Qualifying Your Clients

Product mating and upselling skills By: Kenneth Shapiro


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Read information from the first ExecConnect general session, Prospecting for New Business now.

Read information from the third general session, Building a Repeat Client Base now. 

The second General Session at ExecConnect was focused on “Qualifying Your Clients,” a topic that Marc Kazlauskas, president of Insight Vacations, and the ExecConnect moderator, described as one of the most important things you can do to service your clients.

“In order to be successful, agents have to understand their customers and their needs before they give them advice,” said Kazlauskas.

What to Ask

Kazlauskas began by pointing out that clients come to travel agents for their consultative advice.

“Imagine going to a doctor’s office and without even asking any questions, he says here are five prescriptions for you, three things to do and call me in a week,” he said. “You would never return again.”

According to Kazlauskas, lots of travel agents do this very same thing by trying to sell travel products before they ask their customers enough questions.

Next, the audience participated in a group exercise by trying to think of questions a father or mother might ask to a prospective match for a child. The point of the exercise was to show that when the stakes are high, you can think of a lot of questions that are important to ask. Kazlauskas singled out the television show “Millionaire Matchmaker,” because the star of that show spends a lot of time and energy asking questions and getting to know her clients, and she really focuses on qualifying.

Kazlauskas then asked the audience to come up with the five most important questions to ask a client:
1) What’s your name?
2) What kind of research have you done?
3) How are you used to traveling? What are some past trips you’ve liked?
4) What have you been dreaming of doing on this vacation? What are your aspirations?
5) What are some of your past vacation likes and dislikes?

These aren’t all the questions that an agent should ask, but it’s a great start to the process.

Panelist Camille Olivere, vice president of sales for Norwegian Cruise Line, reminded agents that as their clients come back trip after trip, clients’ goals for the various vacations will probably change. As a result, agents need to keep asking some of these questions every time.

How to Listen

Kazlauskas continued the discussion by talking about the importance of listening to your clients. He told the story of being a sales rep and walking into a travel agency, and he said that the agents who would look him in the eye, ask questions and focus on what he was saying were the ones he knew would be successful. He also knew that the agents who hardly paid attention to him and kept typing away on their computers would not get far in the business.

“It’s not enough to ask the right questions,” he said. “You have to also listen to the answers. Listening should take up 100 percent of your attention.”

The next slide on the “art of listening” said that we speak at 120 words per minute, we hear at 400 words per minute and we think at 2,000 words per minute. Kazlauskas said these numbers emphasize how difficult it is not to get ahead of what your customer is saying — to not be two steps ahead of what he or she is saying — and instead focus on the moment.

Kazlauskas then recounted a study by a travel supplier that showed that on the third question, travel agents had one recommendation for their client, but if the agent got to questions four or five, that recommendation almost always changed dramatically. By listening carefully, asking questions and continually checking to make sure they understood what the client was saying, these agents were better able to match their clients to the best product.

Next, Kazlauskas called on a member of the audience for a group exercise. A recording was played of a potential traveler talking about her family and what they were all looking for on a multi-generational family summer trip. The recording had a lot of specific information, and it was tough for the agent to grasp all the details, so the audience chimed in on what they heard as well. With everyone in the room working on it, some trip ideas began to develop that could meet many of the client’s needs.

“Don’t forget to also pick up on any names the client mentions,” Kazlauskas said. “When you give those names back to the client it really shows them that you’re listening and paying attention. If you focus on the quality of the questions and what the client is saying in response, and you check in with them periodically during the conversation to make sure you are both on the same page, your client will gain confidence in your professionalism and abilities.”

Staying Informed

Another crucial aspect of qualifying your client is how well the agent keeps up to date on travel industry news. After all, agents can’t make a perfect recommendation if they are not aware of the latest resort, special offer, trend and more.

Kazlauskas suggested agents can stay current by reading the trade publications, subscribing to daily electronic newsletters, online educational courses, fam trips and other research. He told the audience that most potential clients spend an average of six to 10 hours doing their own online research before they even call an agent, so it’s important that an agent can top that level of education at the very least.

“That’s one of the great things about fam trips,” he said. “It’s great if you can tell your client, you’ve actually been on that tour, or sailed on that cruise ship, because it will be hard for them to top that with their own research.”

Olivere reminded agents that part of asking the right question to a client is knowing the difference between various products.

“For instance,” she said, “most of the itineraries on Norwegian Cruise Line are seven days, while on other lines, such as Seabourn, they are longer. So just knowing that and knowing how much time a client has to travel will help you as you match the client to the product.”

Kazlauskas agreed and added that sometimes, instead of taking a short trip with a luxury brand, a client might prefer a longer trip with an amazing suite and butler service on Norwegian Cruise Line, for example. Agents just need to ask those questions and know their options.

Paula Mitchell Manning, an agent at Call Lynn 2 Travel, in Los Angeles, and president of OSSN’s Southern California chapter, then talked about an educational event she created for agents. The OSSN Southern California Hands-On/Online Training Day began with four suppliers and now has more than 20 suppliers, full training seminars, a trade show, meals and social events.

“It was an opportunity to put a face to an email,” Manning said. “Everyone had a chance to meet and get to know each other, and learn a bit more about our business.”


Kazlauskas defined up-selling as simply getting clients to spend more than they intended to do. He said that in order to best serve clients, agents should not be afraid to up-sell them to a superior product. He said that often clients will be upset if an agent fails to at least offer a more premium service. To emphasize this point, he told the story of a recent vacation that he took that was planned by an agent. When he got to his resort, he discovered there was a much better level of service and, thought the difference in price was reasonable, he was annoyed that he was never even given the chance to purchase this upgrade. He said it nearly ruined the vacation.

“Frankly, there are customers that may have 10 days vacation, but that doesn’t mean they have to take a 10-day trip,” Kazlauskas said. “Some clients are going to be happier taking a five-star, five-day vacation than taking a 10-day, four-star vacation.”

To emphasize this point, there was a statistic from the “2010 Portrait of American Travelers,” conducted by YPartnership, which said that 25 percent of travelers said they would be willing to pay as much as 20 percent more for products and services customized to their specifications.

Kazlauskas went on to say that there are many examples of up-selling in our daily lives. Super-Sizing an order at McDonald’s restaurant is an example of up-selling, as is the interaction with the waiter at a fine-dining restaurant. Kazlauskas said upscale restaurants, in particular, are masters of up-selling.

“So watch for this in your daily interactions as you go through life,” he said. “You can learn a lot by watching how great other organizations are at up-selling.”

Next, the audience came up with some great up-selling opportunities in travel:
1) Insurance: Good for the customer and good commission
2) Verandah cabins on cruise ships: If you don’t get one but your friend does, you are going to be wondering what’s wrong with my agent.
3) Transfers: Well worth it to the customer
4) Excursions: There is plenty of opportunity to add these to a vacation
5) Pre- and post-trip hotel: If you can get your clients to come into a destination a day early, their lives will be much easier and they will really appreciate that.

Finally, to sum up, the audience was provided with a list of action steps for qualifying clients:
• Develop a script of qualifying questions
• Interview your client
• Listen for buying prompts
• Take time with prospects
• Stay educated
• Look for up-sell opportunities

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