Column: Why Are You Asking?

Vice President—Content/ Editorial Director, Ruthanne Terrero
Vice President—Content/ Editorial Director, Ruthanne Terrero

We recently arrived at a hotel around 3 p.m. and asked the young man who showed us to our room if the lobby restaurant downstairs was open. It wasn’t technically, he said, but we could call down to see if the bartender had arrived yet and if she had, we should feel free to go in and at least have a drink. This wasn’t exactly what we were looking to do on an empty stomach, so we continued to unpack until we heard a knock at the door. The young man had returned with a room service menu and with a flyer for a good restaurant just down the street that even had a 15 percent off coupon. “Tell them I sent you,” he said with a laugh.

We were startled by the unsolicited recommendation and instead of laying down and lamenting our hunger for the next two hours we hit the street and found a lively establishment serving brick-oven pizza, seafood and pasta. It actually felt like “the place to be” in town at the moment and we were glad to be a part of it. And we got 15 percent off.

I marvel at this experience because the young man at the hotel had listened to what we were really saying. We weren’t curious about the hours of operation for his lobby restaurant, we were hungry. He acted on that and quickly came back with two great options to our surprise and delight.

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As a travel consultant, when someone asks you a question, it’s always for a deeper reason. “How much will all that cost?” means they’re on a budget or have concerns about the value of what you’re selling. “Are there a lot of stairs at that hotel in Mexico?” might indicate they’re traveling with someone who can’t get around easily. “Can we cancel the tickets if we have to?” means there might be an illness in the family or qualms about employment status. It’s your role to gently open up the conversation so your client feels comfortable expressing their situation to you so that you can work around it and provide them with a good trip.

If you find you’re answering a client’s questions in a rapid-fire style, impatient to get through a conversation or an e-mail exchange, take a deep breath and start again so you’re responding more intuitively to what you’re being asked. Yes or no is seldom a good response in the service business.

A few weeks ago I called a hardware store to ask if they could reproduce a certain type of key. Yes, they could, said the man on the phone, so we drove over. When we showed up, the young woman at the counter said the key-copying machine was broken. It was nice knowing the store technically had the machinery to copy a Medeco key, but that wasn’t really what I was asking. I wasn’t taking a poll of the capabilities of the hardware stores in my area.

Years ago I was standing in a hotel lobby with a general manager who saw a guest walk up to a lobby attendant who shook her head when he asked her a question. The GM walked over to find out what had transpired. Turns out the guest had asked if the hotel had a shoeshine service. Indeed it didn’t and the lobby attendant told him so, but she neglected to tell him that there was a shoeshine establishment one door over. “The poor guy just wanted to get his shoes shined!” said the GM, who was clearly anguished that his guest had been sent out to the street to fend for himself.

So be sure to listen, listen, listen. If you’re reading an e-mail from a client, don’t rush through it. Sometimes you can read between the lines if you try hard enough.