by Cheryl Rosen
What’s a travel agency to do in a marketplace that demands top-notch skills in customer service, sales and management, but where training is both hard to come by and expensive?
Colpitts World Travel of Dedham, Mass., believes it has found an answer in a state Workforce Training Fund grant that pays consultants to come in and train its staff.
The $60,000 grant, awarded to Colpitts after an intensive six-month application process, will pay for professional training programs for up to 50 Colpitts employees.
Such training grants, in Colpitts’ case from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts but also available in many other states (see sidebar), are designed to help local businesses stay competitive and successful so they continue to employ state residents and pay state taxes.
Focus on 3 areas
Colpitts already has launched its training program, which includes modules in three main areas – customer service, sales and business development, and management, said senior vice president Jeanne Johnston.
All employees go through customer service training, held for half days over several weeks. Sales staff receive training every month for a year, and all managers go through a 10-week program. Many employees are taking all three modules.
A 120-year-old agency, Colpitts does about 80% of its volume in corporate transient and meetings travel; the other 20% is leisure and student travel. It was the only travel agency to land a workforce training grant from Massachusetts.
The customer service training program focuses on both internal and external customers, reminding everyone that “someone having a positive experience will share it with five people, but an unhappy customer will tell 15,” Johnston said.
“You have to have really good communication skills.”
The training includes lots of role playing and includes topics such as how to take notes and recap what the customer really wants, building rapport with frustrated travelers, a five-step process for improving relationships, and managing multiple priorities.
Cultivating sales smarts
The sales module makes use of an assessment that helps salespeople analyze their personal styles and those of their customers.
The training teaches salespeople how to recognize and speak in the style of each customer – from customers who like to skip the chitchat and get right down to business, to relationship-focused “influencers,” to CFO types who look for expertise and details.
The third module, to roll out this fall, will offer three months of training to about a dozen senior level managers.
It will include problem solving and conflict resolution, setting priorities and managing time, and effective communication.
Johnston is particularly excited about a “distance leadership” section, that will teach strategies for managing remote employees effectively.
“Probably 50% of our company is virtual,” she said. “We’ll be spending a lot of time on best practices, keeping everyone motivated and in the loop.”
Internal training is essential
Colpitts has done internal training before – all new hires go through a series of training sessions – but this is the agency’s first organized, across-the-board program.
Internal training is something you can’t avoid in a world where opportunities for outside training are few and far between, said Gayle Walsh, president of Personnel Travel Consultants/Temps., LLC.
Just a few years ago, there were programs available through GDSs and private travel agent training schools but they have largely disappeared. “That’s why it’s so hard to find new people,” Walsh said.
“Agents are in demand; anyone who’s good is already working. There just aren’t enough well-trained new people,” she said. “Agencies need to come up with some kind of feeder training program to bring people up through the ranks.”
Even the travel schools that do exist tend to focus on destinations, on how to sell travel and hot to run a business, rather than on what she believes is needed: customer service, specific GDS training, international travel, and how to use online booking tools like Concur.
Worth the expense
At Colpitts, the state-funded training program is helping to address some of those needs.
But it’s not entirely without cost.
Even with the grant, the program calls for a lot of agency expenses including the detailed grant application, picking up the tab for lunches, bringing in home-based agents, and paying employees for their time while they aren’t producing revenue.
But the time and expense are well worth it, Johnston said. “It allowed us to hire some really great training companies and consultants.”
And the training has had benefits beyond the actual lessons.
It’s “putting everyone in a great mood, fostering innovation and new techniques,” Johnston said. “All of our virtual workers have to come into headquarters for training, sit with people they don’t normally sit with. It’s really team building.”