Date: April 1st, 2017
“The tourist and travel sector has changed dramatically over the last 21 years,” Claudia starts telling. “When I started in this business, we were paging through books, selecting hotels based on one small photo and a short list of technical details. Now our customers enter the store after they have read many hotel websites, customer reviews and general information about the area of interest.” Why would people still bother to book their trip with Claudia and her colleagues, while on the “D-reizen” website the exact same trip can be booked at a lower handling fee? Some people predict that these travel agency stores will soon be history, but “D-rt Groep”, owner of “D-reizen”, has a different opinion. It’s investing in new formulas and expanding its number of stores. What can e-commerce learn from their success?
The business model of travel agencies is based on commissions. These commissions are under pressure and they are no longer equally high at the different tour operators. D-reizen still sells products from all operators, but the company strategy is to focus more on the operators that allow for a better margin. At first Claudia didn’t like this too much, because she wants the best for her customers. But she does understand the focus. The time she invests in advising a customer, can’t be made up for by these extreme low commissions. Some deals even have such a low margin, that “D-reizen” only offers them through the website. In fact, it’s the upselling of additional services like car rental, parking and insurance, that is rewarded most generously.
My first question to Claudia is “Why do people still come to your store? What are they looking for?” There actually are a number of reasons why people keep coming. The first reason Claudia mentions, is that some people only want to be reassured. These people have browsed the internet and selected their trip. They come to the store to get the confirmation that they made the right choice.
A second group of people is a little afraid to make a mistake. They don’t feel comfortable with the internet forms. These customers want a professional to fill in their forms. The “D-reizen” agents take care of all administration.
The third reason can be summarized as ‘inspiration’. Many customers enter the store without a specific idea of the holiday they want to book. They are looking for inspiration, rather than information. Claudia works with questions to help these customers to discover their preferences. She enriches information about the different hotels and organizations with personal experiences. It’s not her knowledge, but her enthusiasm that affects customers most. Claudia becomes all lively and energetic when she talks about holidays and travel. She is focused on finding the perfect holiday for each customer, since every one of them is unique. “I have a customer who visits a particular hotel twice a year. He and his wife love it, but in reviews it only scores a 6.5 out of 10. “ Normally Claudia would never advice people to go to a hotel with such a low score. But now she sometimes does when people are looking for the same things this couple values, because she knows exactly why they love it so much.
This personal touch is the fourth reason for people to come to the store. Claudia is truly interested in people’s stories and their well-being, and that is an important reason why people keep returning. This is illustrated to an extreme by the fact that Claudia has loyal customers who enter the store only to have a cup of coffee. She always makes a phone call to people in the first week after they’ve returned from their holiday, in order to check if everything has been ok, to show interest and to collect their stories and ideas for a new vacation. She doesn’t make the call for professional reasons only. People sense she calls as a person who is genuinely interested in how the holidays have been and who happens to work at a travel agency.
The fifth reason for people to come to the store is that they feel overwhelmed by the information internet provides. After spending hours scrolling through sites and offers, they give up. These people come to the store to be coached in their purchasing process. At home, they kept moving from site to site, not able to distinguish what offer would fit them best. They want help in selecting and deciding efficiently. Based on Claudia’s questions and suggestions, they study the portfolio and select a holiday that fulfills their preferences.
This doesn’t mean that closing the deal comes automatically. It is important to trigger the closure at the right moment, using the right phrasing. During the selection process, Claudia keeps checking whether the customer is still happy. She checks the process, the value of the selected options and her role as a coaching agent. Once the selection is done, many clients need a little help to take the hurdle called ‘decision’. She asks customers what aspect still causes them to doubt the purchase. Some then decide right away. Others really do have one or two specific things they’d like to check or arrange. These people allow her to book an option that only requires confirmation.
There are of course also customers that leave the shop with a list of questions to investigate at home. They are still in their orientation or selection process. And there are others who booked with “D-reizen” last year, but haven’t booked yet. This group could potentially be lost as customer, so work needs to be done. Especially these two are the exact situations that show whether or not a sales team is customer centric.
When a customer leaves undecided, Claudia asks if he would mind if she’d call him the week after. Most people are ok with that. Question is, should one call to help or to score a deal? When a customer hasn’t booked yet, Claudia calls him too. Again: do you communicate genuine help or eagerness to score? In these situations the choice of words doesn’t make the difference. It’s the intention. Or as the French put it: “C’est le ton qui fait la musique”. The same piece of music can be played awfully or beautifully. Likewise, people can distinguish genuine interest from commercial interest.
Since some time, the company “D-Reizen” has implemented a personal target policy. The idea is to reward and stimulate effective sales behavior. At first the team experienced this as unpleasant. It led to competition between the team members, all eager to attract the next customer. Now the team has developed a mode to help each other to reach their targets.
This also allows them to use their specializations to its full potential. The target system caused them to hang on to a customer, not willing to let go of the potential bonus. This let to suboptimal service at times that a colleague had much more knowledge and experience with the requested type of holiday. Now they call upon one another for specialized assistance, passing the customer to a colleague when appropriate. The success the customer experiences outweighs their loss of personal target. This way of working gives to the customer a strong sense of being helped by an expert.
There are three things, Claudia tells me, she does to create value for her customers. The first is her focus on customer happiness. She checks the customer energy level during the interaction and she has made a habit of evaluating whether her service has been helpful.
The second value she adds is to make sure that the trip provides all the additional services the customer might need. This is appreciated by the customers, because they feel they are taken care off. It’s also appreciated by the company, because the upsell generates extra commission.
The third value she adds is to offer a ‘hidden’ portfolio. Last seats and last free rooms are no longer available on the site. However, they can still be booked by the team. People are pleasantly surprised when she proposes an option they had not been able to find themselves. Not only does this prove Claudia’s craftsmanship, people also experience such a proposal as something exclusive.
Something very funny happens when I show Claudia the Vocification model of chapter 5. I ask her what it means to her, without giving her an explanation on beforehand, because I want to determine whether the model can intuitively be understood by a salesperson. She starts explaining it, positioning her own actions at the customer side of the model, instead of the company side. To her, the company is the set of offers and regulations. She works side-by-side with her customers, to help them get the best fitting deal. Cooperation is her natural way of working.
Claudia also fully recognizes the interaction model in chapter 7. Asking questions is the most important part of her work. The first questions are merely a mutual introduction. “People come closer to the table as soon as I start asking product related questions based on their personal preferences.” Storytelling is another important element in her approach. Many times customers lose their hesitation and decide on a trip after the team has shared relevant personal experiences. These might be from their own lives, but also stories collected from other customers are powerful. Claudia uses internet forums too. Together with the customer, she investigates selected locations and travels on these forums, but she only does so when she has no story about the location herself.
The term community, the highest interaction level in the model, immediately triggers some good stories. There is a lot of interaction going on between customers inside the shop. People tell each other about their experiences. Waiting customers also participate in the discussion. The cross-customer interaction creates a cozy and lively atmosphere. It makes the shop less sales-like. It turns the purchasing process into an experience. Such an interaction can’t be scripted, like sales conversations used to be years ago. Intuition, interest and genuine behavior have become important qualities of a salesperson instead. Customers expect to talk to a person who can tell a story, a craftsman, not to a scripted professional.
There is a second effect to cross-customer interaction. Sometimes people wait for an hour to be helped. You might expect them to start complaining. The opposite is true: Claudia and her colleagues get complimented on the thorough service they provided to the previous customers. Witnessing good service turns out to be very appealing and convincing.
At this point, we have to round up the interview because Claudia’s 11 o’clock appointment has arrived. With the joyful cross-customer interactions still in her mind, she concludes by saying: “I like to think that my customer’s holiday has already kind of started inside our shop.”