NB: This is a guest article by John Peters, vice president and general manager for travel and digital strategy at Rand McNally.
If you’re wondering if you should try lead generation to get new customers or if you’ve tried lead generation and failed, read on.
While just signing up and jumping in is a good start, there are certainly two ways to attack these leads; the right way and the wrong way.
The right way isn’t one 100% fool proof, but you can be sure the wrong way is a 100% waste of time and money.
After leading the team that helped register over 15,000 travel agents and processed over 150,000 travel leads, I’ve come up with some suggestions on how to do lead generation correctly.
These come from some of our best clients, lest you think I’m pulling these out of thin air.
Here’s a fact: according to Forrester Research, 27% of online travelers would rather work with a good offline travel agent, if they knew where to find one.
So, more than a quarter of the people shopping online would rather work with an offline travel agent; they just have no idea where to start looking for the right one.
These consumers are frustrated with online booking engines and the plethora of generic, meaningless travel information and want – get this – to talk to a human being.
So, here are the ten things you need to do to succeed with online travel lead generation:
1. Be “open for business” for as many of the 24 hours in a day as possible.
To prove my point, last year, I had invited a handful of our top travel specialists to New York for a brainstorm session. During our dinner conversation, I noticed one of them, Kristen, was typing on her iPhone.
I remember thinking, “I wish she was paying attention to the conversation”, so I asked her a question and hinted I saw “she was busy.”
Her response? She showed me her iPhone screen and showed me she was buying one of our leads - on her phone, during dinner- that was, according to her, “right in her sweet spot.”
My response? “Please continue.”
2. Specialize, specialize, specialize
Some travel agents register for lead generation services and get a booking right away.
Others try it yet simply don’t succeed. It doesn’t mean they’re not good at what they do, it just means they haven’t yet figured out how to sell to online consumers or they took too long to respond or, the big lead-killer; they come off as generalists.
Online consumers don’t want generalists; they can get that online. They want a skilled professional who specializes in the exact trip they are looking to take and who demonstrates he/she has first-hand knowledge of the destination and local contacts there.
By the way, “cruises” isn’t a specialty any more than “hotels” is. Family cruises is a specialty. Small-ship cruises is a specialty. Small-ship cruises for gay couples with children is an amazing niche.
The more defined you get, the less competition you’ll have. True, your potential audience is smaller, but you’re much more likely to get the business.
3. Stop worrying about price shoppers
Do some consumers want a cheap price? Sure, but that’s no different from consumers who call a travel agent’s office.
Frankly, I’m a little tired of agents who say lead generation “pits agents against each other based on price".
This would mean that anyone who has ever walked into a travel agency never walked into another one or called another agent to check prices.
People shop for everything. They check prices and search for deals. With online travel lead generation, it’s up to travel specialist to prove why they can offer the best value.
It’s up to the agent to show they have local contacts, that they’ve been to the destination, know the destination intimately and offer the best, hard-to-find, relevant information.
4. Pick a lead-generation company that lets YOU pick YOUR customers
There are a few companies selling “leads” but only one other legitimate one that I know of lets you decide which leads you want to buy.
This way, if you don’t like the lead, don’t buy it. Also, you should only work with lead generation companies that offer you the option of setting filters.
You should be able to filter out leads that don’t match your “sweet spot.” If you don’t want to work with someone who doesn’t have at least $X to spend, set a filter and you won’t even see those leads in your in-box.
Some of the most successful lead-buying agents tell me they ignore the budget field entirely because they’ve found consumers just don’t know how much travel costs and they’re certainly not going to guess high.
5. Be timely and be persistent
People are busy yet they expect timely responses. When you buy a lead, act quickly with an initial response and then stay top of mind until they’re ready to make a purchase.
I’m not saying you should stalk someone, but a quick response and then regular, polite follow up is critical if you’re in sales.
If the person decides not to travel (or even if they book with another agent) put them in your database for proper, targeted marketing efforts later.
You paid for the lead, so use it to grow your database. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard one of our travel specialists saying they booked someone months or even a year after they bought the lead.
The lesson here? Follow up, follow up again and when you’re done with that, you guessed it; follow up again.
6. Know your acquisition costs
Recently, a travel agent told me at a trade show she tried lead generation but it didn’t work as well as “walk-in” customers because (ready?) those walk-in leads are “free”.
Free? Really? When I had her add up salaries, rent and other expenses then divided it by the number of walk-ins…well you know how this story ends.
I’ve also been amused by the people who are going to put money into Search Engine Marketing, i.e. buying keywords on Google or Bing.
Fine by me, but you should know SEM isn’t for the faint of heart. A $100 budget can disappear before your eyes with terms like “cruises” or “vacations” going for $4, $5 or more PER CLICK, which includes little Johnny doing his book report on Caribbean Islands.
His homework project will cost you $5.
7. Be passionate, but not too verbose
When you’re selling face-to-face, it’s easy to show emotion. For some reason however, one of the biggest mistakes agents make with online leads is they become either short-hand secretaries or encyclopedias.
With an online lead, you have one chance to make an impression on the customer.
Your goal is to get the consumer to trust you, respect your knowledge and to start painting a picture of the vacation in their minds.
Your first few sentences of your first email to them will say it all. Too little or too much information or long, boring diatribes is a sure way to lose the business.
Get someone excited and wanting more and you win.
8. Invite every online lead to read your blog, follow you on Twitter and “like” you on Facebook
People book vacation with agents they know and like. Holding cruise nights, attending social gatherings and general schmoozing are not gone forever, but they have been virtually replaced by social networking.
Someone who likes your blog, enjoys the pictures of your travels on Facebook or Flickr and finds your tweets funny will stay connected to you.
This way, when they’re ready to book, they may very well book with you. If they’re not ready, they will hopefully refer their friends to you.
By the way, if the whole blog / social media thing is foreign to you, please feel free to put down the buggy-whip and join us in the new world whenever you have time.
A 45 year old friend of mine uses “social media tutoring” time to connect with her fourteen year old daughter (her daughter is the teacher in this case).
The lesson here? Get with the program; ask your kids or your grandkids for help if you have to.
9. Your online profile is your calling card
Dress it up. Market yourself. Tell people all about your travels (please, PLEASE tell me you travel regularly to refine your craft, update your knowledge and expand your contacts).
List all the languages you speak (if English is your only language, learn another one and impress your clients. Heck, get a used copy of Rosetta Stone language classes from eBay or something).
Finally, get a professional photo taken or better yet, use one of you on a recent exotic vacation.
And smile, would you? People like smiling people.
10. Speak up
If you’re having trouble making online lead generation work for you, talk to the lead company.
Really, we’re happy to talk anytime and share everything we know. We can’t make money unless you keep using us.
So if you tried, say 15 leads and didn’t close a single one, something is wrong. Call us and we’ll try and help you on track.
Finally, some agents are getting ALL of their business from lead generation sites - they’ve stopped most other marketing efforts and are concentrating on leads from such companies.
NB: This is a guest article by John Peters, vice president and general manager for travel and digital strategy at Rand McNally. He was previously president and CEO of Tripology before selling the company to Rand in March 2010.