“I have never worked a day in my life without selling. If I believe in something, I sell it, and I sell it hard.” – Estee Lauder

Last week, I met with a travel agency. The owners have been struggling to bring their fledgling business into profitability. In the period of time I’ve worked with this agency as a consultant, they’ve made a great deal of progress. They analyzed their cash flow and determined which sales were most profitable… and restructured staffing to focus on those. They implemented a website to inform and entice new and occasional customers. And they established a follow-up program to cross-sell and resell their best customers.

But when we talked last week, we discovered they weren’t doing the one thing that would probably make the biggest difference. They were making a mistake that, in one way or another, most businesses are guilty of.

I won’t give you a dissertation on the travel business. But you should know that in today’s market you can’t make any money booking conventional airfares. The commission for those airfares doesn’t cover the time and effort it takes to do the bookings, make all the changes, do all the handholding, etc. And let’s say you do a lot of volume and get your commissions up by a few percentage points. You’re still running a breakeven business. The profit today is in packaged tours, cruises, and specialized travel.

This agency has been developing the profitable components of its business. But its top two salesmen have been spending 90 percent of their time handling inbound phone calls and booking conventional airfares. In other words, doing the least-profitable work.

Worse, the hundreds and hundreds of bookings they were making, comprising thousands of prime customer contacts, were handled as customer service activities. Not as sales opportunities.

What is going on here?

A Giant but Invisible Mistake Most Businesses Make

Actually, this is much more common than you might imagine. Most businesses divide their work in half. On the one side, is sales and marketing. On the other side, is fulfillment and customer service. Often these activities are separated physically. And they have separate management, separate work philosophies, and separate personnel.

In the case of our little travel agency, the same people were doing both types of work. But they handled the work in two completely different ways. When booking airfares for call-in customers, the top two performers acted like customer service reps, providing courteous, efficient service. When it came time to get on the phone and sell, they did only that. And never the twain did meet.

All those lost sales opportunities! Why? Because the agency didn’t want to “sell” people when they wanted “service.”

I could talk about this fallacy at length. But I’ll boil it down to this: If the product or service you offer is worthwhile, selling it IS a service.

Some people understand this instinctively. But most of us have been trained to think that selling is fundamentally wrong. It is pushy. It is inconsiderate. It is not helpful.

A Secret of Success: Understanding the Virtue of Selling

I’d like to replace that idea – which is partly right but mostly wrong – with another one.

As businesspeople, it is our job to provide more and better products and services to our customers, to help them solve their problems and achieve their ambitions. And we should do so enthusiastically, assertively, and without reservation.

“When someone calls you to book a flight,” I told my client, “you have two opportunities to make his life better. The first is to give him the right flight at the right price. The second is to send him on a trip he will appreciate for the rest of his life.”

“If you take advantage of one opportunity but neglect the other,” I told him, “you are not providing the best possible service. I assure you that every person who calls to book a business or personal trip is planning, or is dreaming about, an exotic vacation. And here you are with a basket full of exotic vacations that give you the profit margin you need to run a profitable business… and you are not doing anything.”

I’m serious about this. Taking an order and fulfilling it… without finding out how else you can help your client… is a major customer service failure.

When You Don’t Sell, Your Customer Suffers

A business relationship is based on the expectation of mutual benefit. If you limit the benefit you provide to that which – and only that which – your customer specifically requests, you are much less valuable to him in the long run.

So here’s what we are doing now in this travel agency. We are creating a personalized customer service database. Every time we book a flight for a customer, we are going to find out a little more about him. When and how much he travels. When and how often he goes on vacations. Which destinations he likes and which he abhors. Whether he travels alone or with family or friends.

Then, based on that information, we are going to make sure that every time we speak to him we make him aware of other services we can provide. If we ask the right questions and give him the treatment he deserves, he will be happy to do more business with us.

When we ran the numbers, we realized that if only one in 100 future phone calls results in the sale of a packaged tour or cruise, the agency will double its profits. One in 100! My guess is that the number will be much closer to one in 10. And eventually even better than that.

Grow Your Business by Treating Each Service Call as a Sales Opportunity

The additional sales will create a much larger base from which to expand the business. This means the agency’s top two salespeople will be able to gradually free themselves to focus on higher-volume customers, while newer employees handle the others.

This process, combined with ever-increasing commissions (due to larger volumes), will turn a million-dollar business netting five percent into a five-million-dollar business netting 10 percent in about three years ( if my numbers are right). And all this is based on making a single change: a commitment to make every customer contact part of the selling process.

Think about how you can do this with your business or the business you are planning to start. You must develop your business in such a way that you can provide more and better products/services on an ongoing basis. And you must train yourself and your people to think about the selling process as good, not bad… helpful, not selfish.

[Ed. Note: Get Michael Masterson’s insights into becoming successful in your business and personal life, achieving financial independence, and accomplishing all your goals on his new website. You’ll find updates on all of Michael’s books, news on upcoming ETR events, Michael’s blog, and room to send in your comments and questions. Check it out today.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]

Mark Morgan Ford

Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Wealth Builders Club. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.