In today’s digital world, where faceless mega corporations pedal products and services electronically, Chris Malone sees a huge advantage for travel sellers who get personal.
Malone, a former chief marketing officer for Choice Hotels International, is managing partner of the consumer marketing firm Fidelum Partners. He is also co-author of The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies (Jossey-Bass, 2013).
He argues that we relate to companies, and the products and services they offer, essentially the same way we relate to other people: We evaluate them based on warmth (what are their intentions toward me?) and competence (how capable are they of carrying out those intentions?)
If we judge businesses to have a high degree of warmth and competence, we are loyal to them, and we expect their loyalty in return.
Today, this human aspect of business relations is more important than ever. The social accountability of companies “is coming back with a kind of vengeance,” Malone says.
Malone, who has more than 20 years experience in sales, marketing, consulting and organizational leadership, recently spoke with Travel Market Report about how travel agents can apply his philosophy of warmth and competence in business.
You write that Americans have decided that bigger is no longer better. Do small- and mid-size travel agencies have an edge over mega agencies and OTAs when it comes to building client loyalty?
Malone: Travel agents who are dealing directly with travelers have a huge advantage in that they have the opportunity to make a connection with a person and demonstrate the kind of warmth and competence that humans are hard-wired to pick up from their interaction with another person.
We are looking for a merchant or a seller to demonstrate their loyalty to us first, to give us something that’s helpful without an immediate expectation of something in return. It’s helping out first, before expecting a transaction, and no website is going to be able to do that for you.
The opportunity is to build more personalized, lasting relationships that demonstrate that you know your customers, care about them, and understand what their preferences and habits are.
And there’s an opportunity for customers to feel like they know somebody who is going to look after their interests in a way they’re just not going to get from Expedia.
What are some specific things travel agents can do?
Malone: We teach a principle that we call relational GPS, which is a roadmap to building a successful relationship with your customer. GPS stands for goals, passions and struggles.
If you take the time to ask a question or two, then make note of what the customer’s personal or professional goals, passions or struggles are, you’ll find out that people are interested in talking about those things.
If you are at a bricks and mortar location, it’s simple things that are basic human nature, like getting to know people by name, learning the names of their kids, knowing where they like to go on vacation, and finding out what’s going on in their lives.
What about online?
Malone: If you have a website, you should have your face on it and make it easy for people to know who they are dealing with if they don’t have direct contact with you at a bricks and mortar location.
I can’t tell you how often I see even small businesses sending out email communications without any personalization as to who they’re sending it to or who is sending it.
What is the ‘relationship renaissance’ that you talk about in your book?
Malone: Before the Industrial Revolution, commerce between people was conducted face-to-face. If there were disputes, they got resolved pretty quickly, because if a merchant did wrong by a customer nearly everyone in town would know about it by Sunday church.
The Industrial Revolution comes along, and now we’ve got mass production, mass distribution and mass communication. With that, the notion of having a direct customer relationship became strained, if not impossible.
Mass communication came in to fill the void. But it was mostly a one-way conversation. If someone had a bad experience, the word didn’t travel much beyond their immediate circle. As a result, there was less social accountability of companies and brands.
Why is that changing?
Malone: With social networks, e-commerce and mobile devices, we again have access to lots of information about the people we’re dealing with and their products and services.
And when somebody has a bad experience everybody in the country knows about it by the end of the day.
Social accountability is coming back with kind of a vengeance. It’s like warmth and competence on steroids, turbo-charged by technology.
You recently said, ‘Just because you send me something about, for example, where I went on vacation, that is not personal. It is just plain creepy.’ How can travel agents avoid crossing into ‘creepy’ territory?
Malone: We’re being pitched for products and services based on the last website we went to. That’s just rummaging through people’s digital trash.
It’d be no different than if your neighbor rummaged through your trash and then tried to strike up a conversation with you about something they shouldn’t know anything about.
In the travel agent context, in many cases, you can keep from crossing that line simply by keeping records about your previous interactions with people.