotels. You seldom see him, most of your contact is by telephone. Bob is demanding and has high expectations of travel agents. Mistakes are carefully evaluated and you have the sense they are never forgotten, that a secret tally is being kept that could someday result in a parting of the ways.
Two questions – how do you acquire Bob as a client, and how do you keep him happy?
Experienced corporate travel agents will recognize Bob and will not find him any more difficult to work with than any of their other clients. For the leisure agent who happens upon the ocassional business client, however, there are distinct differences. Business clients have needs unlike those of leisure clients and the skill set they require is markedly different. The leisure travel consultant who desires to take on a business client must be able to shift gears to business mode.
As we indicated in Monday’s column, successfully dealing with any client requires an almost intuitive empathy. Put yourself in Bob’s place and try to imagine why he requires your services. Chances are, given the great deal of travel Bob does each year, he is perfectly capable of booking his own travel. In all likelihood, he is not coming to you for your expertise in destinations or in choice of suppliers. Travelers like Bob have their preferred airlines, hotel chains and rental car programs in place. Bob, however, if he is like most business people, is short on time. He needs your help with booking because of his own time constraints. He wants assistance with record keeping and with on-the-go itinerary changes. Bob needs a go-to person for his travel, someone who is as efficient and detail oriented as he wants to be.
Be absolutely certain you want to hitch yourself to Bob’s wagon. Professional business travelers grow road weary and tend to have a short tolerance for mistakes and misunderstandings. Develop a strong traveler’s profile for Bob with all of his identification and preferred suppliers easily available. Be detail oriented and capable of delivering good reports. In short, your task is to make life on the road easier and your professional life more rewarding and enjoyable. If you cannot achieve both objectives, reconsider your options.
Begin your relationship with the demanding business client with an open and frank conversation. Set expectations and begin training your client. Explain what it takes to do your job well. Ask directly about prior experiences with travel agents. What went well and what problems has the client encountered in the past? Ask about the client’s expectations of you. Remember that you are interviewing each other – as much as Bob is deciding whether to use you as an agent, you should be deciding if Bob is the right client for you. Don’t take on a client that you are not prepared to properly service – you will disappoint yourself and the client. Remember, too, clients who want more than they are willing to pay for or who do business by intimidation are going to make your life difficult. Not everyone will be, or should be, your client.
An experienced corporate travel agent will know and interview Bob’s gatekeepers, his support staff: secretaries, assistants and employees. Support staff are important to maintaining your relationship with your business clients. Their reaction to you will almost certainly be communicated to your client. Chances are very good that if they like you, your client will like you as well. Their approval of you will be visible when your name is mentioned. If, however, you fail to make them feel important, if you brush right by them on your way to the client’s door, you do so at your peril. Support staff heavily influence the way their bosses feel about suppliers, both business and personal. Create and maintain good relationships with them by treating support staff as the extension of the client that they are. Remember their names and some personal details about them. Send the office a box of doughnuts on occasion or a Christmas card. Acknowledge their importance to the entire relationship. Generating good feelings in the people that surround your client is the same thing as treating your client well.
Remember too that Bob has a home life. Understand his family situation and opportunities for assisting with his leisure travel planning are sure to arise. However, leave those discussions for an appropriate moment, not during an initial interview.
By mirroring the business demeanor that your corporate clients require, you will more likely appeal to their sense of efficiency and gain their confidence.