Whose Customer?

This analysis appeared April 9, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section.


Talking about “the travel industry” often invites criticism that it’s impossible to generalize–travel companies of any description are not identical and can’t be expected to behave as one. This ignores the experience of even casual observers, who see business decisions, successes, and failures widely replicated and frequently repeated throughout the travel industry over time.

There is a continuity within companies that operate in the same field, face similar market challenges, and who must compete with each other that causes them to align similar practices and strategies to an often surprising degree. What is referred to as “institutional memory, (the phenomenon where groups of people working together circulate and perpetuate the same ways of thinking over time), makes such alignments difficult to change.

One such area is ownership and management of the customer relationship. Travel vendors largely think they should be interacting with their customers directly and with as few intermediaries as practical.

This belief predates the coming of The Internet and electronic commerce–it’s varied over decades but never disappeared. In many ways it’s a stronger business force than on-line selling.

The fact that travel vendors generally don’t do an especially good job of interacting with their customers, or of listening to them, doesn’t cancel the desire to remove intermediaries.

If it Were Only True

If travel suppliers deal directly with customers, costs and inefficiencies should decline. More important, it should be possible to protect and preserve loyal customers.

It almost never works that way.

One major impediment is that, to provide effective customer service, you need to listen to your customers and understand what they say. Translating these simple requirements into appropriate actions proves particularly difficult for the travel industry.

With exceedingly rare exceptions, nobody in the travel industry delivers customer service and nobody can–where “customer service” is defined as delivering what the customer truly wants to buy when it is needed.

Airlines are a reasonable example. Do you know anyone who thinks the excessive and capricious baggage fees most carriers are anxious to charge are a good idea? I’ve asked that question before groups of hundreds; apart from a few people with a specific viewpoint to represent, I’ve yet to get an affirmative response. I’ve never even heard of such a response.

The “ATM machine in the sky” approach to airline pricing is a major profit contributor, but it wasn’t designed to please the consumer.

If travel purchasers received everything they wanted by removing intermediaries, they’ve had the past 18 years (since the availability of Internet-based tools) to eliminate travel management companies, on-line travel sellers, and corporate travel departments. There remain necessary services that suppliers can’t or won’t provide.

Listen Here!

Travel management companies usually fail the “customer service” test as well. Even the most sophisticated are good at order-taking, exceptional at listening to customers (much better than vendors), tepid at data analysis and product innovation that addresses real customer needs, and non-existent at informed communication–when was the last time you received a newsletter or e-mail bulletin from a TMC that wasn’t an immediate, no-consequence throw-away?

Customer relationships are the product of continued, frequently arduous investment. They are earned, not simply claimed. Intermediaries such as TMCs and OTAs are valuable travel management participants because they meet real needs, despite their own failings.

Efforts to change that without adding equivalent value are destined to the growing list of management theories that simply don’t apply to this industry.