Good Relationships Take Effort

Sometimes it takes a personal touch to keep your customers happy.

By: Margot Carmichael Lester

Technology has boiled customer relations down to a science. There are plenty of contact management solutions and database applications out there, but one of the simplest and most effective ways to build and maintain your customer base continues to be the personal touch.

It works for Gloria Nasser, senior vice president of The Travel Store in Beverly Hills, Calif. She says she’s never had to solicit a client.

“People come to us because we’re nice and we know what we’re doing.”

Consider this testimonial from one of Nasser’s customers, who asked not to be identified for reasons that quickly will become obvious.

“She got my old bosses on a flight to London and they were so unbelievably picky and kept changing their return date and where they wanted to sit and then decided not to fly back together and then bought a dog in Scotland and had to change everything again so that the dog could fly home with them.

“Everything was changed every day because my old bosses were lunatics. She was great the whole time and sent them a thank-you note.”

The polite gesture ensured that the old bosses as well as their former employee will be Nasser’s clients for life.

She said the effort wasn’t out of the ordinary.

“I thank my clients all the time,” she said, noting that there are a lot of travel agencies that would be happy to lure her clients away. “You’d like them to do business with you and to come back. Besides,” she added, with a laugh, “maybe the courtesy will rub off!”

Writing a quick note to thank a current client for a referral or a new client for some business makes a good impression.

Similarly, a “welcome home” note reminds customers of the person who helped make their trip possible.


Jeanne Hamilton, creator of the Web site, said agents can get a lot of value from thank-you notes or welcome-back cards, particularly if the sentiments are handwritten.

“A personal letter is always better than an e-mail,” she said. “E-mail is so commonplace, but a small card with a few hand-written lines is so unusual these days that it conveys you’ve invested time in the recipients and that they’re important to you.”

Many of today’s businesspeople may protest quite accurately that their handwriting is illegible. But they still can print a brief message to convey the same sense of individualized customer attention.

E-mails, Hamilton said, aren’t off limits, but should be restricted to informal situations or those in which speed is of the essence. “If you’re just sending a quick thanks to a co-worker, e-mail is just fine, or if you can’t wait for the mail to confirm receipt of a deposit,” she said.

As for phone calls, Hamilton says they are fine in an emergency. But, for an expression of thanks or good wishes, they can appear too informal and some clients may consider them little better than telemarketing.

Awkward Situations

Etiquette’s easy when business relationships are good, but what about difficult situations, such as collecting on a past-due bill or “firing” a problem client? “We’re in the selling business,” Nasser said. “So no matter what, you have to keep your composure.”

Hamilton concurs. “When you get hyper and angry, it triggers negative responses in other people and you get that back.”

For instance, Hamilton offers these tips for dealing with an overdue account:

" Don’t be accusatory. “Don’t presume evil. Instead, give them an out by saying, ‘I’m sure your check’s on its way’ or ‘There’s been an oversight.’ ”

" Stick with the facts. “Don’t get emotional or speculate. That puts them on the defensive, and you want them to want to pay you.”

She adds that it’s totally acceptable to ask when you can expect payment and, if you don’t get it, to place another call with a subtle but carefully worded threat like, “If we don’t receive your payment, I’m afraid we’ll have to cancel your reservation.” But make such a statement only if you’re prepared to follow through.

Another potentially awkward situation: the unbearable client. Hamilton said the key is to make it sound as if you’re assuming responsibility for the failed relationship: “I’m sorry our services don’t seem to meet your requirements. I wish you all the best in finding an agent who does.

“Thank you for your patronage and may all your travels be happy.”

Nasser said she has fired just one client. “They drove me nuts and I just couldn’t handle it any more,” she recalled. But she took a more streamlined approach than Hamilton recommended: “I told them I thought they’d do better elsewhere.”

In the end, following the rules of common courtesy and basic etiquette is good business, Hamilton said.