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Chapter 21 Customer service for the travel professional.


At the conclusion of this chapter, you will be able to

* define customer service.

* understand what customers want.

* recognize things you can do to improve customer service.

* utilize techniques to handle complaints and irate customers.

* utilize telephone etiquette.

* understand external things that affect how your customers see you.


customer expectations

customer service


irate customers

telephone etiquette

The Internet has assumed an increasing role in travel planning, to the point that some are asking if travel agents will survive. It is probably unlikely that we will ever see the demise of travel agents, because like everything, the Internet has its pros and cons. One of the biggest shortcomings reported by Internet users is the lack of customer service. There are times when a customer needs to have a question answered or a problem solved, things a travel agent does every day. A successful travel agent brings something special to every transaction-something only a travel agent can do. It might be expert advice on a destination, the security of knowing there's someone to help if something goes wrong, saving time for a business traveler because you did in 3 minutes what would have taken her 20, or a level of customer service that is difficult, if not impossible, to find online.


Customer service is a subject every one of us can discuss with authority because we are all customers. We know with certainty that being treated with respect and appreciation is preferable to being treated with indifference. We know exactly what should have been done better. Yet, can you define customer service?

Simply stated, customer service is whatever satisfies the customer. Satisfaction with a product or service is usually based on perceptions and expectations. A hotel guest who perceives that she should be treated royally because her hotel room costs $235 will depart unsatisfied if the service is anything less than superior. If, on the other hand, the hotel guest doesn't expect too much (perhaps because the hotel room cost $35), then she may be satisfied with much less service. The difference between how one expects to be treated and how one perceives the actual treatment determines one's satisfaction.

Product advertising is often intended to influence customer expectations. If an airline announces via advertising that its planes always depart on time, its customers are unhappy if a flight departs only 10 minutes late. The customer was expecting to depart on time, not 10 minutes late! A hotel that advertises its high level of personal service had better produce a high level of personal service. If not, it will produce many unsatisfied customers.

The difficulty with a definition of customer service is that each individual has his own personal definition. These are as diverse as levels of education, experience, personal preferences, and so on. Customer expectations also have a way of changing. As customers gain more experience with a particular product or service, the more exacting their expectations become.

What Do Customers Want?

The key to having satisfied customers is to ensure that service always exceeds expectations. When service falls short of expectations, the customer is invariably dissatisfied.

Although expectations are as individual as the customers, we can make a few generalizations about what customers expect. First, a customer wants to be treated courteously. Courtesy and etiquette are fundamental to any interpersonal relationship, whether business or personal. To overlook the basics such as "please" and "thank you" is inexcusable. We can list some other things customers want:

* to feel important

* to be kept informed, even if the news is bad

* to be treated fairly

* to know they are valued

* to feel that service is given willingly and they are not putting the server to too much trouble

The best way to discover what your customers want is to ask them. Previously, we discussed follow-up as an important way to get information and at the same time tell your customers that you care about them. The ability to provide for the needs and expectations of customers depends on our ability to develop an efficient system to feedback.

Many times travel counselors feel that providing good service to their customers is out of the individual counselor's control. The travel counselor cannot control canceled flights, lost deposits, overbooked hotels, storms at sea, and so on. What the counselor can offer is assurance that she will do everything possible to prevent problems, and that when things do go awry (and they will), the counselor will do everything possible to serve the best interests of the customer. Also, the counselor can (and should) prepare the customer to have realistic expectations about the products and services he is buying.

What the customer wants to know is what value she will receive for the money she is paying. What can her travel counselor do better than every other travel counselor? In our present market, differentiating between travel counselors is often difficult. Survival requires that your customers know what you will do for them.

Commitment to Excellence

Excellent customer service is not an accident. It doesn't just happen. Companies that have records of excellent customer service have worked hard to attain that reputation.

What have they done to get there? Why do the employees of one company seem to perform at a much higher level of customer service than the employees of another company? It takes leadership and support, beginning at the top of the organization. Everyone in the organization must be encouraged to practice truly excellent customer service. Many times the employees have the abilities and the proper attitudes toward customer service, but they lack the support from the management of their companies. An outstanding front desk clerk at a poorly managed motel won't single-handedly keep guests coming to the motel.

Companies that provide excellent customer service must also have a clear focus on their customers. As you have seen, customer expectations differ: A level of service that is superior for one group may fall short for another. Consider the example of automatic checkout from hotels. Business travelers generally appreciate the convenience of having in-room checkout procedures. An infrequent traveler on vacation may feel offended by this same service because he prefers the more personal attention he gets from the desk personnel when checking out. If the hotel doesn't provide for both of these groups of customers, one group is going to feel that the level of service at the hotel is inferior. Who your customers are and their level of experience and expectations define the service you should provide.

Customer service expectations usually parallel the price of a product or service. In other words, a first-class airline passenger expects to receive an enhanced level of service. If she receives the same level of service that a coach passenger does, she will be a dissatisfied customer. On the other hand, the coach passenger on the same aircraft may be extremely satisfied with his service because it was exactly what he expected to receive. The travel agency customer who buys a trip around the world has a much different expectation of his service than the customer who books a round-trip to Des Moines. When we spend more, we expect more service.

What Can Travel Professionals Do?

Some fascinating research suggests that even if effective customer service is impossible to render because of difficult circumstances, customers will be sympathetic and hold down their anger if they feel that the person who is providing the service is trying to do her best to make things right. The individual provider of customer service can make a difference! Ultimately, the customer service person is the entire organization in the customer's view. There are several basics that each of us should follow:

* Acknowledge every customer as soon as possible, even if you are busy at the time.

* Get the customer's name and use it in your interaction.

* Make every customer feel special; even if he isn't buying much this time, there's always next time.

* Exhibit enthusiasm every time you serve a customer; it may be your hundredth customer, but you are that customer's first contact.

* Never, ever fight with a customer; remember, the customer is always right.

* Be conscious of how you say things; your tone of voice is sometimes more meaningful than the words you say.

* "I don't know" should always be followed by "but I'll be happy to find out."

* Provide more than the customer expects.

* Always thank the customer.

You can make a difference. Even if you don't receive the support you need, even if every other person the customer has contacted has been indifferent, you can provide a good experience for your customer and leave her feeling entirely differently about your company.


If your customer's trip was great, it's nice to hear the praise. If the trip was bad, you need to know that, too. The average dissatisfied customer tells 10 people about his trip. If the customer has an opportunity to tell his travel counselor, he will be less inclined to complain to friends, or the complaint may include a statement like "my travel counselor has really tried to help."

Follow-up requires considerable effort, and is often overlooked by busy travel professionals. Yet, the results are worth it. It can be done by phone, mail, or e-mail; it may be a formal questionnaire or an informal conversation, but it needs to be done. Following up conveys an important message to your customers: I care! Next time a customer is ready to make travel plans, she will remember you.

And by the way, if the reviews are good, don't forget to offer to book the next trip!


No matter what you do, there is always the possibility that circumstances will arise over which you have no control, and a customer will come to you with a complaint. It's important to look at a complaint for what it is-feedback. A complaint should provide the company with valuable information about the quality of the product or service it is providing. Keep in mind that people who complain represent less than 5 percent of all unsatisfied customers. Those who do complain should be listened to closely!

When you have a complaint, what do you want when you register that complaint? Usually, you want a little empathy, understanding, and an appreciation of the importance of your complaint and the inconvenience it has caused you. You probably want the service or product that was promised or a specific level of performance that was expected but has not yet been delivered. You may want compensation for damages, whether this is a refund or credit for errors or overcharges, or for the failure of the product or company to perform. Your customers are no different.

Sometimes, the customer wants nothing! A customer may simply wish to express dissatisfaction with a policy or procedure that has caused him inconvenience. Most people who take the time to frame a complaint of this nature are concerned and want to continue doing business with you. Just because they have not asked for a specific action does not mean you can ignore such a complaint. An incorrect response (such as no acknowledgement at all or a form letter that doesn't fit the situation) can result in serious alienation of a valued customer. The best response is a personal letter that restates the complaint and thanks the customer for bringing this information to your attention. If some action is planned, explain what that will be.

Handling complaints requires some special skills that can be easily learned. First, listen to everything the customer has to say, without interrupting. The customer has probably spent considerable time thinking about what she will say. Let her say it. Don't try to explain what happened or why it happened. Don't try to defend your position or that of your company. Remember, the customer is always right.

When she has finished, make a statement of regret, such as "I'm sorry you have had this problem." Then make a statement of empathy, such as "I can certainly understand your feelings."

Look for something you can agree with and say that you agree: "I certainly agree that four weeks is too long to wait for your confirmation."

The next step is to ask for additional information or clarification if you need it, then offer a suggested solution. Be sure to mention only what you can do or what you propose to do, not what you can't do. No one wants to be told about all the things you can't do. When an acceptable solution has been reached, thank the customer for calling (or coming in) and ask if there is anything else you can do to assist. If it is appropriate, follow up in a few days to be certain everything was settled to her satisfaction.


Sometimes a customer with a complaint is very angry. Although these irate customers are probably a minority of the complaints you will handle, they can seem like much more. No matter how seasoned or how experienced you are, an irate person is hard to handle (Figure 21-1).

Too often you, too, begin to react with your emotions. You may get angry at this person's total lack of understanding of the situation. "How dare he? I'm trying to help! I didn't cause this situation!" We now have two angry people and a situation that's out of control. Somebody has to be in control, and that person is you. When you are in control, you benefit because it means you are not being controlled by this person's behavior toward you.


How do you gain control? First and foremost, do not take the attack as a personal assault. You personally were probably not responsible for the problem. Use the skills you learned for handling a complaint. Remain calm! Don't let yourself get angry or emotional.

In some companies, customer service representatives are asked to refer irate customers to a supervisor. This helps to give the customer a chance to cool down. Often, by the time a supervisor takes the call, the customer has calmed down considerably. The supervisor hasn't just been yelled at, so her thought processes may be clearer. The customer may be more inclined to listen to someone he perceives to be in authority.

Handle the situation in the best way you know how and forget about it. Move on to other things. You always think of the best things to say after the situation is over, but dwelling on it makes you less productive for the rest of the day and doesn't solve anything.


Because many travel professionals do a large portion of their customer contact by telephone, it is important to practice good telephone etiquette. Frequently the first impression a customer forms about a business is based on the person who answers the telephone. If that person exhibits an unfriendly attitude, an unwillingness to help, poor grammar, or just plain bad manners, the customer's first impression is likely to be justifiably unkind. That customer may never be back.

You will recall from the discussion of telephone sales in Chapter 20 that what you say is important, but how you say it is even more important. Put a smile into your voice. If you have any doubts about whether this is possible, just listen to any popular local radio personalities. Imagine how dull radio would be without projection of personality by the announcers. You can do the same thing over the phone. It may take some practice, but learning to project your personality through your voice can make a world of difference to your customers.

People become easily frustrated by numerous telephone transfers and interruptions. If you do not know who can assist the caller, take the information and a phone number and do the legwork yourself. This way the customer is not forced to make multiple explanations and endure being passed from person to person.

Answer the telephone by the second or third ring and answer in a way that can be understood by the caller. By the time you have answered the hundredth call, your greeting can become slurred. The customer is, however, hearing it for the first time.

If you initiate a call, don't make the other person wait to speak to you. Have your thoughts organized and your information at hand. If someone else places the call for you, be ready to speak to the person as soon as the call goes through.

Take notes so you don't have to make the caller repeat his needs, and so you don't have to trust your memory.

If you use an answering machine or voice mail when you are away from your phone, remember to check your outgoing message frequently. It should be clear and easily understood by the caller. Don't try to be cute. It usually does not come across well. Check for messages often and return your calls promptly.

Telephones are a major convenience, but they can also be a major source of frustration for a customer. Don't let your telephone procedures have a negative effect on the quality of customer service you provide.


Everything about you makes a statement to your customers. Advertisers have understood for many years that packaging is at least as important as the product inside the package. What kind of statement does your packaging make about you?

* Your appearance. "Dress for success" has become a common utterance among professionals. Whether you wear the traditional business suit, a uniform, or something more individual, your attire makes a statement about you. Take your cue from the management of your company. Pay attention to who your customers are. If your offices are in a major metropolitan city, a conservative style may be most appropriate. If you work on or near a college campus, the style may be more casual. Your appearance must always be neat and clean. Never should your appearance detract from your customers' ability to relate to you.

* Your desk. Are you the neat and orderly type, or are you the disorganized type whose desk is piled 12 inches high at all times? Like your appearance, your desk makes a statement about you. A customer may not want to trust her travel plans to someone who appears to be disorganized. Personal items on your desk also make a statement. Think about what your personal items say about you to a customer.

* Your office. The arrangement of your office and the furnishings, style, and cleanliness all speak volumes to a customer (Figure 21-2). Is the coffeepot placed for customer access? Is it crusty with last year's coffee? Is the furniture tattered or elegant? Is the desk arrangement functional or cluttered? Look at these things through the eyes of your customers. Do they say what you would want them to say?

* Your correspondence. No letter or promotional material should leave your hands with misspelled words or grammatical errors. This conveys an attitude of not caring and of lack of attention to detail. The quality of business cards, stationery, and envelopes also has an impact upon your customers. These items are a reflection of you and how you do business. Do they speak well of you?



Customer service will be an integral part of careers in travel forever. How well you carry it through for your customers may well decide who survives and who does not. Because there is little differentiation in the products you provide, customer service is crucial to getting and retaining customers. Purchasing products over the Internet is often faulted for not providing the level of customer service that customers have come to expect. Only the travel professional that is able to provide a consistently high level of service can expect to continue to do business.

It is difficult to define customer service precisely because each individual customer has his own personal definition. Things like education, experience, and the amount of money spent for a product help to define customer expectations. Excellent customer service is based on your ability to exceed each customer's expectations.

Every person who is placed in a position to serve customers can make a difference. Research suggests that one customer service professional becomes the entire organization in the customer's view. That professional's attitude can make the difference between customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

Customers are the most important element of your career. Developing good customer service skills early in one's career is a good investment in the future.

For additional Travel and Tourism resources, go to


Review Questions

1. List the steps you would take to handle a complaint.

2. Cite an example of excellent service that you have received and explain why you feel it was excellent.

3. Why do you feel it is important to maintain a reputation for excellent customer service?

4. List five basic things you can do to provide better customer service.






5. What effect can your appearance have on your customers?

6. Discuss three things you can do to make your telephone manner more pleasing to a customer.

7. Why should a business be concerned if its customers feel it is out of touch with the customer's needs?

8. Why is it important to know what your customers expect of your service?

9. What percentage of customers complain?

10. Does the price of a product or service have an effect on the level of service the customer expects? If so, what?







1. Jupiter Research Internet Travel Model, 2004









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Cruises Consolidators

Ecotourism Education


Independent and Home-Based Travel Professionals


Internet Travel Agencies

Professional Organizations


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Title Annotation:SECTION VII Selling and Servicing the Travel Client
Author:Gorham, Ginger; Rice, Susan
Publication:Travel Perspectives, A Guide to Becoming a Travel Professional
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:Chapter 20 Sales skills for the travel professional.
Next Article:Glossary.

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