“Shark Tank” Star Gives Travel Agents His Best Business Advice

by James Shillinglaw

Herjavec: “It all comes down to how much value you add.” Photo: Facebook.

What can travel agents learn from one of the members of the “Shark Tank” panel? Robert Herjavec, a regular on the ABC TV show as well as a recent contestant on “Dancing with the Stars,” gave his insights into the travel-agency profession and strategies for business success at Ensemble Travel Group’s annual conference in San Diego.

Herjavec, CEO and owner of Herjavec Group, a cyber security firm in Toronto, and author of “Driven: How to Succeed in Business and Life” and “The Will to Win: Leading, Competing, Succeeding,” began by relating his own experience with travel agents. He said he’s actually never met Laurie, his travel agent for the past 14 years, since she works remotely at her house.

But when Air Canada cut travel-agent commissions more than a decade ago, Herjavec’s agent informed him she would have to charge his company a service fee to book air. His response: He ordered his employees to book air online instead of through the agent. 

Herjavec thought his salespeople would love booking their own travel. He also thought it was sticking to his philosophy that the difference between a smaller company and a much larger one was the willingness to drop things that are perceived as too costly in order to move forward.  “Do you want to guess how long that lasted?” he asked. “It was one of the worst decisions I ever made.”

So, his tips were:

Deliver a great customer experience
Today Laurie is Herjavec’s agent again and has been for years. “She sells something that I can buy online, but she has to add value to it,” he said. “The differentiator between one business and another is customer service, experience and how you make your customer feel.”

Don’t just stick to the script
Herjavec said the salespeople in his company who do really well do a great job of creating a customer experience, not just with words, but with the way they dress and how empathic they are, among other things. “People who don’t do well stick to script and want to get through their script,” he said. Most importantly, Herjavec said, when you get the sale, stop talking!

Find your big differentiator
The more intangible the service or product, the harder it is to find that differentiator, but that is the key. Just as smaller travel agents compete against larger online players and travel players, Herjavec's cyber-security company competes against IBM. “I can’t throw as much money at the problem as they can. I started 11 years ago with two guys and $400,000 in sales. Today we’re about $150 million, with 300 people,” he said. “But how in the world could you ever do anything better than IBM?”

Make the customer feel loved
“The things our big competitors do, we have to do as well as they can,” Herjavec said. “My goal is not to be better at project management than IBM, just as good. Our goal is to have a greater customer experience, make the customer feel more engaged and more loved. At the end of the day, don’t we just want more love in our life?”

Smile through the phone
Herjavec has a long list of reasons why customers buy from smaller technology companies like his own, chief among them that customers believe they will be taken care of better and will be responded to very quickly, and that smaller companies are more fun to deal with. “One thing we’ve taught our people is if you smile on the phone, it comes through to the customer,” Herjavec said. “If you are miserable, it comes through. Your job is to make the customer’s life better every day.”

Be happy in what you do
“In most big companies, they talk about how much they hate their job, why they are going someplace else,” Herjavec said. “When you are small you don’t have the luxury of that. When we were three people, the three of us sat at a desk looking at each other. Our Golden Rule was that everybody had to be happy all the time. You have to wake up every day and add value to what you do.” For travel agents, that translates into: Be happy in what you do and make sure you show it to your customers. 

Be interesting and engaging
Herjavec also related some of his secrets from his TV experience. “I’m not a TV guy, I’m a computer guy…for 35 years,” he said. “On TV you’re a product. You can fix anything….but you can’t fix boring. You have to be interesting and engaging…If you’re not that, you’re going to lose people. On our show, when people come up to pitch us, it’s absolutely real.” That lesson can be applied to travel agents as well. 

Learn how to deal with change
Herjavec also spoke about change and the pace of change in today’s business world, both in technology and the travel. “The only business that changes faster is technology,” he said. “Every company is an online company today…Everybody is being subject to that pace of change…If you don’t like change, you are going to have a very difficult time staying in business.”

Recognize change is getting faster
Herjavec said change is actually only going to get faster. He reviewed current statistics of what happens in an Internet minute: Netflix has 70,000 hours of watched content, 3.5 billion people are online currently with 6 billion IP addresses, Facebook has 700,000 likes, 150 million emails are sent and 20.8 million messages. “The Internet is becoming electricity….We only notice it when it doesn’t exist,” he said.

Understand how much value you add
“You don’t sell anything that a customer can’t figure out the price of,” Herjavec said. “You don’t sell anything that somebody can’t look at themselves. It all comes down to how much value do you add….No matter what level you are at…the proposition never really changes: How do you compete with bigger people and how do you constantly add value?”

Keep growing your business
It’s hard to grow your business, but if you’re not growing you’re dying. “In the tech business, the cycles of change are every three years,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of competitors that I used to compete with because they are all dead….There are not a lot of industries where you have the luxury of staying the same.” 

Compete fiercely for business
Understand that there is always a competitor who wants to take your business. Indeed, he said he keeps a quote from Mark Cuban set in marble on his desk: “Every day somebody wakes up with the sole intention of kicking your ass.” “That keeps me highly motivated,” Herjavec said.

Take risks to grow
Herjavec also talked about why most businesses don’t get to that next level. “I’ve had a little bit of success and I’m trying do better every day,” he said. “Some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t and I drop it. The conclusion I’ve come to is that the thing that holds most people back is risk. Risk is scary. It involves fear; it involves rejection. Most people would rather wait to have opportunity come to them, rather than risk rejection.”

Conquer fear and Dance with the Stars
Every day life hands us opportunities, but we have to constantly be watching for them. “Don’t wait until it’s really up to you,” he said, pointing out that Howard Schulz, the founder of Starbucks, went to 242 banks before he finally got funding for his coffee business. “He created an experience,” Herjavec said. As for himself, Herjavec said one the scariest things he ever did was be a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars,” where incidentally he met his dancing partner, who is now his wife. “My relationship with risk is: the first time you do it it’s scary as hell,” he said. “The second time, it’s a little less scary.” 

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