Monday, May 01, 2006

What if they threw a war and the customer didn’t care?

Another day, another declaration of war on the Internet. Ok, the frequency is not quite so extreme, but the rhetoric is.

Recently it was Gerry Smith from Cottages to Castles announcing that it’s necessary “to fight back against the growth of the Web” and “to combat the march of the Internet.” (This according to a TravelMole article from 22 March)

It’s easy to be cynical about such pronouncements, to wonder, for example, if Smith’s great grandfather was busily resisting the growth of telephony around 1900.

But the embrace of the Internet also makes it easy to overlook the fact that there are livelihoods, careers, businesses at stake in this (as in any) channel shift. (Not that this recognition will rescue a business model based on “combating the march of the Internet” from the trash can of history.)

A topical analogy presents itself in the form of the 50th anniversary of the shipping container and the many media reviews of Marc Levinson’s “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” [read Amazon page here].

Levinson says about Malcom McLean, the putative “father” of the container industry: “His big insight was that the customer doesn’t care how you’re shipping the goods. The customer wants to get it from here to there cheap and on time. The customer doesn’t care if it goes by air or land or sea.”

The travel industry version of this “big insight” is that the customer shouldn’t to be forced to decide whether it comes by air, land, or sea – ie, by Internet, call centre, email, fax, or agency store. The travel customer doesn’t care about taking sides in a channel conflict; they want, in contrast, channel transparency – the ability to begin a buying process at any point, by any channel, and to end it with a purchase commitment via any channel.

So rather than forming phalanxes of resistance, it’s in the interest of a supplier like Cottages to Castles as well as the agencies to multiply the opportunities for potential customers to enter, navigate, and complete the buying process in as many ways as possible.

To take a simple example from FatWire’s travel demo site: a travel prospect doing research on the Internet (as 78% of them do) can place the trips/products under consideration in a “My Trips” bin, then either:

(1) proceed to check out and purchase online; (2) place or request a call to complete the purchase over the phone; (3) print out via PDF a personalised My Trips brochure to review offline; or (4) search via postal code for a agency store near their home or office.

In the last case, an email is generated that sends the prospect’s My Trips content to the selected agency/agencies. Arriving at the store, the prospect does not have to reconstruct their vacation criteria, and the agent has been able to qualify and prepare the sales conversation. Suppliers could offer a special margin for these synergistic (rather than antagonistic) sales closures.

The other lesson from “The Box” is that the established ports that most fervently resisted the transition to containers are the very ones that declined most dramatically.

Tim Walters, director, international marketing and strategy, FatWire Software

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