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Can a Customer-Obsessed Strategy Save the Independent Travel Advisor?

9 minute read
Jennifer Torres avatar
Travel advisors are a thing of the past, right? Maybe not. With shifting customer demands, an obsession-based strategy could be the answer.

Geraldine Blanchard is obsessed.

In a good way.

As the owner of Global Tours & Travel, while many independent and ecommerce travel agencies were virtually obliterated by the advance of online self-booking travel sites, she’s still going strong.

For 26 years she’s worked as a travel advisor from her brick-and-mortar location in Melbourne, Fla., while also having an active online ecommerce presence through her website.

She believes her success through troubling times is the result of putting clients’ needs, wants, dreams, concerns and goals at the forefront of everything she does — a customer-obsessed philosophy shared by every member of her team.

When’s the Last Time Booking.com Sent You Flowers?

According to Statista, the leading online travel company is Airbnb, with a market cap of around $104.25 billion. Booking.com and Expedia round out the top three.

How can independent ecommerce and brick-and-mortar travel advisors compete?

Perhaps by taking customer service to a next-level obsession.

During the pandemic lockdowns, Blanchard remained on-site to process credits, refunds and answer questions. She knows all her clients — and their family members — by name. They all receive her personal cell phone number to use any time, even after hours.

Her team of travel advisors always know what kind of vacation clients are taking. For a honeymoon, they’ll send a complimentary bottle of champagne and flowers. For a family trip, perhaps a basket of fruit. For birthdays and other special occasions, they always notify the hotel or cruise line in advance to make sure a cake is presented during dinner.

In essence, she provides “whatever we think will make them happy and bring them joy.”

Initially, the ease of use and perceived cost-saving features of self-booking travel sites charmed consumers, but many soon realized how overwhelming, time-consuming and costly they can be.

The pandemic exacerbated the confusion with complicated travel restrictions, protocols and procedures to navigate. Suddenly travelers missed the flowers that use to be waiting on their nightstand upon check-in and all the other personal one-on-one touches a real human travel agent can provide.

The Origins of Customer Obsession

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, is often credited with first using the term “obsess” in a 1997 letter to shareholders in which he set his intention to “obsess over customers.”

Today, of its 16 Leadership Principles, Amazon still places “customer obsession” at the very top, insisting: “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.”

Other organizations took note and over the years the term has become widespread with new roles popping up for Director of Customer Obsession and Customer Obsession Senior Manager. In fact, whole teams have been instituted to focus on the strategy, like Microsoft’s Quality Assurance and Customer Obsession Team.

A customer-obsessed strategy is all about generating loyalty by turning clients into fans who then extoll the company’s virtues to other people, creating new clients.

Related Article: CX + EX: The Formula for a Customer-Obsessed Culture

Stand out With a Customer-Obsessed Strategy

Far from a new concept — good customer service has always been a good idea. But a customer obsession strategy takes things to a whole new level, with everyone at every level of the company fixated on creating an epic experience for the customer that builds trust and loyalty.

Forrester VP and principal analyst Shar VanBoskirk said it’s not just about being nicer to customers — it’s a total pivot in vision. And while she predicted that investment in a customer-obsessed strategy can produce “at least a 700% ROI over 12 years” (depending on the company and customer) just 8% of organizations employ it.

“All we have over the Internet is our customer service, so we have to personalize each request as if it were our own,” Blanchard said.

For her, providing such a high level of customer service often includes late nights, early mornings and a few special skills:

  • When a client called from a train in France after losing his connecting ticket for the next train and not being fluent in French, he called Geraldine for help. Being fluent in French herself, she was able to contact the right people, get new tickets and forward them to her client within 20 minutes.
  • Another call came in at midnight from a client scheduled to depart on a cruise the next morning but found his flight canceled. Geraldine stayed up until 5 a.m. arranging a different flight from another airport and the trip was saved.
  • For a recent group cruise of seniors, her advisors arranged for a mobile COVID testing clinic to come to the agency so that everyone could be tested all together at one convenient time and place.

Expertise, Access and Ability Matters

Last year a joint research study from the American Society of Travel Advisors and Sandals Resorts found that among respondents who rarely used a travel advisor pre-pandemic, 44% are now likely to use one.

In a press release, Sandals Resorts Executive Vice President Global Sales & Industry Relationships Gary Sadler said the research highlights the importance of trusted advice.

“Expertise matters,” he said. “We have long celebrated these pros whose guidance makes travel and traveling simply better, especially today.”

According to a 2021 Family Travel Association survey, the choice to use a travel advisor is motivated by certain factors:

  • Expertise in destinations and vacation types
  • Access to better rates and prices
  • Ability to deliver the best experience
  • Ability to provide support if something goes wrong

Customer Loyalty Is up for Grabs

The outcome of a joint research report from McKinsey & Company and Skift Research revealed that while traveler satisfaction is high, expectations appear low.

That’s because following the pandemic lockdowns, travelers were satisfied with simply being allowed to travel. But as that initial feel-good buzz wears off, researchers believe satisfaction will take a sharp dip as expectations begin to rise — leaving customer loyalty up for grabs.

Travel companies must leverage and build on an “emotional connection that exceeds customer expectations” and “aspire to delight not just satisfy.”

Further, this research indicates the top priority for travel companies should be generating loyalty through outstanding customer service that incorporates three objectives:

  • Aim high: aspire to bring back the magic of travel.
  • Look forward: understand your customers better.
  • Move fast: implement insights quicker.

Consumers Care About the Environment, Sustainability

With a customer-obsessed strategy, the needs of your customer are front and center of all you do — so understanding what motivates and inspires them can provide critical insight toward meeting those needs.

Learning Opportunities

According to the 2022 Global Trends Travel Trends Report from American Express, 74% of respondents said they plan to book a trip in 2022. And nearly the same percentage plan to spend more on travel than the previous year.

But instead of a singular focus on fun and frolic, 78% of respondents say they want to have a positive impact on the community they visit by engaging in positive practices, giving back to communities and protecting the environment.

For many travelers, issues of sustainability have become a deciding factor in how they travel — and where.

The results of a 2022 McKinsey survey found that sustainability continues to be a priority for travelers — with more than half of respondents admitting they’re “really worried” about climate change and feel that aviation should become carbon neutral.

Since the research firm’s last survey in 2019, the percentage of respondents who ranked CO2 emissions as their top concern about aviation rose to 34%, surpassing other concerns like noise pollution and mass tourism. And more than 30 % of respondents said they have paid to offset air travel emissions.

Related Article: 4 Companies Taking a Stand on Social Issues That Matter

One Travel Brand Offering up What Customers Want

After starting their careers in hospitality, Neil Fincham-Dukes and Phil Brown combined their love for providing fantastic service with their passion for sustainability, co-founding their own business travel service, COCO+.

COCO+ allows travelers to offset the environmental impact of their trips by providing carbon-negative global transport and accommodations — something they say can be done without extra cost or effort.

According to Fincham-Dukes, CEO, “It’s time to give a s**t.” A sentiment the company proudly uses as a slogan.

As the internet grew and its influence on consumer behaviors became more acute, he said services like Booking.com and Expedia flourished with leisure travelers who changed their plans less frequently and often booked their trips in advance.

But business travel often lagged behind because of the higher frequency of changes and cancellations. Travel Management Companies (TMC) existed to navigate the vast requirements for business travel and ease the pain for those responsible for organizing it within the company.

In the process, while TMCs have helped make business travel easier, Fincham-Dukes said it became clear many platforms and booking services provided a poor consumer experience online and forgot a critical element — that travel is extremely complex and highly emotional.

“You can often feel the visceral rage of online reviewers who have been poorly handled when their travel plans have been destroyed through complex changes, amendments and cancellations,” he said. “It is incredibly difficult for the self-service platforms to deliver the required results.

“Online tools rarely appreciate and factor in the level of nuance travel brings and can end up driving huge frustrations for the people that really need help and, it is exactly in these moments, that proper service from trained, experienced and calm travel agents cannot be beaten.”

Restoring Equilibrium to the Travel Industry

Combining the goal of superior customer service with high-tech tools was Fincham-Dukes’s vision for COCO+.

“We should excel in both areas as much as is humanly possible,” he said. “The world has moved on and for the majority of simple trips, a robust, well delivered online booking tool is a great addition to the service portfolio of the modern TMC.”

However, he added, that tool always needs an experienced team of people behind it to ensure each trip is a success.

“That desire to go above and beyond, finding proactive solutions to travel challenges, augmented by a slick online booking tool, is where we want to pitch our service,” he said.

As for Geraldine Blanchard, she regularly receives flowers and postcards from clients who value her personal touches, and they’ve remained loyal to her throughout the year because of it.

She’s also seen a substantial influx of new customers.

“They are flocking to me after realizing they could not get everything they need from self-service sites,” she said. “We are bursting at the seams right now with so many clients.”