From mirroring to adapting your wardrobe and speaking more slowly, our experts share their top communication tips with Ben Walsh
Good communication is vital. But what are the best ways for travel buyers to hone their communication skills when they’re dealing with myriad issues, including complex negotiations with hotels and airlines, and attempting to procure the best rates and contracts?
Plus, there is internal communication to grapple with, including “selling” the value of the travel programme to other departments, such as HR, finance or the board. BBT has been doing some research and has identified seven examples of communication skills – or tactics – that seem to work most effectively…
1 - The value of talking face-to-face
“The power of face-to-face discussions is worth far more than a 20-page document,” says Chris Day, head of procurement at the Church of England. “We are all individuals who like to have our concerns heard and addressed, and for me procurement is about people at the end of the day.”
Day, who has worked in procurement “for a good number of years”, explains that he not only wants to engage with people but wants them “on board”. In previous organisations that he’s worked for, presenting a short document would have worked well because people understood the process of procurement, knew what it was about and why doing certain things and delivering particular information was valuable in relation to travel programmes.
However, he works with a totally “new system and department” at the Church of England and “the value of face-to-face is much better because you get across why you’re doing certain things. “It’s important to listen to people and ensure their concerns are heard,” he emphasises. “To address them in a sensible, caring way works and that is also what our organisation is about with our ethos and our ethics.”
Day stresses the importance of discussing subjects, such as corporate manslaughter cases, in person. “I’d much rather talk with people face-to-face and explain things, such as the Corporate Manslaughter Act, which is a great piece of legislation and it helps back up why you should do things in a certain way with certain travel programmes,” says Day.
“For me there’s more benefit in talking to someone and listening to their concerns, and seeing if you can address them,” he adds. “It gives them confidence that you’re interested in what they’re doing and how they’re working and making the system work for them. There’s a flexibility in it; it’s not a rigid way of working.”
2 - Adapting – or mirroring – your voice and tone to your audience
Hollywood actor John Wayne once said you should “talk low, talk slow and don’t say too much.” It’s not something that Day necessarily subscribes to – or to the concept of “mirroring” where you adopt the same tone/voice as the person you are talking to – but he does confess that he talks a little too swiftly.
“I try to adjust my speech to the audience that I’m addressing and pitch it at the level that they are operating, as opposed to the way I am operating,” says Day. “So, for example, if I was talking to some of the senior officers in the Church of England, obviously it would be high level and I would deliver short and sharp information; what could be referred to as ‘the helicopter view’.
“However, if I was talking to IT; they’re detail people and they like knowing how a thing works, so I would probably spend time researching who I was talking to and what they did, and at what level they were in the organisation to pitch my response or my requirements to them at the right level.”
Joanna Gaudoin, managing director at Inside Out Image, which trains individuals and organisations in better presentation, agrees. “People talk far too fast in general and the pace at which people speak is a problem for most people,” she says. Inside Out is all about “personal impact and helping people build great relationships”.
Gaudoin believes that “mirroring” the person you’re communicating with is, to a certain extent, the best way to engage with them. “I would look at mirroring someone in body language and voice tone,” she suggests.
“For example, if you’re usually a very expressive person and you’re quite high energy but you can see that you’re engaging with someone who’s not that high energy, it’s not about not being yourself but you just decrease [your expressions and tone] a bit. Otherwise you’re going to overwhelm that person. They’re not used to this style of communicating; it’s not how they engage. So you don’t match them exactly, but you take into consideration how they communicate.
“If someone speaks in concise tones and you respond with waffle that person is going to get lost because that’s not their communication style,” she concludes.
Mia Andersson, travel engagement leader at travel consultancy Festive Road (previously global programme manager at Astra Zeneca Travel Service), argues that to “pick up keywords” clients use in describing their goals and objectives can be an effective way to build trust and make messages more relevant to each group. “But to be relevant, the most important thing is truly to understand their needs and link the message to the company’s or maybe the department’s objectives,” she explains.
3 - Getting to the point and being succinct
Catherine McGavock, regional vice-president, EMEA, at the trade association The Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), stresses the importance of “not burying the message in too much waffle”, getting to the point and being succinct. “You are the travel expert. Don’t assume others will understand your role, your travel policies, procedures and strategies,” says McGavock.
“This is your opportunity to sell the benefits of a travel programme using metrics relevant to the audience. For example, the finance team will be interested in the cost-saving aspects, while HR will be more interested in duty-of-care.” McGavock also points out that the GBTA recently supported a client move from a lengthy 38-page policy to a more succinct one-page infographic, which “travellers, of course, highly praised”.
4 - Show empathy – and make sure you are listening
“Listening to the other person is important as you’re listening to their concerns; it’s not just a tick-box exercise,” maintains the Church of England’s Day. “One thing I’ve learned from a life in procurement is that some people have some good ideas to help the system get better.”
Day points out that clients habitually deliver helpful suggestions to make communication smoother and easier. For example, instead of labouring through 15 pages of text, which fulfils various “tick boxes”, one client suggested combining “a few of these pages together and making it five pages”, which benefits everybody and makes, for instance, the booking process quicker, easier and simpler.
“There’s a huge value in listening to people because we work with people who’ve done what they’ve been doing for a number of years and have some very good ideas on making things work better for everybody,” he adds. “It’s absolutely essential to show empathy,” adds Inside Out Image’s Gaudoin.
“You have to know your audience and, for instance, for a meeting with a law firm I changed some of my clothing as well as how I expressed myself because you have to engage people where they’re at. It’s thinking about being in another person’s shoes really, which a lot of people find very difficult.”
5 - Build relationships
Supplier relationship management is a priority for a successful travel programme, says Festive Road’s Andersson. “This means mapping out your key suppliers and ensuring you spend the right amount of time with the right suppliers,” she says. “Companies that invest time in building relationships with key suppliers, share company strategies and find opportunities for a win-win partnership will most likely get the best negotiation results. It’s what we like to call the ‘selling buyer’ and we believe it’s actually the buyer’s job to ‘sell’ their programme to the supplier to access preferential status.”
Hoda Lacey, author of Powerful Win Win Solutions: A Practical Toolkit for Resolving Conflict in the Workplace, has worked on both sides of the travel business, training buyers as well as TMCs. “In the travel business, you need to get to know each other personally,” she says. “There’s much more conflict when you talk on the telephone and you don’t know the person on the other end. “The first thing you need to do – if you’re working on either side of the business – is meet in person and say, ‘Okay, let’s talk about how we’re going to work together; let’s talk what we’re going to do and how you’re going to work with me’,” she asserts.
“The second thing you need to do is start talking about what you’re going to do when things go wrong. Communication is such a nebulous thing – if you and I know each other well enough we don’t have a problem with communication. When do the problems start? When there is a problem. When I phone and say to you, ‘Sorry, that hotel is fully booked,’ or when I have to say to you, ‘I’m sorry, there’s a problem with the airline.’ That’s the time when you have to start thinking about communication. It’s when things are not going well.” Lacey concludes: “If you want to prevent things going wrong, then meet up with people.”
6 - Be trusted, effective and relevant
Travel teams need to be able to communicate effectively to different stakeholder groups, argues Andersson. “To be trusted and relevant is fundamental for a successful travel manager,” she says. “Many travel managers tell us they are struggling with how to engage with key stakeholders and how to communicate effectively. Stakeholder mapping is critical to know who to engage, their status today and to understand their needs.
“To create a communication plan with the focus to report on the identified needs with actionable insights will make the communication not only relevant to the stakeholders but also useful to drive policy compliance. “A proactive travel manager has ensured that the travel policy is easy to read, accessible and linked to overall company goals and values. One of the most complex communication tasks is policy change – you need to involve multiple stakeholders across the business, ensure clarity of message and update messaging in many channels.”
The Church of England’s Day agrees. “Continuing to put myself into relevant situations provides valuable experience. I have found that listening to people’s requirements, however strange they may sometimes seem, is valuable. Colleagues want to know they have been listened to and their concerns taken seriously.”
7- Finally, know your audience
GBTA’s McGavock says first and foremost it’s imperative that buyers understand and know their audience and tailor their communication and tone of voice accordingly. “Ensure your points relate to the company or department’s strategies and priorities, so everyone can relate and appreciate what you are trying to achieve,” she adds. “Get to the point, whether it is verbally or by email. Your audience’s time and attention spans are limited. Repeat the main points at the beginning, middle and in summary to ensure you get your message across.