Satisfy Clients by Listening

TALK ABOUT HAVING TO APPEAL TO A NEW CONSUMER. I've just read the January 14 issue of New York magazine—okay, I'm behind in my reading—and I couldn't help but marvel at the fact that there's a probing article on Alain Ducasse's efforts to open a successful restaurant in Manhattan and another piece on the best sneaker stores in the city. Haute cuisine and where to get impossible-to-find Nikes and Pumas...I have no doubt that many of the magazine's readers found both articles to be relevant to their interests. Ruthanne Terrero,Editorial Director

Today's consumer is incredibly difficult to please because their concerns, at times, involve trying out the new top chef in town, yet these same customers are incredibly focused on comfort. Both of these needs stem from the desire for the best of everything. No one wants anything anymore that simply isn't top-notch.

So not only do you have sneaker-wearing clients who want to dine in Michelin-star restaurants, you've got clients who are, yes, more demanding than ever before. Is that possible? Apparently. According to a survey recently released by IBM and the National Retail Federation (NRF), satisfying the increasingly demanding customer will be the top priority for U.S. retailers in 2008. (Retailers previously had made expanding their number of stores their No. 1 strategy.)

According to Reuters, executives attending the NRF's annual conference cited a new generation of consumers who receive their information electronically rather than via TV and newspapers, giving them immediate access to more information. The challenge, said the report, was finding ways to satisfy this clientele.

Do you find yourselves relating to any of this data? While these retailers are those who set up shop and physically sell wares in a store environment, I'm sure you've found that clients are micro-managing their trips more than ever before, trying to "help" you find them the quickest route to another country or questioning your choice of hotel, because they've actually gone online themselves and seen, for example, that Hotel X has a $99 nightly rate as opposed to the luxury property you've selected for them at a considerably higher price.

What they don't know—and this is where you come in—is that the $99 rate is for the room facing the garbage bins at a hotel whose pool has been under construction for eight months and that actually doesn't have a general manager at the moment so no one is there to direct the staff.

Forget the challenges and opportunities the Internet brings. If your clients are successful at what they do, they're used to directing people. That means for them to surrender control to you, an individual who happens to hold their desperately needed vacation in the palm of your hand, is an issue that they might need therapy to work through.

As I write this, I realize that I shouldn't be generalizing here. Difficult people are difficult in different ways. Let's give them credit for that. So while you might have a client who may be trying to hold your hand while you're using your expertise to build their ideal trip itinerary, you may have another who has their personal assistant calling you every five minutes with their preferences and tiny changes to the fabulous European adventure you painstakingly created for them over the weekend during the family barbecue.

At the end of the day, however, these are your clients and you must love them as you do your own difficult children. Allow them their particular likes and dislikes and give them space to express themselves. Sometimes people just want to be heard and then guided. As usual, it all comes down to listening.

By the way, another top issue that relates to the travel agent community was a hot topic at the NRF event mentioned above. Apparently, getting and keeping good employees is expected to be retailers' third priority in 2008. We realize that's something that is key to your success, so George Dooley has penned an article about it, "Recruiting Staff for Your Agency".

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