Face to Face: Cook’s new retail chief struck by passion of ‘real agents’

Face to Face: Cook’s new retail chief struck by passion of ‘real agents’

Cook’s new retail chief approves of cluster managers, has ‘no plans’ to merge brands and is keen to transfer commission across all channels. Juliet Dennis reports

Kathryn Darbandi has been in charge of Thomas Cook and The Co-operative Travel network of 847 shops and the group’s two call centres for just over three months.

She has already conducted a whirlwind tour of the company’s stores nationwide – visiting 50 shops the length and breadth of the country in a week and meeting 100 shop managers – and been on a week’s visit to a Thomas Cook concept hotel in Majorca to “touch and feel the product” for herself.

“I was determined to learn the business properly,” said Darbandi. “I have taken a lot of time to understand the business, the culture and the product.”

Passionate staff

The result? Darbandi was impressed, most of all by the passion, commitment and experience of the staff of two of travel’s most well-established high street travel brands – or, as she describes them, “real travel agents”.

High praise indeed from someone who most recently ran the retail division of high street rival Thomson.

Recalling her nationwide tour, she said: “I didn’t go into one shop that didn’t have a person with at least 15 years’ service. With that comes knowledge and experience.

“And they are upbeat, positive and incredibly passionate.

“When you think what the business has been through in the last two years, what strikes me is there is such a pride and passion for the brand. There is a resilience and determination for Thomas Cook to be back where it ought to be – and there is a feeling that Thomas Cook is turning the corner.

“Financially we are in a better place and staff are so excited about the future. We are at a transformational crossroads.”

But Darbandi is keen to point out that no major changes are planned in terms of operating two brands on the high street.

Indeed, she believes having both Thomas Cook and The Co‑operative Travel stores has benefits, including giving two opportunities to sell to the same customer as “most people do not know our brands are linked”.

She added: “We have no plans to change this yet. It will continue to be reviewed but at the moment the issue is not on the table.”

Sound strategy

Her message to the company’s 6,000 staff has been simple: the group’s strategy is “sound” and is working well in its mission to be Europe’s best-loved travel brand.

Darbandi’s priorities now centre on investment, customer service and taking the retail business “to the next level”.

This will include developing more “concept” stores. Currently, there are 10 such stores, boasting state-of-the-art technology.

Darbandi said there was no set target for the future, but added: “My thinking is all high‑footfall stores should be concept stores.”

Elements of the technology they feature could be rolled out to other shops, she added.

Similarly, developing Cook’s reputation as a cruise retailer and getting more staff on educationals will be prioritised. “We took 300 to 400 away on educationals this year; I’d like to double or treble that number next year,” she added.

Cluster managers

One of the most controversial moves by Cook in recent years was to create cluster managers, running two to five stores, in place of individual store managers. The move was part of a restructure that saw more than 900 retail jobs axed and nearly 200 shops shut.

Critics say cluster management doesn’t work because it stretches managers too thinly.

Darbandi admitted she joined the company “with a very open mind” on the subject but now is “entirely converted”.

“I would not go back on it,” she said. “It raises the calibre of the management team.”

She points in particular to the benefits of best practice, which can be transferred from one store to another, and the management opportunities it offers staff.

Joined-up approach

As well as her retail hat, Darbandi has taken on a new role – customer experience director. She calls this a more “joined-up” approach, designed to ensure customers have the same experience wherever they “touch” the business, via the web, shops or call centres.

Part of the strategy is to develop a “single customer view” system so all retail staff have access to the same customer information and clients do not have to repeat information when booking.

This system will be rolled out in contact centres this autumn and in shops by early spring 2016.

“It will make a fundamental difference to our teams because they will have better conversations with customers,” Darbandi said.

Cook is also piloting an internal system called Dreamcatcher. This will allow agents to earn commission if, for example, they work on a booking but the client goes on to book on the company’s website.

“Commission is not transferable at the moment,” said Darbandi.

“To be truly omni-channel that is what we need to be. We are looking to enhance Dreamcatcher before we roll it out permanently.”

Crisis response

There is no doubt that since taking on the role in April, Darbandi has had her work cut out.

The terrorist massacre of 38 tourists in Tunisia on June 26 was a particular challenge, but she is proud of how the company reacted.

“Within an hour we had people coming off annual leave – staff were just turning up. The camaraderie and effort was incredible,” she recalled. “We opened more stores on the Sunday and our stores were open until 10 or 11pm. And we had about 80 retail staff at UK airports to welcome flights back from Tunisia.

“It will be the first of many crises for me but it was good experience and confirms that the people are everything.”Darbandi says she couldn’t be happier with her decision to take the role at Thomas Cook.

“I wake up in the morning and think how lucky I am to have this job – it’s what I love. And joining an organisation with a clear vision, strong values and culture, where I can add value, is really exciting.”


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