Eight Ways to Tell Clients They're Wrong

by Steve Gillick

This is the most recent column from travel industry consultant Steve Gillick.

The customer is always right? Yikes!! That can be a very dangerous attitude in the travel industry. Consider for a moment your travel provenance: all the education, experience, positive attitude, networking, travels, mistakes, corrections, smiles, and tears that have gone into making you who you are today. And then “THEY” walk into your agency.

It could be the “know-it-all,” with his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of everything in life who assertively “corrects” you at every turn. Or perhaps it’s the “silent sniper,” that timid, unassuming, low-talker who shakes her head and then lectures you on the “truth” of the situation. Or it might be one of the hundreds other variations of clients who find some way to tell you they have the right answers and you don’t.

Here are eight suggestions on how to handle situations where you know the client is wrong.

  • Gauge the client. In other words, “know thy audience. Customize your response to each client. For example, a relaxed client who wants a hotel near Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen because of the peace and quiet may be easier to “correct” than someone claiming to know the Riviera Maya like the back of her hand. You know that Fifth Avenue is Party Central until the wee hours of the morning.

For your relaxed client, you may be able to set the record straight in a low-key, matter-of-fact, non-judgemental way: “Janet, do you mean Playa del Carmen? Perhaps you were thinking of Playacar or Playa Paraiso.” She will probably correct herself and move on to the next topic. Your attitude is, “It’s no big deal.”

But with Arnold, who brags about having visited the area multiple times, the deferential approach may be more astute. “I know many of the hotels near Fifth Avenue but they seem to be pretty raucous. What is your definition of peace and quiet? Do you have a specific hotel in mind? Have you stayed at a quiet place in the past?”

  • Measure Twice, Cut Once. Construction workers, pipe fitters, and dressmakers base their success on accuracy. Once you cut the beam or pipe or material, the results may be irreversible. Travel agents do this all the time, too! Checking and double-checking files and reservations is known as due diligence. In the context of correcting your client, it only makes sense to be 110% sure of your information before you open your mouth or send that email.
  • Pick Your Battles. Don’t be obsessed with small details and letting others know that YOU know more! Gauge whether it’s really important in a $10,000 sale to say, “Actually, Mrs. Johnson, the Allure of the Seas is 1,188 feet in length, not 1,200 as you just said.” You don’t need to prove that you have a wealth of knowledge. The fact that the client is sitting in front of you in the first place is testament to the knowledge and skills you’ve acquired.
  • If Truth Be Told. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet, and disagree or correct a client. Take a stand in matters of travel documentation, booking procedures, and advice on travel insurance, where the integrity, success, and value of the trip may be compromised unless everything is right.
  • Level the Playing Field. If the need arises to correct a customer, involve them in a Google search. Turn the screen toward the client and suggest, “I’m not sure about the extent of surfing near Honokalani beach in Maui, so let’s check. Oh, you mentioned that you love beaches with soft white sand but it looks like this is a black sand beach, so perhaps we should check other possibilities for your holiday…” You have just corrected the client on a matter that may have resulted in disappointment--but in reality, Google did the correction for you, so neither of you comes off as being “wrong.”
  • Be Diplomatic. My high school debating club often teased our opponents by humorously stating, “Your veracity is tainted with mendacity”—a diplomatic way of saying “You’re a liar!” Of course you would never consider saying this to a client. But other forms of diplomacy, expressed through words and body language, can gently and humbly rectify a situation without either party coming off as being overbearing or aggressive. “I may be mistaken …”, “This is my 10th coffee of the morning so perhaps I’m not thinking clearly…”, “I was up late last night watching Ice Road Truckers so I may be groggy but…” are statements that can defuse possible misunderstandings.
  • Paper Trails and Cyber Tracks. It only makes sense in this day and age to keep a record of every transaction, conversation, and email. When the client asks for restitution for a ruined holiday, you may need to prove that while s/he insisted on travelling to X, you tried to show that Y was the better option.  
  • Customer Service Above All. The guiding principle in any client interaction is not that the customer is right, but that customer service reigns supreme. You may be right as rain about some aspect of the vacation but if the clients have their minds made up, there may be little you can do (other than refuse the booking if you feel it will be detrimental to the client and/or your business). But there is never an excuse to be rude, abrupt, condescending, argumentative, insulting, temperamental, discourteous, or disrespectful. Your reputation is always on the line.

Customers sometimes are wrong. It’s how you handle it that matters.

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