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Recipe for a Robust BusinessApril 1, 2008 By: Eric Butterman Home-Based Travel Agent
The secret to a potent formula: Begin with a strong base
Databases are critical to the success of customer relationships and leveling the agent playing field. Remember when customers came to you even for that simple ticket to Houston? Then came the rise of the online travel sites and, with it, clients booking for themselves. But that just meant a challenge for agents to prove that a computer couldn't replace the individual attention they could give. Ironically, such personalization requires employing something only a computer can truly offer: a thorough database. Here, we look at the databases available and approaches needed to maximize profits.
Know Your Client
For Darla Graber, president of Ashland, OH-based database company ClientEase (www.clientease.com), it was about creating a complete organizational tool that does everything from holding detailed client profiles to offering a marketing program for reservation data, along with professional invoicing for commission tracking. "With our database system," Graber says, "you know what's due in and can update it and know what group information is needed. Many reports are incomplete without supplier-volume reports and the ability to look at marketing."
Graber, who's been an agent since 1980, also says there are unlimited e-mailing opportunities. ClientEase has the ability to give supplier specials within the program or integrate them into other programs. As a result, agents can be the ones to choose which specials to send. "It's about sending [the offer] to thousands of customers by mass e-mail or targeting it in a smaller way," she says. "We have the agency's logo in everything you want to send, and [we] follow spam laws. If a client unsubscribes, it will populate the website that way. Then when someone does a profile request, it will do a new profile [and place it] into the database, so the agent will know they have a new client."
Lee Rosen, president of TRAMS (www.trams.com), which owns the database system ClientBase, says the right database will help make an agent a leader on both the product side and the consumer end. "I've got three kids, and when I go on vacation I need connecting rooms," he says. "I want certain places to eat—my agent can know that if they're keeping track with the right database. I never believe a computer will know me the way a person can, but they have to show me."
Still, Rosen says databases have to be taken even further and help the agent anticipate needs. "Databases keep track of so much of what will make your relationship with your client work," he says. "When you realize a client likes to take a vacation in June each year and, on your own, send them an e-mail about possibilities in February, that's selling the right way."
ClientBase has been a staple of Dublin, OH-based Creative Vacations since the late 1990s, primarily because the technology saves time, says Craig Baldridge, the company's president. "ClientBase [minimizes] errors, because you're not retyping information three times," he says. "What used to start with writing down information on a steno pad or scrap paper on your desk now originates in the computer. It's important that a customer can call in, and if their regular agent isn't in, someone else can take the call and be able to know that customer just as well from what ClientBase can call up. If they have to call back to get someone who can help them, that could be a lost sale." Baldridge also finds the marketing component of the database is a boost to business. "Right now we have a girls' weekend getaway offer, and the database is targeting who would be a good client. When we create one e-mail and send [it] to 50 people, you know you'll get several calls back. Not bad for just a few clicks." He also likes the sort function to avoid tying up servers in e-mail blasts of several thousand pieces. "There's no reason to have every customer receive Alaskan trip information when we really just want it [to go to] baby boomers of a particular income."
It's also important for Baldridge that only one person needs to go to a seminar to get trained in this technology. "The learning curve is quick," he says, "but [the training] works for however you learn. If you're a manual person, it works, but they've got great videos, too. I've seen sales goals increase 55 percent on one person learning for the whole agency."
Debra Schanaman of Macomb, MI-based Travel Asmara says many agents need to take better advantage of the accounting components of databases. "I use a host agency for my bookings, and they don't have accounting systems," she says. "ClientEase will do everything from tell you what commissions are coming in from the Hilton to backtracking on accounting to find out what days you were paid." Schanaman also finds it easy to navigate. "I'm one who takes a while to learn, but after you type in a password and the client's name, it's fairly straightforward. I'll get the grand total they've spent with us on the front of their profile—it helps me decide on whether they're a high-end client who needs the upper level accommodations. It divides things into booking tasks, urgent tasks and future tasks to help me understand the priority I need to give something." Schanaman also likes the separation of tabs for bookings, frequent flying and special occasions. "When someone forgets an anniversary, they appreciate the reminder that it's time to book a trip to celebrate." She offers this tip to taking advantage of ClientEase: Ask yourself what alerts are most important. "The alerts are there to remind you of anything, but you can help the database 'understand' what it needs to alert you on."
Schanaman, who's been an agent for eight years, appreciates the fact that ClientEase only sends out an e-mail blast once a month on its own, so her clients aren't spammed. "When it does go out, we see great results—our clients pay more attention when we e-mail them, because they're not constantly getting bombarded," she says. "I've already had several customers contact me this week from that blast, so it's an added bonus."
Graber says her company, which has more than 3,500 agents signed up, will be integrating with QuickBooks (http:// quickbooks.intuit.com) soon but also is working on improving their free product, a marketing database called MarketEase (website not yet available). "It lacks some of the full features," says Graber, "but it has an easy import feature, so if they work with other databases and want their own marketing, [agents] can import their client data from any other system. We're working to give suppliers the ability to not just get to the agents but also to get their supplier specials out to clients." Databases Should Deliver On...
What Rosen sees from database competition is a future leveling of the playing field. "What's powering the home-based market is that it's less expensive, and you don't need a large office," says Rosen. "It used to be you needed a big company for good back-room accounting, but home-based agents, for 20 bucks a month, have technology that's at least as good [as having large-company resources]. We'll see more home-based agents using technology to work with the host or hosts of their choice. Information will be passed electronically back and forth like never before. The communication between agents will also improve. Agents will find out from others what a hotel is doing or which destinations are hot, and include that information in their database. The sharing of experiences will make the individual agent seem like a team of 20." —Eric Butterman