In my most recent feature I discussed the idea of using open questions to find out what your customers really want and every selling course talks about how useful open questions – the so-called 6ws – are. And it is quite true that when you ask simple questions to which your customer knows the answer then asking the right open question will usually get you the answer you need.

For example, questions like "When do you want to travel?" Or, "Who will be travelling?" or "What passports do you have?" will usually get you the information you need quickly and accurately. But sometimes, as I suggested in my previous article, you might not get a useful answer. And to find out why you might not get the right answer, we need to look more closely about customers' wants and need.

Human and material needs

In order to make a booking – any kind of booking – you have to find out the material aspects of the booking. The things that are found out by the open questions - When; Where; Who; and How.

You need to know when your customers wish to travel; where they wish to travel; who is travelling and how they will be travelling. Without this information you can't book a holiday or indeed any other travel arrangements. But you don't need to know the answer to the questions why are you travelling? or what do you want from your holiday?

But these aspects are what we call our customers' human needs and, although you might think that you don't need this information, it is important to realise that your customers are thinking about their holiday in terms of their human needs; the material needs will probably not concern them. And if you don't find out your customers' human needs then you might not find out the material needs that you need to know to make a booking.

The difference between human and material needs applies to just about everything you buy – not just travel.

Last time I gave the example of the paint salesman who was confusing you by talking about different kinds of paint: liquid gloss, satinwood, polyurethane gloss, silthane, thixotropic, and he was talking about the material aspects of his product. He needed to know the answer so that he could sell you the right kind of paint for the job you had in mind. But you are thinking in human needs: inside or outside? Hard-wearing or temporary? Shiny or matt? Washable or not washable? And unless the paint salesman finds out your human needs then he won't be able to suggest the right paint for you.

The questions What? and Why?

The material needs you have to find out will be affected by your customers' human needs, and to find out what these are you need to know why they want to travel. Of course, you can't usually ask that question so bluntly, so you will ask in a sideways kind of way: "What kinds of things do you like doing on holiday?" or "What are you looking for from your cruise"?

But these questions, because they are asking about people's human needs – which are often quite personal –won't always give you a full or useful answer. Quite often this is the kind of thing that happens:

Agent, "What kinds of things do you like doing on holiday?"

Customer, "Oh, you know, sunbathing and a bit of sightseeing..."

Agent. "OK – well here are some brochures for you to take a look at..."

No sale!

So what should the agent have done? Let's have another go.

Agent. "What kinds of things do you like doing on holiday?"

Customer, "Oh, you know sunbathing and a bit of sightseeing..."

Agent, "And what kind of sightseeing do you prefer...?"

Customer, "Well, we are quite keen on old buildings and museums..."

Agent. "And you said you liked sunbathing – did you want to stay in an old city or would want something on the beach and then travel around to sightsee...?"

Customer, "Oh – we want to stay in the city – we don't want to have to drive in..."

Agent. "So are you looking for a nice city centre hotel with its own pool...?"

Customer, "Yes, that's the kind of thing."

Now the agent is well on the way to being able to make some proper suggestions as to a suitable destination.

The budget pitfall

So, having established that this particular customer would like a hotel with its own pool area in, say, Venice, the next question might be to find out what is within the customer's budget, since, as you will know, Venice can be very expensive. So the agent asks, "What sort of budget had you in mind? and back comes the answer, "Oh something nice" or "Well, the price does need to be reasonable" and, of course, neither of these answers will help at all. What is "nice" to your customer will probably not mean the same as does "nice" to you. Similarly, how much is "reasonable"? Your customer will have a pretty good idea of how much he or she is prepared to spend but might not know how much hotels cost in Venice. So, on receiving the answer, "Oh, something nice" you might need to give some additional information before asking again about the customer's budget. For example, you might say, "Well, the Hilton has its own swimming pool and sunbathing area and it's around 400 Euros per night – how does that fit in?

If your customer was only thinking of paying around half that amount then you might quickly learn this fact. But not always since, of course, people are often a bit reluctant to admit they can't afford something. So you need to be sensitive and listen for the kinds of excuses that customers can come up with, rather than admitting that 400 Euros a night is too much for them to pay.

And often customers will lie, rather than admit that the price is too much. So in answer to your probing question, "Well, the Hilton has its own swimming pool and sunbathing area and it's around 400 Euros per night – how does that fit in? you might get the answer, "Well, actually I see that hotel's not on the main island and we don't want to have to take a water taxi every time we want to visit other areas" and, although that might be true, it could simply be a lie because your customer doesn't want to admit that the price is too high.

So what do you need to do to save wasting a lot of time trying to find an alternative that your customer will accept? And that is for next time.

For more information about this, or any other aspect of training, contact Richard English at Dormers, Church Road, Partridge Green, West Sussex, RH13 8JS. Telephone 01403 710371 or email

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