Traits of the worst travel agents

CHIANG RAI, 21 November 2018: We all like to think our friendly travel agent still has a future with a little help from technology.

Disruptive technology is not the travel agency’s worst enemy. In reality it’s a friend that can help a travel agency adapt and build a new sustainable business model.

That’s the message we hear at conferences, or on the sidelines of trade exhibitions, from the vendors of powerful Apps that claim to transform a travel agency on the skids to one that soars to new heights.  

But if you check what constitutes the worst travel agents, based on surveys, most lapses have very little to do with a failure to embrace technology and more to do with an inability to recognise and respect a customer’s basic needs.

A recent UK ‘Which’ report took a look at what constitutes the worst travel agencies and while the research focused on the UK travel market, the complaints consumers identified hint of what is really hurting travel agencies worldwide – a lack of respect for the customer who is probably giving them a last chance to perform.

There are enough travellers out there who would happily give a travel agency their business if they could deliver a memorable hassle free trip. Agencies are losing customers faster than they can find replacements, not because of technology, but due a widespread lack of empathy with customers.

So what constitutes worst in-class? Misinformation topped the list of consumer complaints.  The worst travel companies exaggerate and fail to deliver on their advertised promise. It’s a universal problem illustrated by company websites and glowing press releases that make very little effort to conceal their real purpose to generate sales rather than provide accurate information.

The worst travel agents also share other traits. Usually reps in travel agencies sell accommodation based on what has been contracted by senior managers, or even the agency owner. The flagged bargains and top recommendations are not based on value for the customer, but the commission level, or the net markup that goes with the accommodation. Of course, this leads to a litany of complaints from customers who will invariably discover there was a superior hotel next door at a much better rate.

But service-poor travel agencies have more in common than just packaging substandard accommodation, they are more likely to employ incompetent staff ensuring “terrible customer service.” It was high up on the list of problems encountered by the 6,945 respondents surveyed.

Travel agencies are notorious for penny-pinching on salaries and hiring incompetent reps, or counter staff, who know less about the destinations than the customer. Clearly, they have never visited the destination, or done any serious research. They are order takers poorly paid and trained.

How many students today look at the travel agency job market and think they might have a rewarding career path in travel? I assume not many. Salaries are low and the only viable path forward sees them heading for the door to open their own agency where they replicate the same errors.

Poor travel agencies are known for heavy-duty hard sell. Agency staffers are told to up-sell. It’s their mantra and of course customers recognise when they are being taken to the cleaners through pricy upgrades and extras.

And as the tour unfolds, tour company clients dislike being treated like cattle led by the nose to jewellery, handicraft and souvenir shops. It’s a worldwide travel agency tactic to boost earnings from shopping and despite the denials it prospers in every market and customers recognise they are being ripped off.

Is the answer to beef up technology to become more remote and buy into chat bots or robotic help centres? Or is there still a place for the genuine expert, the specialist who embraces duty-of-care and delivers genuine service. Working from home., online and connected, they are probably the antithesis of the so-called grand mergers and the mega travel corporations that we see today.