Flexible work hours are a big advantage for agents who work at home, but this quickly turns into a disadvantage if you fail to set boundaries between work-time and off-time.
Advice on seizing this and other advantages of working at home – while still maintaining a healthy work-life balance – was the focus of a presentation by travel industry guru Nolan Burris, president of Visionistics Enterprises, to NEST agents at American Marketing Group’s TravelMarket 2012.
“Entrepreneurs tend to work 24/7, but there’s a cost to this that comes in the form of family, friends and health,” he told the audience of home-based agents. “If we’re not consciously aware of the effects, we can hit burnout and end up hating the work we love.”
To avoid burnout while remaining productive, “you have to set priorities and have a purpose,” said Burris.
Burris, who works from home in Vancouver, British Columbia, also shared tips on marketing, charging fees, and other business strategy issues.
By appointment only
An effective way for home-based agents to structure their time to work by appointment, Burris advised. Appointments should apply both to phone and face-to-face consultations.
“You make appointments to visit the hairdresser – you don’t usually just show up,” he said. “Appointments let you set a schedule, and they can change the perception of yourself.”
When clients call out of the blue, Burris advised responding either with, “I’d love to talk with you. Can we schedule an appointment?” or “I normally work by appointment, but I happen to have some free time now.”
Audience response to the appointment idea was affirmative. One agent said her clients respect the fact that she requires appointments. “You are viewed as more of a professional,” she said.
Emailing clients with a choice of appointment times has worked well for her, another agent in the audience said.
As a home-based agent, you have the ability to be available to your clients at any hour. But should you?
Burris did not advocate being available at all hours. But, he said, there are times when letting a client know they can call you after hours, if circumstances warrant it, makes good business sense.
“It can mean a lot to the client if you say, ‘I don’t normally take evening calls, but for you I will.’ People will rarely call you after-hours, but it can be worth gold if you help someone out when the really need it.”
Be the anti-Expedia
Knowing how to respond to price-shoppers who call asking if you can match a deal they found on the Internet will also help agents use their work time more effectively, Burris suggested.
When responding to price-shoppers, never give a price quote, Burris advised.
“A price quote is what Expedia does. You are providing a consultation and you need to convey this right away.”
Burris cautioned agents against badmouthing Expedia and other OTAs to potential customers.
“Instead say, ‘Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? I want to make sure you don’t waste a penny on a trip you don’t enjoy. My job is to get you the right vacation, not just the best deal.’
“Be the anti-Expedia.”
A business opportunity
Agents can turn a client’s negative experience with an OTA into a business opportunity, Burris said.
“If someone calls you and says they have screwed up by booking with Travelocity and are in a jam, you can create a fan for life if you help them out,” Burris said. “They will be willing to pay you a fee. In fact, you can say, ‘We have a special fee for those who screwed up with Travelocity.’”
Toot your horn
Home-based agents need to be smart marketers, getting the word out as much as possible about the advantages that working from home gives them, Burris said.
Flexibility is among the advantages that should be emphasized. Agents can say to clients, “I can come to you. I can come to your office, to Starbucks. I make house calls,” Burris advised.
Another advantage home-based agents should tout is personalized service. Tell customers: “I can focus only on you – there aren’t the distractions you have in a regular office. It’s all about the client – you’re not a small fish in a big pond.”
Use the right social media . . .
Home-based agents can and should use social media to market themselves, but choosing the right medium for the right demographic is important, Burris said.
In general, Facebook is the best medium for reaching people age 55 and older; LinkedIn is best for reaching those in the 34-44 age group, and Twitter for those age 25 to 34, according to Burris.
Discussion groups on social media, some of which have several thousand members, are particularly good marketing vehicles, he said.
. . . and use it wisely
Burris cautioned that social media is not the place for a hard sell. “For instance, you could join a discussion group on Italian cooking and share a recipe for marinara sauce. Then you could mention that you’re putting together a Mediterranean cruise with a culinary theme – is anyone interested?”
Putting up a poll question on social media is another effective tactic, he added. “For instance, on LinkedIn, you could ask, ‘Do you book your business travel through a travel agent?’”
On a parting note, Burris told the agents that a good way to feel enthused rather than burned out is to “remind yourself to be grateful” for working in an interesting business.
“Most people have jobs that are dull, but we’re in the coolest business in the world,” he said. “Daily gratitude is important.”