You can have the best sales and marketing machine in the world, but if your service is poor, your travel business will fail.
To succeed in the travel industry your operation must have a customer service mindset.
The aim should be to delight customers every time.
Everyone should be aligned behind that mission from the Managing Director at the top, to in-country staff on the ground.
Instilling a customer service mindset requires a relentless focus on training and continual improvement. Good enough is rarely enough in the travel and hospitality industry.
Instead, the attitude of how can we make our travel service even better is a winning formula to out-smart and out-compete other travel operators.
In this article we look at the 9 Golden Rules all travel operators should follow to deliver an amazing customer service.
This article is for small travel operators looking for ideas and inspiration to improve their service delivery and drive more repeat business.
9 Golden Rules
It’s rare to find a travel operator that doesn’t claim to put customers first, but in reality how true is this claim?
You only need to browse reviews on a platform like Tripadvisor to see that many travel companies get it wrong frequently.
Of course, it is impossible to please every customer, every time. But to increase your averages, we’ve set out 9 golden rules for customer service that any small travel operator can adopt today.
Let’s jump in.
1. Happy Staff = Happy Customers
There’s a famous Richard Branson quote that goes like this:
This idea of putting employees first doesn’t come intuitively when thinking about customer service. But data shows that if your employees are happy, customer satisfaction not only increases but their propensity to become repeat customers almost doubles.
We believe this idea of putting employees first is particularly true for travel operators. A tour guide that is enthusiastic and clearly loves his or her job will deliver a better and more consistent service, every time.
Successful travel operators, like G Adventures, know that their tour guides are the linchpins in driving a great customer service. That’s why all their guides have the title of CEO (Chief Experience Officer). As CEOs their role is to ensure a customer has an amazing experience. For G, the title is not a gimmick; it is a genuine statement that their employees are as important as the actual company CEO.
Put employee happiness first and watch as your customer satisfaction goes up.
2. Great service is a mindset
Great service is much more than just best practice tactics like smiling for customers, remembering their names and being courteous.
Great service is a mindset. Companies that excel in service delivery actually live a customer service value and have employees that intuitively know how to act in any given customer encounter.
Remember we started with values in our article on Value Proposition and Branding, and how they inform a company’s culture? For great service to become central to the way employees interact with customers, it is critical that a customer service value is genuinely adopted.
Adopting values and embedding them into a company’s culture is challenging and takes time. But with real engagement and open dialogue, values, like great customer service, can be collectively agreed and truly adopted.
Make great service a mindset and employees will be equipped to deal with any customer encounter.
Take some time to think about how you currently treat employees? Do you make them feel valued? How? If your staff seems dissatisfied, what can you change to improve employee satisfaction?
Does your travel operation genuinely have a customer service mindset? If not, start thinking about your company values? Create a plan to engage every level of the organization in developing and embedding a customer service mindset.
3. Training underpins service delivery
It’s impossible to expect employees to deliver a great experience without appropriate training.
Training, therefore, underpins service delivery.
Training should obviously cover the basics. Employees need to have skills training to perform their jobs well. But training should also address softer skills like how to communicate well, how to listen and how to resolve conflict.
For travel operators, where roles generally segment into sales and operations, product knowledge training is really important for the former, and customer service expertise for the latter.
Sales staff should know all the ins and outs of a tour and be able to address any customer questions, whereas operational staff should be up to speed on delivering a seamless experience for a customer.
Make time to train your staff on a regular basis and build in real customer feedback to correct recurring issues.
4. Under promise, over deliver
As a travel operator it is incredibly important to manage your customers’ expectations.
The best way to do this is by using detailed pre-trip information documents and by carefully spelling out the exact itinerary and what is included and not included in a tour.
Every detail should be written down in black and white. The more information you can provide to a customer before a trip, the better.
Pro Tip: Pay particular attention to these five key elements of a tour – accommodation, meal plans, daily activities, guides and transport. Review each of these tour elements in detail to make sure that their service delivery is impeccable.
Once you have clearly communicated to a customer what their tour is all about, then it’s up to you and your team to over-deliver on what you promised. This will ensure that you not only meet expectations, but also exceed them.
Over-delivering in the travel business doesn’t need to be costly, difficult or resource-intensive. It can merely mean good attention to detail and going the extra mile to impress a customer.
There is no quicker way to lose credibility and get bad reviews than by misleading a customer and under-delivering on what was promised.
5. Value beats price
If you are a small travel operator it can be easy to think that you can compete on price and still provide a great experience. This is rarely the case.
Moreover, cutting corners on the customer experience to improve margins is not a winning strategy. No customer ever wants to feel shortchanged, even if they are budget travelers.
Customers want to feel they are getting value for money. Most customers have a good barometer for this and will know when they have been flogged the cheapest experience going.
Avoid the temptation of offering cheap solutions and instead try delivering value for money.
Customer service research consistently finds that most consumers are willing to pay more for better service. In fact American Express found that the 70% of Americans are willing to pay an additional 13% if they believe a company’s service will be superior.
Instead of thinking price, think value. Will your customer appreciate this experience as good value or will they feel let down?
Think about the tour documentation you currently give to customers. Is it well presented and comprehensive? Does it cover all the details and common questions customers have? How can you improve your pre-trip information?
Now think about your service? Are you offering real value to a customer? Are there areas, like accommodation, equipment, food or transfers, where you are cutting corners to save a buck? Can you increase prices slightly to provide better service?
6. Bad service is an opportunity
Rarely is bad service in the travel and hospitality industry an outcome. In most instances bad service is an opportunity to demonstrate how you make things right.
If you treat service mistakes as an opportunity to truly solve a customer’s problem you will more often than not turn angry customers into loyal ones.
The Disney Institute has a great framework called H.E.A.R.D, which they use to train their staff on dealing with customer complaints.
The framework works as follows:
7. Every interaction counts
It only takes one bad interaction for a customer to lose faith in your company and complain.
When it comes to great customer service – whether by email, phone, written correspondence, or a face-to-face meeting – it’s important that all your customer-facing staff knows that every interaction with a customer matters.
A quick response by email or on the phone that lacks courtesy or respect leaves a lasting impression.
Getting every interaction right can be challenging to scale, especially if your staff is engaged in multiple customer interactions every day.
The key is to focus on training for great communication skills. Three top training tips to focus on are:
- Never argue with a customer: As the old adage goes, the customer is always right, even if they aren’t right every time. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, focus on the solution. Always try resolving a complaint or issue in the client’s favor.
- Give customers the benefit of the doubt: It can sometimes feel like customers are pushing their luck or being too demanding. Sometimes they are, in fact, displaying really bad behavior. Remember that we all have bad days, and cut your customers some slack by always being courteous and using the H.E.A.R.D formula to get them back on track.
- Don’t leave your customers hanging: Speed is often very important when it comes to dealing with customers. But sometimes it’s impossible to resolve issues quickly. Always communicate with a customer if there is going to be a small delay in resolving their problem. Don’t leave the issue hanging, even if you are in the process of sorting it out. Most customers just want to know that they have been heard and that something is being done about their problem.
8. Seek feedback early
For a travel operator, it is important to see a tour experience holistically. Each step of the tour journey is an opportunity to seek feedback and take corrective measures before surface issues become real issues.
Many tour operators don’t seek feedback early and therefore miss the opportunity to nip issues in the bud. These then spiral out of control until a customer makes a formal complaint or worse still, leaves a bad review.
In our Reviews’ article, we cover how to build a robust operational process for feedback. Key to this process is having an in-country liaison whose job it is to touch base with customers on a daily basis and seek feedback.
It’s important that the in-country liaison is at an arms length from the customer, as many travelers feel uncomfortable providing direct feedback to their guide. An informal chat at the end of each day is a great way to manage expectations and make improvements where necessary.
By acting early, small issues can be corrected and bigger complaints escalated and resolved by senior management. This way a customer’s whole experience is not impacted by an isolated problem.
9. Make fans, not sales
A great travel operation with amazing service can grow almost entirely through word of mouth and repeat business.
As a small travel operator, it is important to recognize the lifetime value of customers and not treat them as just another sale.
A happy customer is your most effective and affordable sales operative. Not only is it 6x more expensive to attract a new customer than it is to keep an existing one, but happy customers become brand ambassadors, generating more business for you.
Make sure you go the extra mile with customers on your tours.
Exceed their expectations wherever possible and pay close attention to the details. Before you know it you’ll have loads of repeat business and a growing customer sales force sharing your brand with their friends and family.
Great service delivery is non-negotiable, if you are looking to scale your tour operation over the long term.
Getting consistently good at service delivery requires a lot more than just best practice tactics.
To really wow customers each and every time you need well-trained and happy employees that love their job, a customer service mindset that is aligned to your values and desire to exceed expectations.
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