Do Your Wingmen Soar?

Let’s get real about your sales people, consultants and account managers in the travel management space. Your contracts should do the heavy lifting, but great sales people can make an enormous difference in your program. You have far more leverage than you think. Here’s a test: are you courageous? Curious? Assertive? Then how often do you tell your friends and colleagues when their out-of-office email or voicemail is out-of-date. Judging by how long some of them remain active I’ll risk offering that we don’t do it enough. We think we’re more assertive than we actually are, but HOPE could improve this situation – Help One Person Everyday. So the next time someone’s out of office is expired – be assertive and let them know.

Hope is often applied to managed travel – the other kind of hope. We hope that travelers will comply with our policies, we hope our CFO understands why rates go up, and we hope that we’ll have the best sales people, account managers and consultants assigned to us. Travel Management is notoriously lax at holding people accountable. For most airlines it’s nearly impossible to identify and measure sales teams against a metric they control that flows to profitability. All too often they’re not held accountable. Consultants are often treated the same way – many people act as if one is as good as the next. Experience proves otherwise. In the hotel and airline business awards are often given to the sales person responsible for customers in an industry or location that’s growing while scorn is offered to the person living and working in a declining market. This is where Travel Managers come in. Great account managers can be found anywhere (even declining markets) and you’re just as likely to find mediocre performance in growing markets. You must provide feedback to enhance your program and to serve your customers better and you do that by being part of the assignment process. This is where assertiveness is important.

Successful programs rely on great partners. Those partners develop and contribute outstanding account managers. Those managers share three qualities that you should focus on: 1. Competence; 2. Initiative; 3. Fit. All three are necessary for a best-in-class program.

Competence: combines a thorough understanding of the market, customer, products, policies, and procedures. Competent Sales people listen and ask questions before making sound recommendations. This can be improved with training and experience.

Initiative: take the appropriate action to solve or prevent a problem. These people are responsive – they’re on top of issues and have a sense of urgency commensurate with the situation. Improvements in this area often requires an attitude change – it’s more difficult to improve than competence, but good customers shouldn’t bear too many mistakes that thorough talent selection could solve.

Fit: Often overlooked, but personality characteristics and nuances are important to develop respectful, trusting relationships. Your account manager or consultant should be someone you enjoy working with and you should be comfortable around them. Too often Travel Managers tolerate bad behavior from account managers – they don’t return calls, they’re dressed inappropriately for meetings, they are slow to respond to problems, they have a sense of humor that is offensive to others. The list goes on, but sometimes what works with a few customers doesn’t work well with others and you shouldn’t tolerate it. Great account managers should hold customers accountable for their performance too – but sometimes everything else being equal, the fit just isn’t there and when it isn’t you should take action.

You get what you reward – if you make it a priority to gain one excellent airline sales person and two or more outstanding Hotel sales managers each year on your terms, you would very quickly build a network that will delight your travelers and make your job easier. You can even make freedom of choice part of your RFP process to tie it to something positive for the vendor.

Asking for sales people by name is very easy. But how do you get their name in the first place? I’ve discussed this problem with a few friends in the medical field and their example is instructive. How do you pick a great surgeon?

A great surgeon isn’t someone with good bedside manners (they might score well in this category, but it’s insufficient) – its the person who is calm under pressure when things don’t go right; a person who makes good choices about how to handle this never-seen-before situation. These are surgeons who are quick to ask a medical device representative standing next to the operating table – “how have other surgeon’s handled this successfully?”

You don’t find the best one by asking another doctor – they’re rarely in surgery together.  Anesthesiologists and surgical nurses have a small consideration set. That brings us back to medical device sales people. They see many surgeons as they operate and they have more evidence and better experience to give you an educated referral.

Great consultants, sales people, and account managers can be identified through your network – ask your peers and your suppliers’ sales leaders which sales person or consultant they admire or they have heard frequent compliments about from shared customers.  travel industry sales leaders generally have a larger customer network since they manage teams and are exposed to most of the largest, high touch customers in their area. It’s also helpful to understand that sales and consulting leaders maintain balanced territories – so if you don’t ask for someone by name, you’ll often be assigned the person who is available, and good people rarely have a light load. Consultants will have a larger impact on your program; it’s acceptable and I recommend that you ask about your consultant’s training and experience before a project or contract is implemented. Suppliers don’t offer different price points based on the team they assign to support you and you have a right to make requests related to this part of their offer.

Due diligence about your vendor’s personnel is your responsibility, and the management leaders who do this well will achieve championship results.

Coaching Travel Management

Recruit Superstars Twice as Fast for Half the Price

A few years ago, when TelePresence was the newest thing and threatened to upset the airline universe, I had many conversations about the ways virtual meetings could become a viable substitute for air travel. In the real world, physical presence is irreplaceable, but the latest conference tools do offer a better way to conduct business and give you control over more of your time for certain tasks. As tools evolve we should use them to improve the clunkier practices in use today. This article throws recruiting into the blender for a business process makeover.

Talent Management leadership describes the two highest payoff tasks every manager must navigate (in order): 1. Get the most out of their existing teams; 2. Find the best people to fill openings. Effective selection strategies begin with an assumption that it’s possible to measure candidates in a meaningful and predictive way that will allow managers to choose the best person among a strong finalist group. High performance teams are made up from high performance people and great managers know finding the right candidate is often a difficult and time consuming process. Managers want to select people who will be a good fit for their organizations, are able to do the job well, and need minimal supervision. In this article I will introduce a process that will show you how to achieve your hiring goals faster and with less effort than you’re probably applying today.

Several years ago I had a choice assignment as American Airlines’ sales manager in Los Angeles. My team had multiple openings for account managers and I posted the positions on AA’s internal career site. It was common for nominally qualified applicants to receive an interview in-person. Since the rest of the country was buried under an unusually harsh winter the candidate list grew to more than thirty people in the first week. This created an enormous opportunity to design an efficient process that could uncover hidden talent since I needed to reduce the candidate pool substantially before inviting people to meet face-to-face.

Requirements: create an ‘interview’ screen to evaluate as many candidates as possible to minimize problems caused by rejecting internal candidates who’s current management team viewed him or her as well–qualified. Next, ensure the filter would provide each candidate an opportunity to showcase their skills and experience, but eliminate the standard thirty minute or hour-long interview call. Furthermore, the process should stratify candidates and generate a clear threshold to determine if a follow up interview would be necessary. And finally, include other team members to secure their buy-in and support for the new employees.

I settled on a simple process that required low effort and only a brief time commitment to organize and plan compared to our former approach. As soon as the posting closed I sent each candidate an invitation to participate in a first round interview, via conference call. The call was mandatory and concluded with a series of questions. Candidates were shown the following agenda:

  1. Detailed overview about the position, and qualities and experience expected from an ideal candidate.
  2. Current team members would share information about their experiences.
  3. Hiring manager and team would answer candidates’ questions.
  4. Round one – Answer three questions.
  5. Candidate responses should be returned via email within two hours.

The first-round conference call was effective – over thirty percent of the applicants dropped out before the call, many because they were not invited to attend in-person. Several more declined to move forward following the call and either decided the questions were too much work or they were not as qualified as they initially hoped. We even received calls from other managers who told us their employees were impressed by our process – many were confident they knew more about this opening than any position they had applied for previously.

As responses arrived I pasted them into an email and assigned each candidate a number (a blind evaluation works well to minimize bias when candidates are known to other team members).  Once the complete list was ready I sent it to the team and asked each of them to rate candidates by choosing: Yes, No, or Maybe to answer the question – should we interview this candidate further? This simple stratification led to remarkably clear results. The top three candidates received a Yes from all six evaluators, while the bottom nine candidates received a No from most evaluators. The “Maybe’s” fell into two groups – those who split between “Yes” and “Maybe”, and those split between “No” and “Maybe”. In the span of five business days the position moved from a ‘closed’ status to a short list of finalists; it effectively allowed me to interview twenty-five people with four hours of work, and dramatically reduced the number of face-to-face interviews.

Team participation increased morale, and the team’s capabilities. Their participation created transparency and gave them insights into the hiring manager’s decision-making process. Another side benefit – your team’s ratings provide you with information about their assessments for each candidate. This has proven to be a useful framework to discuss differences among team members’ value weightings and how they applied personal judgment to the selection process. See the sample evaluation grid below:

Candidates

You shouldn’t underestimate how much you can learn about a person from a written response to a simple question, trust me. Furthermore, it gives you an effective way to offer candidates feedback about their performance. This solution revealed other norms that have held up since my first experiment. Top candidates respond within thirty minutes. Their answers are usually weighted to the lighter side in word count, but content wins and their stories are laser sharp. Many poor answers are returned quickly too, but additional time does not seem to improve a particular candidate’s chances.

The questions are important, and predictable, with at least one tailored to the position:

  1. Why do you want the job?
  2. Why should we hire you?
  3. How much is the monthly rent for a home you’d be willing to move to in Los Angeles?

Finally, some candidates will not be available for the call on short notice, or you may need to add someone to your list after the initial call. Easy fix, simply record the call, and as people are added tell them to let you know when they have three hours free (one hour for the call, and two hours for the questions), then send them a link to the recording and require a response three hours from the time you send it.

Technology does the heavy lifting and saves you time. Great candidates can pass through any filter because they have the sharp skills, business acumen, flexibility, and communication gifts required to articulate a tailored response to “Why you and why this job?”  During the past three years I have applied this process to almost a dozen employee searches with the same effect. High performance teams are collaborative-they give everyone a voice and they depend on emotionally healthy, intelligent, mature, hard-working, value-driven employees to generate the championship results that set them apart. I hope you can put this experience to good use and reduce the time and energy you put into building a better organization.

Coaching