Travel Managers Can Look To Military Strategists To Win On The Social Media Battlefield

One sentence, in one email, to one colleague.

Preparation was extensive and executed by the book. A key preferred hotel adjustment was applied after a rigorous request-for-proposals process. Rates and amenities were negotiated and improved. Communication with travelers and arrangers was extensive. The travel management company was trained for change management, and the booking tool was reprogrammed. Management fully supported the change and booked the procurement savings.

Fast forward. Five days passed since the new preferred hotel launch, with little production since the initial opening. Both hotels showed normal booking patterns. Without success, the travel management company redirected travelers to the new hotel, and the booking tool's reason codes provided no explanation. Even the travel and procurement teams were at a loss.

One sentence, in one email, to one colleague. So small, yet so devastatingly impactful: "This hotel has bedbugs."

The dreaded issue was quickly communicated to the department. News spread at a rapid-fire pace among employees across the entire business unit, and ultimately the majority of the traveling community.

A social media bomb went off in the travel program. Devastation was imminent and inevitable.

How important were the facts? Just three days prior to launch, the hotel passed a quality inspection with stellar results. There were no bedbugs. A single traveler had a rash that cleared up by the next day.

This explosive comment derailed this portion of the travel program. The damage was done.

How do travel programs win this type of social media war?

A U.S. Army Field Manual for military operations outlines military strategy concepts, including these key points:

1. Go offensive: Seize, retain and exploit the initiative.

• Bring your information to the forefront by initiating an independent survey that includes ratings for all key preferred suppliers.

• Publicize your results so your world knows your satisfaction rates and that you are actively managing your suppliers. This will highlight future outliers, such as our bedbug story.

• Even if you have deployed social media for travel, staying in front of the information bolsters your credibility and reputation—especially against a social media bomb.

2. Create mass: Concentrate combat power at a decisive place and time.

• Regular, formalized surveys create statistically relevant results that you can use to overcome "coffee talk" or anecdotes.

• Displaying mass in hundreds or thousands of survey responses demonstrates attitudes from the organizational level, rather than unlinked, individual opinions.

• Regularly scheduled surveys allow a time and place for feedback. Because this is easier to manage, feedback may be consolidated  into trends.

3. Maneuver: Place the enemy in a disadvantageous position through the flexible application of combat power.

• Sharing supplier management strategies and showing improvement and progress minimizes one-off comments.

• Benchmarking satisfaction rates, either with like companies or by measuring your company's progress, correctly frames isolated complaints.

• Recurring requests for customer input creates keen awareness for travelers and arrangers, letting them know that you are actively managing the program.

4. Unity of command: For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander.

• Who is in charge of the survey? The results of a supplier's survey of its own service will not inspire management confidence.

• Company-specific questions will demonstrate to management that the company is in command of its suppliers.

• Ratings arising from surveys out of your control, such as those initiated by suppliers or public websites with leisure content, do not validate company supplier management, supplier flexibility and mutual growth.

5. Simplicity: Prepare clear, uncomplicated and concise plans and orders to ensure thorough understanding.

• Surveys should be easy to administer, with well-defined objectives and simple goals toward  improvement.

• Measurable, actionable results must be easily understandable for all parties so that supplier partners can work with their corporate clients to create meaningful improvements.

• Using one simple graphic to show a high percentage of satisfaction from hundreds or thousands of responses for a hotel, airline, rental car supplier, credit card company, travel management company, booking tool, etc., negates anecdotal commentary.

Forward-thinking travel management teams understand that this is a corporate battlefield.

Just one sentence, in one email, to  one colleague.

Are you ready for battle?

Will Tate is senior vice president of Management Alternatives.

This perspective originally appeared in the April 1, 2013, edition of Business Travel News.