November 2022, Virtual
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Ask any travel buyer what skills they need to be successful in their jobs and they will roll their eyes. Buying business travel is certainly not just about buying. The role of procurement involves managing people, communicating, negotiating, planning and an in-depth knowledge of the sector.
Deborah Short is global travel procurement manager at insurance giant Willis. She says: “My role is about 20 per cent procurement and the rest is managing it all: the operations and internal communications, and selling [the travel programme] to the stakeholders. My job is about operational excellence and getting buy-in for the global travel programme.”
This description is backed up by findings in a survey run by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) and travel management company (TMC) Radius Travel. They asked 164 global travel managers what they thought were the top skills for their job. More than 60 per cent of the respondents thought the following five skills were “essential” in a travel management role: negotiation expertise; knowledge of travel industry technology; relationship management expertise; cross functional collaboration skills; and leadership experience.
Apart from the technology and product knowledge, all the other skills cited here as essential for a buyer’s skillset involve talking to, or managing or negotiating with, people. A travel buyer’s role is as much about communication as it is about buying.
Peter Dunkin has 25 years leadership experience in the aviation industry and is now an executive coach at his company, Peter Dunkin Associates, working with leaders across the public and private sector. Dunkin thinks buyers have a tricky time juggling everything, but how we communicate the company’s needs can have a big impact on the success of a travel programme. “The three most important skills for procurement people are: good commercial acumen; understanding your category product; and havingemotional intelligence.”
One dictionary definition of emotional intelligence is “the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically”. Does this phrase really have any place in the hard-nosed world of business travel deals, cost-cutting and requests for proposals? The travel sector has already flirted with the concept – both ACTE and the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) have hosted conference sessions on the topic. Last summer Buying Business Travel reported from the GBTA convention in Los Angeles, where the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school professor Sigal Barsade presented highly popular seminars on how emotional intelligence can be utilised to influence behaviour and outcomes in meetings and negotiations (see box, p64).
Dunkin says that within travel the phrase is probably better known as ‘stakeholder management’. He explains: “It’s how to get on with and understand the needs of all different internal and external people. To be a successful procurement person you have to listen, build rapport, have difficult conversations, give people feedback.”
Matthew Pancaldi is global client management director at HRG. He says: “Looking at emotional intelligence [in travel] makes sense as, we are people dealing with other people. One of the biggest skills in our business is how you influence – not just how you negotiate and get a contract signed.”
A big chunk of a travel buyer’s role is communication, both internally and externally. When we asked buyers on BBT’s Linked In group about what skills buyers needed to talk to different stakeholders, Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland (MDDUS) purchasing officer Peter Macey commented: “There are two [issues] here I think, one concerning in-house relations and the second being about suppliers, and both of these are very different, in my experience.” The in-house part might involve convincing people in HR and at board-level, and thousands of travellers, that a policy or programme change is right for the company. But it is how this change is communicated that can make a real difference to a buyer’s success.
Macey continued: “Convincing management really depends on what you are proposing and what type of relationship you have with the decision-makers. It’s a nice thought that the senior managers have respect for who you are and what you do, but that isn’t always the case, which can make it difficult to try and sell an idea to them, however good it might sound. When a change to operating policy needs to happen it’s best to float the idea, almost like planting a seed to see it grow.”
Willis’s Short also uses a similar way of communicating internally. She says some changes can take months to communicate, especially when there is a launch or a policy change. “We often have to repeat messages to travellers so we have to drip-feed the information,” says Short. “I might need monthly meetings with each country, because trying to communicate on an email when it’s not the first language is a challenge. Internal communications is a big part of the job.”
HRG’s Pancaldi says he has seen a trend in corporate clients looking not only at how a TMC can influence the company, but also how it communicates with their business. “A technology specialist may be very straightforward to deal with, but someone in HR who is focused on the well-being of travellers and the impact on staff retention might communicate differently.”
Know your partner
Of the 60 per cent of travel managers cited those essential job skills in the ACTE/Radius survey, 80 per cent put negotiating skills at the top of the pile. But having all the facts to hand before negotiations take place is key. Willis’s Short says buyers have to be up-to-date on their category and have detailed operational knowledge of their company. If they aren’t on the ball, a supplier can easily pick up on the gap in knowledge, which can result in a buyer getting a poor deal. “A buyer is only as good as the knowledge they have,” says Short. “You could go into a meeting with an airline and think you have a good deal because you’ve negotiated a good percentage off a J-class fare, but that’s no good if you use mainly lower-class fares and have no discounts in place.”
When buyers are negotiating with suppliers they are not just negotiating on price, but to build the foundations of a successful programme. Procurement might be happy with £1 million savings on airlines, but is it actually operational?
Short adds: “I have always had to manage both procurement and operations so it works really well because I know I need to deliver whatever I negotiate. Travel is a mature category within Willis and so it’s hard to get savings unless you know your stuff.”
Buyers and suppliers can have successful long-term relationships, but sometimes issues can arise. These can be sorted out if the buyer is clued-up. Macey at MDDUS says: “As a buyer, you need to be proactive rather than reactive in that way you can spot issues before they arise, and deal with them through meetings and negotiations.”
But if the issues can’t be solved then a change of supplier may be the only way forward. In the professional environment there will never be tears and door slamming – but ending a long-term relationship with a supplier can still be tricky.
When buyers change suppliers they still need to manage the ongoing relationship, and if it is a big supplier, they will often meet face-to-face to see if there is anything further to discuss. It’s useful for both sides to see what could have changed, or if there was anything which could have helped the relationship continue.
Buyers have to remember that just because a change has happened it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road. Keeping up-to-date on product and category knowledge and communicating with those suppliers is the best way to keep the future positive. Don’t close all those doors – leave some of them ajar. Keep talking.
Buying into emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is an awareness of yourself and others around you and the ability to use this awareness to gain valuable insights into a situation, issue or problem. Jeremy Marchant founded the website Emotionalintelligenceatwork.com, and he uses his experience as a business analyst and his knowledge of applied psychology to help people create successful relationships and outcomes at work. “Emotional intelligence is not a skill. Skills are behaviours – something you can learn. Emotional intelligence comes from experience,” he says.
But how can travel buyers use emotional intelligence in the workplace? “You can sense if someone has emotional intelligence. If the supplier is willing to do what the buyer needs – that is emotional intelligence,” says Marchant.
But what if both supplier and buyer are at loggerheads? Can a real negotiation still take place? Marchant says: “Emotional intelligence doesn’t solve problems; it allows you to work on those problems to achieve results.”
Sigal Barsade, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, told GBTA delegates at the convention in Los Angeles that “emotional contagion” enables people to regulate and affect others’ emotions – with wide-reaching potential in managerial, client and sales situations. She cited medical research revealing a “mirror neuron system” – the stimulated areas of a person’s brain mirroring that of someone they are interacting with. This phenomenon means that the ability to regulate one’s own emotions enables influencing behaviours and outcomes in a range of interactions, such as business and staff meetings, said Barsade.
This concept was born out with laboratory-condition studies where research academics attended corporate salary negotiation meetings – and their varied projected moods had a significant impact on the outcomes.