How can my agency improve? Use ‘critical friends’ to find out

By Sean Johns*

LEGO chief executive Jurgen Vig Knudstorp said it best : “Blame is not for failure, but it is for failing to help out or to ask for help.”

Today’s travel agency owners often feel isolated because of a lack of local peers and are often reluctant to discuss problems or issues with their managers or employees for fear they may be seen as weak or indecisive.

Good external advice allows business owners to think objectively. It provides, in strictest confidence, a sounding board for ideas, analysis of business plans, and assistance to individuals in their development.

The very best advisors excel at creating an environment – a comfort level – in which business owners feel secure enough to speak openly and freely. Talking through problems with an external advisor, unlike discussing them with a colleague, carries no risk of hurt feelings or worries that the colleague will let slip inappropriate information to others.

Critical Friends – The benefits of having an external view

Criticism can be hard to take. No one likes to be found at fault or to be perceived negatively. So it goes against the grain for a business to recruit an external organisation to critique its operations.

But a travel agency client of Resurg recently did exactly that. Working with us, the agency invited a number of external partners (suppliers and customers) – so called “critical friends” – to critique its business.

The aim was to strengthen, refine and even reject elements of its current business systems and operations in order for it to be as robust as possible.

“We wanted somebody to go through our business with a fine tooth comb and help us improve it,” explained the agency owner. “And we certainly didn’t want to fall into the trap of only hearing what we want to hear”.

Exactly. Resurg does not come on board with an agency to simply provide endorsements of what it is already doing; we come on board to help it evaluate and improve the way it goes about its business.

We use the results from interviewing “critical friends” of an agency as the basis for structuring an agency improvement plan.

Constructive criticism helps an agency review processes and systems, find answers to difficult questions, improve less successful areas and push itself to new boundaries.

The most valuable aspect of using a business advisor to interview critical friends is the perspective it provides the agency owner. The advisor can interpret the feedback objectively and point the agency in directions it was not previously aware of.

“The process has certainly helped us achieve more than we would have been able to alone,” said the agency owner to whom I referred earlier.

Agency improvement plan – providing structure and accountability

Every day agency owners face immediate, pressing business problems. Working to a six or 12 month “agency improvement plan” ensures they continue to focus on the outcomes they want over the longer term. Implementing a plan with the help of a business advisor provides them with clarity so they can lead effectively in the midst of chaos.

A key skill of a good advisor is the ability to hold an agent accountable for implementing changes that have been agreed. It is all too easy not to follow through on these because of the urgency of everyday tasks. It can be difficult to get a truly objective answer from yourself about your priorities, but your external support will always tell you the truth – even if you don’t want to hear it!

Once an agency has used an advisor to create an improvement plan with clearly defined objectives and an implementation blueprint, it is important to meet with the advisor periodically (monthly minimum) to review progress, address problems, and assign the next moves.

External advice is not only good for overcoming barriers and achieving set goals, but can also be utilised when a business has to adapt to significant change in order to survive.Tapping into customers’ and suppliers’ opinions of the business and using this feedback can point to the way ahead.

My final advice to agents looking for objective, external guidance on the way ahead is this –
Ensure you have nowhere to hide, encourage honest feedback from your advisors and keep them accountable to keep you accountable for your goals!


* Sean Johns is one of the two founding partners of Resurg, established to drive performance improvement in businesses. Working across a wide range of industries, Sean is deeply involved in both business and research development as well as facilitating professional development programs. He is a conference keynote speaker and facilitator, where he shares his passion for performance improvement.