Who Owns You?

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Burt Jones & Maurine ShimlockTrue story: A couple has a great time on a liveaboard trip due mainly to the considerate and knowledgeable guidance of the cruise director. The couple wants to remain in contact with the cruise director so they exchange email addresses. After finishing his contract, the cruise director decides to begin his own travel program. He sends out a trip announcement for a trip on another liveaboard (same country), and the couple that knew him from the original liveaboard joins this trip. They have a fantastic trip. But the ex-cruise director just made two enemies: his former employers and the original booking agent, who both who accuse him of “stealing” their clients.

Times are hard everywhere. It’s an especially tough market for dive travel when disposable income for things like vacations is not flowing like it did back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is a niche market with small profit margins and an even smaller population of divers worldwide who can afford the higher end dive trips.

There is a lot of competition for clients, and it’s getting a bit ugly. People like that former cruise director and even people like Burt and I wear a few different hats just to make ends meet. So the other day, when a friend called and asked us to work as a guide for a private client who had chartered a local liveaboard and was bringing a group of friends to Indonesia, we were delighted. That is until the owner of the boat said he didn’t want us there. He was afraid we’d steal his clients.

Taken aback we declined the offer, but since this idea of “stealing” a client that “belonged” to someone else had cropped up again it made me wonder how someone who goes on a dive trip belonged to the agent who booked him on the trip or even to the person who owned the dive operation? What about all the different places someone has dived? What about the probable multiple dive travel agents that he has dealt with? Did they each own a piece of him? Hell, what about freedom of choice?

We often team up with other people to teach photography courses during their trips, and we occasionally guide private clients. We do not actively solicit email addresses while working with someone else. If we happen to be on a boat or at a resort that we have been invited to without our own group, or when we are working with other trip leaders we will direct people to our web site if asked about our own travel programs.

I wonder if you, the diving public, are aware of what goes on behind the scenes in this very competitive market. Do you feel wedded to the agent who booked your trip or the boat or resort you visited? What about cruise directors and group leaders?

I am not particularly comfortable with the direction that all of this competition may be driving us, and hope that it does not become a trend. (In all fairness, there are many agents and dive operators who do not feel like they “own” their clients.) While I understand that traveling divers are always on the lookout for the next new thing and that destinations rise and fall like tidal changes, I also believe that “clients” should be recognized and treated as valued “guests” who come and go of their own free will.

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14 comments for “Who Owns You?

  1. John Bantin
    December 19, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Unfortunately, the diving industry can be summed up like this:

    A dive store owner stands at his door looking up the street and sees a man walking along with a new snorkel. He gets angry because the man has bought the snorkel elsewhere. If he was clever, he would think “That man buys diving kit. Maybe I can sell him something.”

    I frequently go to small islands in the middle of nowhere. If there is more than one dive centre, they almost inevitably hated each other when in fact they should be combining their resources to get more divers to their island.

    For years I worked for a diving magazine that had a monopoly in its territory. It was often very poorly produced. Now there are currently FOUR magazines in the UK and each has to be good to survive.

    Competition is what makes us good at what we do.

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  2. bret gilliam
    December 19, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Burt and Maurine have just pulled the covers back on one of the industry’s biggest controversies. It’s also one reason why the industry has stifled its own growth over the years. The subject is, of course, the propriety of customer names and mailing lists.

    They have just hit the tip of the iceberg when discussing travel. It extends across the entire universe of diving commerce. Virtually no segment of the diving industry will share customer lists. It used to be “mailing lists”… now it’s “email lists” and they are considered worth more than gold as the lifeline that controls access to the consumer base.

    I know. I was in every segment of diving: manufacturing, publishing, training agencies, retail, resorts, diving vessels, cruise ships, etc for nearly 40 years. And in spite of having privity to my own customer lists that peaked out at nearly a million names by 2002, I was constantly besieged by everyone in the industry to share my treasure trove of customer contacts with others… but only them (no matter what segment). I’d actually get threatened by retailers if they thought I shared a diver’s name that was certified through TDI or SDI since they claimed that if they trained them locally and issued the certification, they owned the rights to that customer forever. Likewise, if a diver bought a diving computer or rebreather from me when I ran UWATEC, the dealer presumed that they alone would forever own the rights to that customer’s contact info.

    I understand the “logic” that they attempted to apply to such proprietary claims. It had been ingrown and embedded in diving since the 1960s and it was the proverbial “kiss of death” to violate this “code”.

    However, it was absurdly short sighted and limited growth across the industry. Yes, a retail dealer trained the original customer as a diver. But I (or my agency) had originally trained them and credentialed them as an instructor. By that logic, I should have owned every downstream customer that they created. Of course, you can see where this is going. I can only imagine Mr. Spock on Star Trek trying to explain the utter fallacy of such misuse of “logic” to make this argument. He would have had to sit back with his infamous eyebrow raised and stare in mute wonder at the “Cling-Ons” that would never relinquish a customer name to anyone else… for any reason.

    For about two decades I tried to steer the industry to accept the concept of sharing lists as a way of expanding the customer base. Here’s just one example: most retailers don’t publish magazines. Magazines tend to keep people interested and active in diving if they present good material as photos and articles. But heaven forbid if a training agency shared its mailing list with a magazine. Same thing if a manufacturer shared with a travel agent. Well, that shared customer might very well have gone on a great trip to Indonesia, Cocos Island, Palau, Truk or the Caribbean and been inspired to go back to that original dealer and buy more equipment and an underwater camera rig and a new wet suit and take nitrox training… it goes on forever. It literally is a continuous circle of trade that brings that original customer in contact with other opportunities to enrich his diving and keep him in the sport.

    But… as Burt and Maurine point out, to “share” a customer was the equivalent of “theft” or child molestation as far as most of the industry was concerned. And so the industry stagnated and we’ve now reached the crisis levels that are presently being experienced in this economy. In truth, the industry dug its own grave and the “shovel” they used was as simple as a customer’s name and contacts.

    How many people would have stayed in the sport if they had been exposed to other segments of diving from the outset? Yes, some sales may have been lost but retailers have to “earn” the loyalty and business of their customers. They are not slaves.

    And I bet that most of you that are customers don’t realize that you are considered “customers for life” and slaved to that original person that you bought a tee shirt from, a regulator, took a dive class, subscribed to a magazine, or went on a trip to Grand Cayman with. As far as they are concerned, they own you. How does that feel?

    I can tell you that it didn’t make me feel very good. And I tried to make responsible decisions about the custody of my prized mailing lists. At times I shared them in a quid pro quo swap with another entity when we felt that it would benefit our customers and expand our businesses. But the practice was always done in secret… on the “down low”… and no one would talk about it. Until now.

    I sleep well since I think I made the right choices and expanded the industry with my judicious use of my mailing lists. I probably had the the single best resource available since I was simultaneously in the magazine and book business, training agency business, manufacturing business, and the travel business. I had the entire gamut of customer base and they “belonged” to me.

    Of course, they didn’t really belong to me. They were people with independent thoughts about how they wanted to spend their hard earned money. I was wise enough to realize that and simply wanted to expose them to other segments of the industry and try to keep them in diving actively. That’s real business logic and Spock can now put his eyebrow back in place.

    But there are those who would have burned me at the stake for sharing my customer base. I sold my last diving companies in 2004 and 2005 and retired. Quite comfortably, I might add. I attribute my success to sound business practice and using every innovation and customer service ethos I could bring to the table.

    And today the practice of “proprietary customers” continues and is even more zealous since the industry has shrunk so badly. Some would burn Burt and Maurine at the stake as witches for even suggesting that a customer could be “shared”. Well, welcome to the barbeque. Throw another log on the fire.

    But ask yourself this before I now get “flamed” and “bombed”… how much bigger would diving be today and how many people that dropped out and took up golf or skiing instead might have stayed in diving if they had been exposed to more choices for products, travel, and service?

    You figure it out. And I can tell you that any customer that came in contact with professionals like Burt and Maurine and experienced the kind of lavish customer service they provide would have been better off for it and stayed active as a diver.

    But no, burn them for even suggesting such heresy. They’re witches…

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  3. BobH
    December 19, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Scary to think that someone believes they own me. Last time I checked slavery wasn’t legal. I view loyalty as something I give to a vendor who provided me with great service. In fact, I will go out of my way to send business in the direction of my favorites, and run like hell from those who do me wrong. Yes, I have a travel agency I like, or rather I have a travel agent I like. She has moved from agency to agency and I stayed with her, not the agency. Service! The same in a negative sense applies to my local dive shop. If you want to charge outrageous prices and not provide service to fit the costs, I will go elsewhere. And with just about everything available on the web, elsewhere is easy.

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  4. Rich Jacoby
    December 19, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    During the late 1970′s into the 1990′s I ran my own trips and also contracted with the Shedd Aquarium to run trips. Most of these photo trips were aboard a boat owned by the Shedd. These were early days, when liveaboards were just beginning to grow, both in number and popularity. I appreciated having returnees, regulars who signed up year after year, and, of course I kept a growing mailing list to remind divers when the next expedition(s) were scheduled.

    But, as Burt, Maureen and Bret point out, I never felt that the customers were “mine.” Naive, I guess.

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  5. David Shem-Tov
    December 22, 2011 at 1:39 am

    As a regular ‘high end’ liveaboard diver, I normally negotiate directly with operators and tend to avoid intermediaries unless they are sponsors of a trip where I felt that THEIR presence would add value. If I had chartered a liveaboard for my party and was made aware that the owner would not welcome my chosen guides I would be extremely unhappy. I could accept that the owner may want to retain a key employee to interface with his local boat staff, but I would object to not being able to appoint my own chosen ‘cruise director’ to guide the diving.

    I agree with Bret that the short-sighted attitudes that he, Burt and Maurine describe have contributed to the dismal state of the industry.

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  6. December 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Burt & Maurine,

    you said it all in your last sentence: “clients” should be recognized and treated as valued “guests” who come and go of their own free will !!!
    I used to work as a Group Leader in the past (late 1990s- early 2000s) and even back then I run in so many “discussions” about Clients’ “ownership” that I decided to give up. Nowadays I just let my close friends know which will my dive plans be and invite them to join.
    BTW it would be great to dive and learn from you guys in the near future !!!

    All the Best ….. Francesco

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  7. Lee Selisky
    December 29, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    The real question is “How was the client’s information acquired?”.

    If it acquired by pilfering the employer’s database or using information gathered in the course of employment, it belongs to the employer. If it was gathered on a social basis or offered by the client to the individual as “let’s keep in touch” or from some other medium, no foul. Diving is a social activity and the lines are often blurred.
    I did business with a shop that thought he owned his customers. Needless to say he drove his customers away and sold the business for a fraction of what it was previously worth. Loyalty is earned and not an entitlement.

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  8. Bret Gilliam
    January 1, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    It would be worth a lot if dive stores, diving vessels, manufacturers, travel agents, etc. simply read Lee Selisky’s comment above and learned something. Well spoken words to live by in business. As the Aussies say, “Good on ya, mate!”

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  9. January 5, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Burt, Maurine, Bret,

    Nice thoughts!

    I prefer to know who’s going on the trip and take my choice…

    If we go diving with a bunch that likes to dive the way we do, has a good sense of humor and ignores adversity, then we go. Doesn’t matter where we’re going or with what operator as long as they’re reasonably safe.

    The trip leader is sometimes an established commercial person or pair, sometimes “one of us” who decides it’s worth the trouble to do the work of putting the trip together.

    Let’s remember this is akin to the entertainment biz, not a religious war, please. Some of us travel to learn, to dare or to escape. Let’s keep the sport going and not quibble like kindergartners, please.

    Leave the cutthroat activities out of our recreation!

    Tom

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  10. dmcv
    January 19, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    Interesting article and discussion. As a diver, and a vacation diver at that, if I were ever to find out that a business was treating me as a commodity, that would be the last time they saw me. So, if you’re going to treat your customers this way, make sure they NEVER find out.

    And the other point no one in the comments has mentioned yet, if I find your spreading my contact info around without my permission, good-bye!

    If you want my repeat business, you need to earn it!

    Years back when I decided I wanted to buy my own equipment and stop renting, I decided to take an equipment specialty class. My LDS had just closed so I had to find a new one. I wasn’t satisfied with the first class I took at the first shop, so I found another and took it again. The difference was night and day which basically boiled down to the difference between a 2-hour sales pitch and an 8-hour, hands-on exploration of how different pieces of equipment worked, how different models differed, and how to take care of them. The instructor in the second class clearly had an insatiable curiosity for how things worked that was infectious while the instructor in the first was clearly only concerned with his sales numbers for the month.

    Guess which of these 2 shops I now get my gear from? Guess where I’ve taken all my subsequent classes? Guess where I sent my friends when they said they wanted to learn to dive? If I ever found out that first instructor felt he “owned” me as a customer, I’d laugh my head off at him.

    Each time I purchase gear, take a class or book a trip, I choose who to do business with. Convince me that you know what your talking about, that you care about it and that you care about my experience, learning and safety. That’s how you earn me as a customer for life!

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  11. Bob H.
    January 23, 2012 at 9:18 am

    As the receiving end of “ownership”, I can add that it would appear that I am “owned” by a good number of agencies, shops, booking agents and charters. Each in turnhas either implied or come right out and said that I can not book, train or travel with other agency, shop or charter. I’ve been accused of betrayal on more than one occasion when I’ve booked through other groups for things that another did not offer or was either far more expensive or poorly run.

    Basic business sense should prevail: Treat me, the consumer, well and offer the services, trips or items I am looking for at good prices with good service and I will return, if not I will most likely go elsewhere. As a final item: Make me feel that all I am is a source of dollars and that is it, I will never grave your doors again. This also includes implying that you “own” me!

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  12. Ted Recupero
    March 18, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    My guess is that I am not very popular with some of the shops that I do business with. I have no absolute loyalty to any of them. I don’t have anyone I feel good about booking a trip with, except one, maybe but I haven’t been on one of their trips yet.

    One place is very convenient sometimes, so I go there, but they are high pressure salespeople, one has attitude problems and their prices are double what others charge. They book weekend trips w/ half down so far out I can’t even be sure they will be in business when the time comes.

    Another place is the freindliest, most competent, dependable place I know, I love these people, but I don’t like the style of the diving that occurs on their trips. I’m not a follower. I do buy gear from them whenever I can.

    One outfit cancelled a trip for what I consider unacceptable reasons that I won’t go into, but they held my deposit for a month then cancelled the trip. They lost all future travel/gear business they would have gotten. They get fill business when it’s convenient, but that’s the extent of my faith in them.

    Dive shop owners want loyalty? They need to earn it, every time. You don’t own me or my money. One avoidable disapointment and you lose. Burn me once, shame on you, burn me twice, ha, you’ll never get the chance.

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  13. JackC
    August 30, 2012 at 2:56 am

    A very interesting discussion.

    I agree that service and product knowledge are the key to present and future sales.

    There is another side to the retail side. Customers who repeatedly call and pump the travel agent, retail sales person, etc for every aspect of the trip, operator, product or system. Want all your personal perspectives and experience (much of which takes years to gather. Being in sales, we are happy to spend as much time as possible with customers. And I’m talking about several calls, emails, multiple quotes, etc. Hours of work at times.

    But then after gathering all this information, they shop around and buy elsewhere, perhaps for a few bucks less, perhaps not even, maybe just to save the sales tax.

    This is an unfortunate side of sales and not much can be done, other than to gather the customers that appreciate your help and offer their loyalty. I do wish more customers would see it as a two-way, win-win street, and not an us-or-them transaction. We really do enjoy what we do, and want to see people have fun with the gear they buy.

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  14. August 14, 2013 at 3:34 am

    It’s an interesting conversation. As a dive resort we have had more than a few dive shops bring groups out and have been told we are not allowed to sell courses to them because they want to sell them the course. We keep them happy and oblige, but my wife and I have also accumulated quite a few people who have told us they enjoy the product we produce and would like to stay in touch to see where else in the world we may travel to so they can come diving with us again. Customers wishes, isn’t the customer always right?

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