As part of their job, travel advisors regularly have to deliver bad news to their clients. A departure has been canceled, flight prices have gone up, a cruise ship has to skip a port, etc. It might be the worst part of the job. It can be worrying, anxiety-inducing, and can very easily lead to disaster.
“If there’s one-word travel advisors live by, it’s ‘change,’” Paul Pelletier, Business Owner, Paul Pelletier Consulting, said. “You are the masters of project management, communication management, and the masters of delivering bad news well.”
“Change is number one. Most of the bad news conversations have to do with change,” he added.
Pelletier joined travel advisors and suppliers at last week’s ASTA Global Convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico to speak about the best ways to deliver bad news to clients.
Most advisors, naturally, will hate delivering bad news. There’s a fear that comes from losing money because a client may cancel, that you’ll lose your business reputation, or that a client may simply start to dislike you because you are the bearer of the bad news. There’s also a fear of the unknown and not having any idea of how a client may react.
Advisors need to flip that mindset, Pelletier said.
“We’re afraid. We are afraid to have these conversations, which is totally okay,” Pelletier said. “We have to learn to begin to find comfort in the discomfort. It is okay to be uncomfortable, but we have to learn to be uncomfortable more comfortably.”
Here are the five key mistakes that advisors typically make when delivering bad news:
Most of the time (Pelletier reckons it is about 98% of the time), bad news doesn’t stem from the fault of a travel advisor. It’s important to know that and to stand by that when you are having these difficult conversations.
“When someone accuses you of being the cause, it is important to be able to say that you are the messenger here and sometimes you have to give a message that you have no control over. It’s important to make sure you don’t get into an argument and start bargaining,” Pelletier said.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize what kind of impact bad news could have on a client and make sure they know that you are on their side.
“Saying something like ‘I know you wanted to go on that cruise, but it’s not so bad, I think we can work it out.’ That’s condescending. That’s now what people want to hear,” Pelletier said. Instead, make sure that a client knows you recognize how devastating the bad news, no matter how small, can be.
Make sure they know you are on their side, Pelletier said.
There are good times and bad times to deliver bad news. Friday afternoon, before you turn off communications for the weekend, isn’t one of them. Nor is right before you need to jump off for a call with a different client. Taking the time to deliver the bad news, and then making yourself available to listen, is key.
“I call this ‘bombing and running,’” Pelletier said. “Put yourselves in the shoes of your clients. Respect, compassion, patience, and tolerance are better. And remember it’s okay to say you don’t have control, but not okay not to be there.”
You can’t control how a client reacts. Despite your best efforts, a client may see you as the cause of the bad news and not just the person who is delivering it. Recognize and prepare for that.
“Be careful not to get into some kind of debate, some kind of argument when emotions escalate,” Pelletier said. Don’t take the blame, particularly when you are blameless, but don’t start arguing with a client. Make sure they know you are on the same side, no matter how irritating it may be.
“When you get irritated or stressed out, you aren’t at your best and an argument will raise your temperature and your voice. It makes it very difficult to think well,” Pelletier said.
When a client does start placing the blame on you, it’s ultimately fine to say that “I know you’re upset,” which will help a client understand your role. Moving the conversation from the past (the bad news) to the future (what can we do about it) is the ultimate goal, not dwelling on what happened.
Don’t get heated and start arguing, but don’t be a robot, either. Not having compassion, feeling, or care when you’re delivering the bad news is almost as bad as arguing. Have that compassion and make sure your client knows that you are an advocate.
What can you do?
Avoiding those five pitfalls is a good place to start, but advisors can also succeed when delivering bad news by preparing themselves ahead of time.
Don’t call cold turkey—plan in advance and have answers to the typical questions that come with these kinds of conversations, most importantly, what is going to happen next. You want your client to feel hope, care, compassion, and patience from you, something that will be dearly needed.
“It’s important to research and bring ideas on how to resolve the challenge quickly and easily,” Pelletier said.
Come in with the “we” mindset, too, which is something that helps avoid those five pitfalls. Using the language of “what can we do” or “how are we going to make this better” will make your client feel that you and they are a part of that same time. You can’t fix these issues, but you can minimize upset, and that starts with being on the same side.
Most importantly, Pelletier said, don’t sugarcoat the news—be genuine and be real.
“Lead with respect, compassion, and sincerity. You’re not trying to control the client, you are trying to help them problem-solve,” Pelletier said. “Be clear, open, and honest – people will often say that they know it’s not your fault and your instant answer should be I know that but need to work with you to fix this.“