Written By: Lee Zanello, General Manager, Independent by Flight Centre
“The Internet is coming!” they proclaimed.
“The Travel Industry is doomed!” they shouted.
“Why would anyone use a travel agent anymore?” they questioned.
And yet, here we are, over 20 years later and the industry is not only surviving, it’s thriving.
The Statista Research Department predicts that travel agencies in the US will grow from a revenue that, in 2015 was around 13 billion dollars to just over 22 billion dollars in 2023. In Canada, they report agency revenue in 2009 of 1.4 billion with growth showing 2020 at 2.3 billion dollars in revenue.
And it’s not, as may be assumed, older clientele looking for expertise solely driving these sales. According to data from the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), 55 percent of millennials are more likely to work with a travel agent to plan their trips.
How did we get here? How did an industry not only thwart the naysayers but embrace the very technology that was supposed to foretell its demise?
Through a combination of innovation and tradition, modern-day agents and agencies are finding that the digital age is bringing their customers closer to them than ever before.
Bringing People Together
At its very base, travel is about bringing people together, and the digital age is doing this more than we’ve ever been able to do before.
Agents and agencies are:
- Using tools like facetime or skype to connect with clients without the need for the client to travel into a physical location
- Using online chat as a way to engage with potential customers browsing the agency’s website
- Collaborating in online environments using tools like Umapped to give a fuller experience when putting together itineraries or providing quotes or suggested plans
- Connecting with customers via social media and fostering an environment that encourages advocacy for the agency
- Along these same lines, inviting travelers into the agent’s world by sharing their stories and experiences and breaking down the hard lines between agent and customer. At the end of the day, we are al travelers and we all share the same passion.
Some of the most successful agencies are successful because they are able to tap into their customers’ passion for travel with smart, digital marketing that speaks to a lifestyle many dream about.
Using targeted marketing on social media, agencies are able to deliver content that speaks to customer interests in a more narrowly-defined field than ever before, establishing stronger bonds and a greater potential for customers to use that agency’s services.
Not only that, but taking the time to create and curate original content that speaks to a customer’s passion for travel makes that branded material that much more shareable on social media, expanding the agency’s reach and influence online.
The digital age does not only help agencies connect with potential customers, it has also helped close the loop when things do not go as planned and a customer’s concerns need to be addressed.
Research done by customer strategy advisor Esteban Kolsky has found that only 1 out of 26 unhappy customers ever complain directly to the travel agent or agency. That means 25 out of 26 either don’t complain at all (they’ll just stop using the agency’s services) or they complain indirectly, to people within their social circles and via social media channels.
Social listening is the active task of searching the Internet for mentions of an agency or an agency’s social media handles or tags.
It is not an easy task as agencies need to stay on top of, to name just a few:
- Google Reviews
- Online forums
- Complaint directories
Fortunately, there are tools and companies out there to help agencies with their social listening that can aggregate and actively search for mentions across the web and social media channels.
Still, it takes a dedication of time and resources to monitor the web and to engage with any complaints an agency might come across.
Handling Online Complaints
Many agents have found themselves in this scenario: seeing a negative review of their business online.
If messages are not responded to, any readers who come across them could assume the agent or agency has seen the message and does not care enough to respond.
Aside from this, it is important to respond as even just the perception that you’re making an effort and care about your customers’ concerns can have positive effects that inspire confidence in your business.
So, how do you handle an online complaint that wasn’t made to you directly?
- Don’t take it personally
There is no room to worry about why the customer didn’t want to bring the issue to your attention directly. Focusing on this means the focus is not where it should be, addressing the actual concern.
- Respond quickly
The longer it takes to respond to an online concern, the number of people the complaint is exposed to grows and can be shared beyond your reach to control.
- Take issues offline
Do not try to resolve the concern in the message forum or online. Acknowledge and empathize with the concern and publicly provide a means of having the customer reach you directly so that you can take care of their issues outside of the scrutiny of the online arena.
When handled effectively and in a timely manner, a customer can often remove or update their original online post to reflect the contact they have had with the agency.
It’s worth noting that, in his research, Kolsky found that more people were willing to withdraw a negative online review after receiving an apology (44%) vs. receiving compensation alone (23%).
This is because when someone apologizes, it is in our human nature to seek to forgive, and an apology humanizes the agent or agency in a customer’s eyes.
Anyone can send an email to welcome you home from a trip, but coming home to a phone call or handwritten card in the mailbox asking how your trip was just strengthens the relationship between agent and customer even more.
I was speaking with a VP in our organization who runs a leadership development program every year. This year he has asked applicants to submit their applications via regular mail, handwritten in a letter or card.“I feel like there’s a lost art with things being handwritten,” he told me. “The very act of having to put your thoughts down, written by hand, challenges people to think differently and to put more care into their words. And as a recipient, I value those words more, knowing the care that went into writing them.”
Even in this digital age, those agents and agencies who put the human touch into their business find that their customers love that attention and care and that these touches increase customer loyalty.
It can be hard to find the time for these personal touches, but the pros who do these things swear by them. Considering it can be 6 to 7 times more expensive to get new customers than to retain your old ones (Kolsky), there is even a strong fiscal argument to make time for these activities.
- Have your clients in your phone and completely fill out their contact details, leaving yourself a note about them (a child’s name, an anniversary date, where they last traveled to) so that when they call you have the information at your fingertips.
- Call – don’t email – a week before your customer’s leave for the trip and a few days after they have returned. This shows them you care about them as a person, not the travel transaction they have made with you.
- Handwritten is best – if it’s not a welcome home note, then holiday cards or birthday cards are always well-received
- Have template emails to save time for sure, but only put transactional information in the template (things to pack for travel, the process for using travel insurance etc.) Always take the time to write a genuine opening and closing that personalizes the correspondence.
It’s here, at the crossroads of technology and tradition, that the travel agent excels and remains more relevant than ever. As the digital age increases its reach, the industry must continue to embrace it and not let a divide between the customer and the agency develop.
At the end of the day, we are all travelers, and the more we can continue remind our customers of that, the more they will continue to seek our guidance, collaboration and expertise.