Improv comedians have a lot to teach travel agents about thriving in today’s business climate, including adapting to circumstances, staying open to the unexpected and being comfortable with discomfort.
Travel Market Report caught up with motivational speaker and trainer John Sweeney. owner of the Brave New Workshop comedy theater in Minneapolis and author of Innovation at the Speed of Laughter, to learn how agents can use lessons from improv comedy to do their jobs better.
Sweeney trained 75 agency owners at a recent Ensemble executive retreat. He has also shared his improvisational principles with Fortune 500 companies such as Yahoo!, Hilton Worldwide, Microsoft and Target.
An essential characteristic of an improviser is openness, something any business person should aspire to, according to Sweeney.
“Our approach views change as fuel instead of an obstacle,” he said. “That attitude allows improvisers to find cracks and seams and insights and lenses that your average person won’t ever get to because they’re too busy fretting about the obstacle in front of them.”
From a travel agency perspective, Sweeney said taking an improviser’s open approach enables agents to take a new attitude toward issues such as Internet competition and consumer misconceptions. Rather than see those conditions as obstacles, agents should see them as opportunities for innovation and new ways of doing things.
Being comfortable with being uncomfortable
Not being stymied by the general feeling of unease that comes with unexpected turns of events also is critical to a professional’s ability to quickly adapt and move on.
To explain what he means, Sweeney draws from his own experience. Being an improviser means embracing the uncomfortable. When you’re standing on stage and you don’t know what the audience is going to throw at you, you can’t let fear paralyze you.
“When something completely unexpected comes up we never react in a stiff or handicapped way. We react in a way that maximizes that moment.”
Travel sellers need to be able to do the same thing. Whether it’s a customer request they’ve never dealt with before or a change in the way the industry operates, agents need to be prepared to push their way through discomfort, uncertainty and fear.
Combat your comfort zone
The best way to overcome the fear that comes from discomfort is to practice being uncomfortable, Sweeney said.
“Like an athlete works on a very specific muscle movement, we work on being comfortable with being uncomfortable. We have lots of exercises that absolutely make us feel uncomfortable and full of anticipation and ambiguity.”
A few exercises travel agents can use to practice being uncomfortable are:
• Go to a movie that’s in a language you don’t understand;
• Eat a meal in a restaurant where you know you will absolutely not enjoy the food;
• While driving to work listen to a radio station that plays the type of music that makes your skin crawl;
• Go to a flea market, pick an item you absolutely don’t want that costs more than $10 and don’t leave until you haggle the seller down to $1. (Also a great exercise to practice your negotiating skills, Sweeney added.)
Banish the box
Once fear and discomfort are taken out of the picture, so is the proverbial box. By pushing past boundaries, travel agents can be more adaptable to their changing work landscape and see things they may not have seen before.
“At some point travel agencies have to bite the bullet and realize the world has changed and they’re not going to be able to do it exactly the same way they have in the past. And that will be scary and that will be uncomfortable.”
But by being able to put the scariness aside, it’s easier to take a broader look at customer travel experiences, and that could lead to new insights into what customers need, which in turn could lead to new services.
Act the part
The way in which improv actors listen and react to each other is another lesson travel agents can apply to their own businesses.
“For improvisers to be successful in a scene I have to be unbelievably and intently focused on making sure I hear you and understand not only what you’re trying to accomplish, but also who you are and what your true emotional point of view is,” Sweeney said.
Now transfer that to an agency customer service situation. Let’s say you’ve got a grumpy customer.
“As an improviser we would see that as a two-person scene and our scene partner has a really different point of view than we do. What we should do is listen and respect his point of view, acknowledge that point of view and then communicate with him in an understanding way until we arrive at a third point of view, which we both can agree on.”
It’s easier if the person is in front of you, Sweeney said, because in addition to listening intently you can also be watching your client’s body. Is your client giving you any clues with their body that you can use? Are they open to what you’re saying or are their folded arms telling you to try another tactic?
Change your POV
“My goal in listening to you isn’t to gain ammunition to prove that you’re wrong,” Sweeney said. “My goal is to empathetically understand your point of view so I can give you what you need.”
To first give customers what they need you need to understand not only what they’re asking for but the emotional need behind the request.
It’s the same as a salesperson trying to sell Sweeney on a new product for this theater. “Don’t tell me what’s so great about your product. Tell me how it can help me sell more theater tickets.”
Put the value proposition of what you’re suggesting in terms of what your customer wants to accomplish. Is your client a mother who wants to have quality time with her kids they’ll never forget? Is it a husband who wants to treat his wife to a romantic getaway?