Your travel company is as vulnerable as it’s rudest consumer facing staff member.

Despite the hundreds/thousands/tens of thousands/hundreds of thousands/millions you spend on advertising, your company is as vulnerable as the first person I speak with. That $8.00 an hour, or $12.00 an hour, or $6.00 individual is who I talk to when I call up, what I’ll tweet about in good times and in bad, and what will largely determine whether I use your travel agency again. Day to day customer satisfaction is tied to your people, not your brand. That’s a mentality and a practice that we need to embrace.

The same theory applies to the first person I see when I visit your office. Is she nice? Is she happy to see me? Is she juggling 5 phone calls, irritated, stressed and ready to bite my head off? Guess what, now she’s not the only irritated one. My bank spends millions a year on TV advertising but it’s the teller, the branch manager and the person greeting me that gives me the “I’m not just my account number” feel inside (yes I said something nice about my bank..)

I was watching a documentary on Zappos.com the other day and realized more travel companies need to mimic what they do. They can help train your company (for a fee) if you’re interested.

A large part of the happiness Zappos customers feel is directly tied to the happiness of their telephone agents. Agents who are empowered to take care of problems and not run to a manager for every little approval. Their agents don’t follow scripts — that’s too much for my comfort level but if I still ran my agency I would give it a try at least. Agents who want to be there and buy into the culture of “WOWing” the customer.

Customers get upgraded shipping so they are expecting it in 3 to 5 days but they get it in 2 days. We used to do that at my travel agency and people loved it. Nowadays everything is e-ticketed so I may be showing my age a bit.

Don’t quote me directly on this, but Zappos agents don’t have call timers; that’s something I advocated and implemented when I ran a call center. It simply didn’t make economic sense for my company to rush through phone calls so the customers problem wasn’t solved and they are angrier than ever and calling back — to then receive yet another agent looking to get his bonus for staying under 3 minutes on a call.

Is there an opportunity to give your line agents and consumer facing staff more credit and more incentive? To reduce their load so the quality of their work is better? To recognize those staff members that get positive feedback from customers?

When’s the last time you called your key customers and thanked them? When’s the last time you upgraded their shipping or sent them a personalized free gift? When’s the last time you remembered their birthday, their anniversary date or something unique about them that showed you actually cared?

If you don’t have time to do all your customers, then make the time for your key customers at least (the 80/20 rule).

I’m not saying you should implement what Zappos did lock stock and barrel — I argue that some of the things just can’t be done by a smaller company but that’s for another post — but I am recommending to tackle the low hanging fruit.

If you don’t, there are travel companies that will.

BTW, if you’re interested in the Delivering Happiness book, http://goo.gl/phtyk.

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Customer Service as Ancillary Revenue

TICSS Customer Service Measurement Model

Image via Wikipedia

I’m suggesting a shift from thinking of customer service as a revenue source — which by definition makes it a form of Ancillary Revenue — rather than a sunk cost.

Don’t you already feel a little bit better about customer service having framed it as a revenue source?? Let’s start with an example.

When I call an online travel agency and they go out of their way to fix a problem, that creates goodwill, which has a value.

The revenue from my next 5 purchases directly related to your customer service efforts is additional revenue.

The cost of acquiring me as a customer is now amortized over multiple transactions and not just one purchase (the one with the problem which never got fixed which led me to never buy from you again).

The revenue generated from telling my friends generates additional revenue (at a low or no incremental cost). How many seconds does it take me to Tweet or worse yet FB post my experience (which you’ll never get to see and therefore can’t fix nor will it show up on any agency report).

Increase in market cap and differentiation. A little bit of customer service goes such a long way; travelers are yearning for the littlest morsel of help. Somebody at that massive online travel agency cares — there’s actually a human on the other side of this phone call.

Take the First Step.

Start with a clear intention of tracking the costs and revenue for a given set of customer(s). Intention is everything!

Start with one product and one set of customers and go from there. .

Use accurate ‘averages’ if you can’t get specific numbers. Limit your pilot to high margin products if that makes it easier internally champion.

Work with your colleagues in marketing, sales and finance.

Track the values on an Excel file if need be.

Apply it to historical data if you have all the data sets.


Why Isn’t This Done

First, Short Term Thinking. As executives and managers, we’re knee deep in the here and now that we don’t have time to think longer term.

Second, It’s not easy. The gravity and scope of what I’m advocating hasn’t escaped me. It’s a nightmare even tracking the costs and assigning a value to them. You don’t have to tell me, I’ve done this, I know.

Third, and I’m no accountant,  but my agency operations background tells me there is no universal report that shows the numbers side by side. Nothing that shows the actual costs for the customer service (say $5.00 in agent salary, $0.25 in phone call..) alongside the newly generated (or projected) revenue coming from the incremental revenue,  goodwill and lower customer amortization costs.

It’ll be worth it in the end.