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Updated Jan 16, 2024

Finding the Balance Between Employee Travel and Customer Experience

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst

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COVID-19 has introduced unforeseen risks into business travel, which was already potentially detrimental to employee health pre-pandemic. These concerns are worth reconsidering as business travel becomes more prevalent in a world grappling with the coronavirus indefinitely.

But if you opt to limit business travel out of concern for your employees’ well-being, what does that mean for your customers or clients with whom you could forge better relationships in person? Here’s our guide to balancing employee health with the customer experience. 

How does business travel affect the employee experience?

Business travel can both improve and worsen the employee experience. It can improve the employee experience through the following.

  • Expenses-paid travel: Traditionally, when employees travel on your behalf, you pay for their expenses. That means all their expenses – where they stay, what they eat and how they get around. In that regard, work travel can feel like an all-inclusive travel deal for the employee. Your staffers might appreciate the fully paid getaway.
  • Stronger customer relationships: When you spend time with someone in person, you can build rapport and trust more naturally than via even the best video conferencing services. Think about it: Doesn’t every one of your video chats with a friend end with the promise to see one another soon? You can harness that in-person power for your business too.
  • Higher morale: It’s well established that happy clients and customers make for happy employees. When you combine all the perks of business travel with the stronger customer relationships it fosters, you can improve employee morale. That raised morale is an antidote to high employee turnover rates.
  • Networking opportunities: Business travel comprises more than just meetings – conferences and other events are on the table too. These activities are great networking opportunities that can connect your employees to potential new clients or vendors. These discoveries and connections can give employees a sense of pride in their work that keeps teams happy and productive. 

While all of those benefits are significant, pre-pandemic data from Columbia University has correlated 14 overnights or more of business travel per year with poor mental health, sleep, exercise levels and more. Here are some additional ways business travel can worsen the employee experience:

  • Challenges in tracking and reimbursing expenses. Paying for your employees’ business travel means more than writing them a blank check. It means properly tracking, categorizing and reimbursing their purchases on the road. Doing so can require your employees to file expense reports and go through an approval process. Inefficiencies with approval are common and can make employee travel much less enjoyable. The result is an overall worse employee experience.
  • Time away from family and home life. Every day an employee goes back to a hotel rather than their home is a day they don’t get to spend with loved ones. Even if the staffer lives alone, the differences between a hotel and their home can disrupt their sleep patterns. That’s a big deal: Poor sleep can have numerous detrimental effects on one’s health.
  • Rocky work-life balance. Employees with an appropriate work-life balance are less subject to burnout and other negative work impacts. However, work travel can blur the line between work and life. After all, it’s harder to take a break when work hovers over your every action. 
  • General routine disruptions. A global survey by CWT of people who frequently travel for work found that 40% of such people struggle to maintain their routines on the go. The study’s author cited a lack of accessibility to gyms and affordable healthy food as examples of challenges.
Did You Know?Did you know
A record 4.5 million people quit their jobs in November 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In February 2022, the equivalent figure from the BLS was 4.4 million. Balancing the employee and customer experiences in your business can be one of the keys to minimizing the impacts of the Great Resignation.

How does business travel affect the customer experience?

Traveling to meet with clients is primarily a positive for the customer – why else would it have become such a big part of the business world over the last century? Business travel is highly effective for improving the customer experience for two main reasons:

  • In-person meetings build rapport. Every time your team makes the effort to get on a plane and visit clients in person, the connection between company and customer strengthens. In-person interactions are generally smoother and more enjoyable, plus the energy you put into your travel won’t go unnoticed.
  • In-person meetings are better for solving complex problems. It can take a lot of work to hold productive video conferences. Between Zoom burnout and technical issues, a lot can go wrong. That’s why many of the most important meetings need to happen in person. Clients and customers can be a lot more confident in – and satisfied with – the solutions you present when you work toward them face-to-face.

How do you balance employee and customer experience?

These priorities can seem at odds with each other: You don’t want your staff to suffer the negative consequences of business travel, but you want to provide clients personal interaction and in-person attention. To balance the employee and customer experiences in ways that are healthy for your business, take the following steps.

1. Clearly define when travel should or shouldn’t happen. 

Video conferencing services have come far enough that you probably don’t need to hold initial sales meetings in person. You can also avoid in-person travel for most small-group meetings, but the in-person route can help when selling to big groups. Part of balancing the employee and customer experience is ensuring employees only travel when customers genuinely need it.

The thing is, only you can know when in-person meetings and the travel they require will or won’t make a significant difference for your company. Look back on your past business travel and sales history to glean when travel does and doesn’t make sense. Modify your business travel policies accordingly and note the changes in your employee handbook.

2. Set travel safety policies.

Invariably, COVID-19 is now a key consideration in business travel. Your need to push a prospect along your sales funnel should never outweigh employee safety. However, you can implement safety policies to reflect the balance between concern for your employees and concern for your customer relationships.

A recent McKinsey analysis of how to safely travel for business amid COVID-19 provides a great example. One company initially kept its factories open during the pandemic while closing its corporate offices and freezing business travel. Its strategy for resuming business travel has involved “gates” or stages – executive travel and critical sales meetings would resume first, then internal corporate and general sales events. Internal training and events would be last. The company would restart these activities based on current COVID-19 case rates and vaccination rates and make recommendations accordingly on masks, lodging and group size. This method ensures employees have a level of security when they travel, and prospects and customers get the in-person interactions that keep them satisfied.

3. Make the expense reimbursement process easy.

It’s one thing to require your employees to keep paper receipts for every purchase they make during a business trip. It’s another to implement an expense tracking app to which they can connect their credit cards. Such apps can automatically track all the staffer’s purchases while traveling on the company’s behalf. The employee then needs just a few minutes to separate business and personal expenses. After that, using the app to compile the business expenses into a report should take just seconds.

Providing straightforward protocol about how employees should deliver their expense reports and when you’ll reimburse them can ease one of the major concerns about business travel. Workers will be confident their expenditures will be fully covered – and that’s a great way to keep them on the road.

Any of the top expense trackers should streamline your reimbursement process enough to improve the employee experience during business travel.

4. Be agile in your planning.

The decision on whether to require your employees to travel for business will come down to more than one factor. You’ll need to balance the need for business travel with current COVID-19 case rates, company finances, workloads and much more. You’ll also need to evaluate whether customer preferences and your competitors’ strategies demand that your employees travel to make sales. This all requires flexibility.

If you’re eager to see certain customers in person again, ask yourself: Are COVID-19 case rates near you and your customers low? If not, it’s worth waiting longer to protect everyone’s health. Or, if you notice that case rates are rapidly falling, it might be time to book that meeting across the country before rates rise again. And, of course, if rival companies have resumed their business travel – and made sales – without people getting sick, it could be advantageous for you to do the same. 

Go about business travel the right way, and your employees might love getting back into the world. To make it easier, here are the best apps for business travelers and more tips for avoiding stress during business travel.

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
Max Freedman has spent nearly a decade providing entrepreneurs and business operators with actionable advice they can use to launch and grow their businesses. Max has direct experience helping run a small business, performs hands-on reviews and has real-world experience with the categories he covers, such as accounting software and digital payroll solutions, as well as leading small business lenders and employee retirement providers. Max has written hundreds of articles for Business News Daily on a range of valuable topics, including small business funding, time and attendance, marketing and human resources.
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