August 2005 issue

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The perfect agent

Language travel agencies have to be first-class to attract and retain clients by providing a top-rate service. Education institutions also have a wishlist of qualities that good agencies should exhibit. Gillian Evans reports on the hallmark of the perfect agent.

Most language travel agents provide a top quality service to students and language schools, which is fundamental in an industry where much hinges on word-of-mouth recommendation.

Language travel agents play a number of different roles: education counsellor, to ensure clients select the appropriate course for their future goals; travel agent, arranging the flights and accommodation options; efficient administrator, to deal with school and visa application procedures; contact and translator between student and school; general adviser about life overseas and what to expect; and often, a friendly voice at the end of the phone or email once the students are overseas.

And the agent's commitment to schools extends further than just sending them a good supply of students. Matteo Savini, Director of Istituto Venezia - The Venice Institute in Venice, Italy, says that the most important issues for him are that the school is promoted accurately and "with enthusiasm". Ensuring students have a realistic expectation of what the school offers and what their study experience will be like is a common concern.

To be able to do this, agents must know the school well, says David Hurford at Regent Australia English Language Centre in Port Douglas, QLD. "Agents should have a good understanding of the school's strengths and the student's expectations and have them well matched," he says. "We expect agents to have genuine interest in satisfying their customers' needs and should put their customer over and above profits."

Nihan Selcuk at CDS agency in Turkey believes a good rapport with the clients and an understanding of their needs is fundamental to a successful placement. "The most important part of our job is to be able to answer all [the student's] questions with empathy," she says. "An education counsellor should be able to understand the students' capabilities such as who can succeed where - in which country and school and on which programme - and accordingly refer the students to the right programme but also be aware of the students' preferences."

And, as Kenichi Yokoyama, Manager of the Administration Team at Ryugaku Journal Inc. in Japan, underlines, ensuring students are perfectly matched to their desired programme also leads to good school-agent relations. "Giving the correct and latest information to students [results in] satisfaction from schools [with our service]," he affirms.

Bad practice
The working relationship between schools and agents is built upon strong foundations of mutual trust and confidence in the other party's service. Catrin Diamantino, Director of Sales and Marketing at European Centre for English Language Studies, which has schools in Malta and in Brighton and Cambridge in the UK, states, "The biggest problem for us is when agents give the students incorrect information, either because they assume things and don't bother asking or when they are desperate to sell and will say anything the student wants to hear in order to close the sale."

In such cases, says Marika Makela-Aventurin at French language school, Media Langues Caraibes in Sainte-Anne, Guadeloupe, the language schools are left "to solve the misunderstanding and problem on the spot".

But such practices only result in dissatisfied clients, and as much of an agency's business comes through word-of-mouth recommendation, few can afford to follow such business practices. Selcuk says, "Our reputation has grown every year, which proves that being honest, giving accurate information and being trustworthy to the students are the most important assets of our work."

Visiting the schools
In order to be able to represent a school accurately, agents must be fully versed in all the school has to offer. Louise Edworthy, Sales Coordinator at Study Group, believes that familiarisation (or "fam") trips are very important. Indeed, some agencies say they will not represent an institution in their brochure until it has been visited by a member of staff. Visits not only enable the agent to get to know the schools, residences and locations so they can better explain them to their clients, but they can also help galvanise the school/agent partnership. "Fam trips are rewarding for both the centre/admission staff and the agents as everyone involved benefits from improved relationships and better understanding of each other's working practices," notes Edworthy. 

Fam trips for groups of agents often take place before or after a workshop, and all schools generally welcome visits from agents - indeed some, such as EC, actually prefer visits from individuals because, says Diamantino, "we can tailor the [visit] to meet the needs of that particular agent and have more time for them". Another good way to get to know a school is by taking a course there. "Many agents send their sales staff to one of our schools for a one-week course so they can experience the school from the student's perspective - this is excellent!" states Diamantino.

In cases where agents are unable to visit the schools personally, agents that use a school website, CD-Roms and newsletters are nevertheless able to give their clients a taste of life at a school and keep them informed of the latest developments. In addition, an agent manual is indispensable. "The agent manual enables the company to provide more detailed information and advice than [it is] possible to put in a brochure," explains Edworthy. "It enables agents to go to one place to find out all the extra information they and their student would require if interested in a certain course."

According to Selcuk, the best agent manuals include "all the contact information of the school, school locations, programmes and fees in detail, accommodation options and fees, student services, payment information including bank details and [the] cancellation procedure". Mathew Lewis, Global Marketing Development Manager for STA Travel, adds that it is should also include as much other information as possible such as "transport, money and climate".

International House (IH) provides its agents with a dedicated website instead of a paper manual. As well as being able to update the information regularly, other advantages are that agents can "order books online [and] download pictures, videos and maps", says Mathew Rayment at IH London in the UK.

Good customer service
In an age where the Internet provides information at the click of a mouse, students and schools expect agencies to provide much more than basic information. Wolfgang Schmeink at Calypso-Sprachreisen in Germany says they pride themselves on "personal service and very good consulting". He elaborates, "All requests are answered in less than 24 hours. We also have a 24-hour emergency hotline for our students." Similarly, Ryugaku Journal Inc. has a 24-hour helpline. It also tries to ensure all potential problems are ironed out before the student departs. "We provide a ‘hello call', where our operators call every host family just before students depart. We confirm their arrival, home address [and] student's special requests if he/she has ordered any," says Yokoyama.

Irina Kubik at Kub Travel Enterprises in Serbia says that "for us, the story begins with the visa. Most of our clients would not travel anywhere if we did not pave the path for them by facilitating the visa process." She adds that for minors, Kub provides group leaders who fulfil a very important role, "helping children through the first few days teething period [overseas]".

Paul Clark at Geos English Academy, Brighton & Hove, in the UK, agrees that agents should prepare students for all aspects of their stay abroad "everything from the weather to cultural problems". Edworthy adds that pre-arrival information should include emergency details, travel arrangements, city, climate and "social etiquette to aid their transition into the country". To this end, Ryugaku Journal gives its clients a "marvellous handbook", according to Yokoyama, called Study Abroad 110, which covers many cultural issues, while Kub also offers all its clients a brochure with common questions explained and "packed with practical advice", relates Kubik.

Financial management
Another important factor to being a perfect agent is financial management. However good an agent is at sending students to a school, if the school is not paid on time, the relationship can sour. Indeed, most schools mentioned that when they have had a problem with agents it has generally been to do with a delay in payment.

There are a number of different payment procedures. Most agencies pay the net price to schools, retaining the commission at point of sale. This method, according to Clark, "reduces bank charges and benefits both [parties]". However, some schools expect agents to pay the whole invoice upfront, or the student pays the school directly, and the agent is given the commission payment upon receipt of the fee. IH works with all three payment methods under prior arrangement with the agent. Even so, according to Rayment, the payment aspect results in the most procedural problems. For example, he says, "Occasionally a student has left their programme and then the agent tells us we should have taken the money from the student."

Delays in payments cause concern to both schools and agents. According to Edworthy, when the payment is not received before the student arrives, it "causes extra work for agents and for our schools". Selcuk, too, comments that their resources are wasted in chasing money owed by schools. "Some schools delay the commission payments for six to nine months and we need to spend considerable time emailing back and forth," she claims.

According to Yokoyama, delayed payment from agencies to schools is sometimes tied to visa delays. "Our students [sometimes] obtain their visas and then go to the schools that weekend, so everything is arranged at the last minute," he says. "Because the visas take so long, we have to collect the payments from them on the last day." However, both parties tend to agree that when the payment procedures are clearly laid out and followed, the relationship runs very smoothly.

Services to schools
Open channels of communication are fundamental to a successful agent/school relationship. Indeed, one of the top assets Monica Thompson at Inter-Express in Paraguay attributes to an agent is maintaining a good relationship with schools by simply keeping in touch with them. This also includes "informing them about our market and making sure the schools understand how our market works", she says. Makela-Aventurin acknowledges how important this is to schools, adding that "discussion on ways to improve and [increase] the interest for the school in the local market" is highly beneficial - and a clear advantage to working with agents all over the world. But in Makela-Aventurin's experience, it is "rare" to receive this kind of information from agents.

Another area in which agents could improve their service to schools is by providing schools with follow-up information once the students have returned. "A brief follow-up email is always appreciated if the student has given feedback to the agent," says Leckie, adding, "Very few [agents] do this - we are always happy to receive it."

Although most schools undertake their own post-course surveys of students, they feel an agency version of this is also beneficial. Clark notes, "Some students communicate more openly with people from their own country."

Schools say that generally when they do receive post-trip feedback it is only when it is negative. "Bad news seems to travel fast whereas good news doesn't seem to travel at all," laments Rayment, and Makela-Aventurin comments that both positive and negative feedback is useful "if the school wants to improve or get confirmation that things are going fine".

Kubik attempts to summarise the perfect credentials of an agent for a school: "Being a human being and a friend in addition to being a correct business partner who endeavours to be very precise and honest and always pays on time."

By providing a service of the highest possible quality, agents make themselves indispensable to schools. As Leckie declares, "Our school could not function without our agents!"

Students speak out

Language Travel Magazine conducted a straw poll of 35 students who had booked their course through agencies and were studying at language schools in five different countries.

The main reason students decided to book through an agency was because of convenience. Eighteen-year-old Jean François from France commented that he did not have much time and the agency was experienced and had all the information he needed. Another important reason for choosing to book through an agency was because it had a good reputation, and students therefore trusted the advice.

The ways in which the agencies helped students included providing lots of information about the school and course, and dealing with the applications and visa documents. When asked if they would have appreciated further information, three students mentioned that they would have like more general information about the location and culture of the country, while one said he would have liked more information about the accommodation.

Once at their schools overseas, 40 per cent of students said their agents had contacted them, while 46 per cent said they had not been contacted by their agent (14 per cent did not answer this question). Of those who had been in touch with their agencies since arriving at their destination, 57 per cent had been emailed and 21 per cent had been contacted by telephone. Forty-nine per cent of students had been given a 24-hour contact telephone number by the agency. When we asked if students thought it was the agent's responsibility to check up on them while they are overseas, 57 per cent replied yes.

The vast majority of the students canvassed were satisfied with the service they received from the agents, indicated by the score they gave their agents when we asked them to rate the agencies on a scale of one to 10, with one being the best. Thirty per cent of students gave their agents the top mark and a further 13 per cent rated their service as "two" on our scale. Overall, the average score was 3.5. The reasons given by those who gave high scores varied. Eighteen-year-old Norie from Japan said that the agency "really supported me", while Jerome from Switzerland said that the agency was "very efficient, friendly, young and dynamic". He added, "They were top level - really!"

Only three students gave negative scores of seven and over, with one, 25-year-old Sung Hee from Korea, saying that the reason behind this low score was inaccurate consulting. "The agency said the school had only few Koreans but there are a lot of Koreans here," she states.

We also asked the students if they would book their course through an agency again to which 63 per cent replied that they would. Of the 31 per cent who said they would not (six per cent did not reply), two said they would not because it cost too much, one was dissatisfied with the agency and two answered that they no longer required the services of an agency because they now knew more about language travel.

Among those students who answered our questions, 40 per cent said that they had to pay an agency booking fee and half of these students said it was too expensive.

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