Cold calling and the home-based travel agent
Here’s a question I was asked recently: “I do have a strong sales background, how much cold calling is involved in this type of business or is it done mostly over the Internet?”
Here’s my answer, addressed to the questioner, but of interest to all (I hope).
First of all, let me say that your background in sales will serve you well in your new career as a home-based travel agent. A lot of these slick “give me your money and I’ll make you a travel agent” come-ons talk about how all you have to do is “share your love of travel.” While there’s a fair bit of truth to that, sharing your love of travel is just the beginning. You also need some solid knowledge to back up that love and you have to understand the sales process to get from “love” to money in the bank.
Your question seems to imply that “cold calling” and “the Internet” are a sort of either/or proposition, or two sides of the same coin. In other words, if you’re not cold calling you’re selling travel on the Internet. If you’re not selling travel on the Internet, you must be cold calling.
That’s not really the case. So let’s untangle the two.
Travel Agents and Cold Calling
For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, cold calling is the process of approaching people (or in some cases companies) with whom you have no prior contact or relationship, with the goal of identifying them as prospects. Prospects then enter your “sales funnel” to be qualified and moved toward a purchasing decision.
(If anything in that sentence was unfamiliar to you, don’t worry. The Home-Based Travel Agent Success Course contains an entire module on sales skills as they apply to selling travel. It will teach you everything from prospecting to qualifying to presenting travel products, to dealing with objections, to closing the sale. Other modules in the course will walk you through the process of making solid bookings.)
If you want to make cold calls — and believe it or not there are some salespeople who absolutely love making them — by all means do so. However, I would recommend starting with your so-called “warm market” — people you already know. The obvious people in this category are friends and family, but it can extend to acquaintances you have through work, your house of worship, clubs and associations. Another excellent source of clients is the professionals to whom you have been giving business over the years — doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, pastors, and so forth.
Yet another source of clients is referrals. Of course, your best referrals are a bit down the road, if you are just starting out. They will come after your first clients have completed their trips and have experienced your terrific customer service.
But there is another, often overlooked, source of referrals you can begin tapping immediately. That is friends and acquaintances of friends and acquaintances. Your dentist doesn’t have plans for a cruise in the near future? Maybe he knows someone who is dying to take a cruise and would be willing to refer you.
There’s an old saying, “Never say never,” but in general I would discourage making “onesy-twosy” cold calls; that is, to individuals who (assuming you are successful) will be booking a trip for one or two people. There are more efficient and remunerative ways to spend your time.
In my opinion, the best cold calls are those made to companies, associations, clubs, church groups, and so forth, calls that can lead to extremely lucrative group bookings. But that’s an advanced technique and you really should have a good bit of experience under your belt before you attempt it. Otherwise, your lack of expertise can trip you up and cost you a sale — not to mention damage your reputation as a knowledgeable travel agent.
Selling Travel on the Internet
A surprising number of people think that being a home-based travel agent means setting up a website (or having one set up for you) and then sitting back while the bookings and commissions roll in.
The fact that this is nonsense doesn’t stop some so-called host agencies from encouraging people to buy into the fantasy. They will take your money to set up a cookie-cutter website with a booking engine and then charge you a hefty monthly fee to “maintain” it. Then, when you realize that you are losing money every month, they will sell you SEO (search engine optimization) services that will supposedly make your site visible to searchers. I have yet to see any proof that this works. (If anyone reading this has access to such proof, I’d be indebted to them if they’d share it.)
There is, however, another way in which selling (or at least booking) travel is “done mostly over the Internet,” to quote from your question.
Many host agencies give their outside agents access to password protected websites that have booking engines. The agent makes the sale and gathers all the appropriate information from the client. Then she turns to the host’s website, enters that information in the booking engine and completes the booking.
Many suppliers offer a similar service. In this case, of course, the online booking services are limited to their hotel chain, resort chain, cruise line, tour company, or whatever. These arrangements enable the home-based agent to bypass a host altogether.
Caution: Booking directly with a supplier does not necessarily mean you will make more money. Consult the Home-Based Travel Agent Success Course for guidance on this subject.
So should you have a website? The conventional wisdom says, “Yes!” But I don’t believe you need to have one from the get-go. Home-based travel agents were making a lot of money before the Internet exploded and my guess is there are a lot of website-less agents still making good money today.
Setting up a website can take a lot of your time (and money!), especially if you are hiring someone to do it for you. That’s time and money better spent, in my opinion, on learning about your new career. Spend it on a fam/seminar or traveling to a travel agent conference. Learn about the business and the industry first; tackle the technology later, when you will have a better idea how it will serve you.
My philosophy is to spend money only when it makes sense and you can see a clear return on investment down the road (and not very far down the road, at that!). And then spend as little as possible.
Spending time setting up a fancy-schmantzy website can give you the illusion that you are making progress when, in fact, you haven’t even started yet. A website is just a tool. There’s no sense investing in a very expensive woodworking shop in your garage when you have no lumber and no plans for what you’re going to build with it.
Yes, I know, it’s possible to set up a serviceable website with very little money or effort, especially if you have a modicum of tech savvy. And I’m not going to call you a bad person if you set one up before you’ve made your first booking.
I would suggest, however, that you have a clear idea of what that website can and cannot do. I would suggest that you harbor no illusions that your website will “sell travel.” You will sell travel. If anything, the website has to sell you.
Cold calling and the Internet are not an either/or proposition. Both have their place in your home-based travel agent career. But since you’re just starting out, I suggest you stick to the basics. As an experienced salesperson, you will understand that means nailing down your product knowledge and the mechanics of closing the sale and recording the booking.
For most home-based agents, especially those with no prior sale experience, cold calling is an advanced technique. Indeed, it is one they may never have occasion to use, once their referral engine starts up and keeps humming along.
The Internet is a powerful tool, but unless you have the big bucks and the technological savvy of Expedia and Orbitz and all the other online sellers of travel, you cannot realistically expect it to sell travel for you while you laze around the pool.
When — and if — you get a website, design it to guide prospects into your sales funnel so you can build a relationship and start selling person-to-person.
Above all, if you are just starting out, make an investment in learning how the business really works. That way, you will not be at the mercy of the slick sales pitches from host agencies. You will know how to analyze every host agency offer and pick the one that makes the most sense for you. You will know how to create a business that will maximize your income, not someone else’s. You will be a truly independent travel agent.