By Richard English

I was quietly nursing a drink at a recent travel function when I was approached by a young lady, also bearing a drink, and wearing a determined expression on her face. I didn’t recognise her and was slightly taken aback when she said, “Ah. I know you! You’re Richard English” I had to admit that I was, indeed, he, and apologised for the fact that I didn’t recall where we had previously met.

Oh, we’ve never met”, she riposted, “but I recognised you from your picture in Travel Bulletin”. Which, if nothing else, must say something for the popularity of the paper, and maybe even for the quality of my picture.

And I wanted to tell you that your article last month was a load of rubbish”, she went on. “All about asking questions and finding out what people want. You want to try working in my office then you’ll see!” I levered my mouth shut to reply but she’d not finished.

I remembered what you wrote about those ‘open questions’ and I tell you – they don’t work!”

So what actually happened?” I finally managed to interject.

Well, we had one of the usual timewasters in – you know, didn’t know what he wanted. He came up to me and just said, ‘I’m thinking of a holiday’. So I remembered what you’d written and I used one of those six W’s and asked him where he wanted to go. And all he said was ‘well, I’m not sure’. So I asked him if he had any idea at all of where he wanted – was it in Europe or long-haul - and the idiot just said, ‘I really don’t know – that’s why I’m here’.”

So what did you do?”, I asked.

Well, what could I do? I told him to look at some brochures and come back when he knew where he wanted to go – and he took a few and left”.

Has he been back?” I enquired.

Of course not. Like I said, he was just a timewaster. Open questions? You’ve got to be joking!”

And she wandered off, doubtless in search of a refill.

So what went wrong this time?

The problem here is a simple one and stems from the difference between a customer’s priorities and a travel consultant’s priorities. In travel our work is all about destinations and ways of getting to destinations. So our immediate thought, when someone comes in to ask about travel, is destination-related. Where does that customer want to go? As soon as we have that information all those travel-related technical thoughts will start going through our minds: methods of travel, times of travel, services available – all that kind of thing. “Where” is generally the most important thing to travel people – and so it makes a lot of sense to us that our very first question should be “Where do you want to go?”.

But for customers “where?” is often the most difficult question since many of them, quite genuinely don’t know much about places and quite genuinely don’t know where they want to go. And why should they? It’s not their job to know; it’s yours.

Ask the easy ones first

As since many customers won’t immediately know the answer to the “where?” question – so why ask that one first? There are many other questions you can ask, and, as I wrote last time, if you are asking the questions then you are in control and can be developing a sales conversation – which should always be your first objective when you meet a potential customer.

When I was a travel agent my own preference was to ask first for the customer’s personal details, such as name, contact details and the numbers travelling. I have never yet had any customer in front of me who didn’t know the answer to those questions, very readily. And, let’s face it, you need to get them sooner of later so why not sooner? And, never forget, once you get a customer’s name then you can use that customer’s name and that helps to create rapport between you.

Then ask the more tricky ones

Once you have the customer’s personal details you can then ask a more tricky question – you could even try the “where?” question – although you might still get a “I’m not really sure” answer. But the difference is, by this stage, you have already established a degree of relationship with your customer and he or she isn’t likely to simply wander off, never to be seen again.

So, if you can’t get an answer to “where?” then try “when?”. Again, very few people have absolutely no idea of when they want to travel and that information will help to open up the conversation still more. And, again, you will need this information sooner of later.

And finally the trickiest ones of all

But you will, eventually, have to find out the answer to the “where?” question and this is when you need to uncover the customer’s “hidden needs”. You need to find out why that customer wants to travel and then you are on the way to finding out where. But of course, you can’t simply ask, “Why do you want to go on holiday?” – you need to be a bit more diplomatic than that and this is where you need to use the techniques of “probing to establish needs”. And that’s 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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