A ‘Total’ transition – from consultant to co-ordinator

Two years ago Ntombi Ngcobo crossed over from consultant in a travel agency to the other side as travel co-ordinator for Total South Africa. Travel Buyer’s Debbie Badham speaks to her about making the transition.

NTOMBI Ngcobo was no stranger to travel when she first joined Total South Africa in May 2012. Having been in the industry for almost 17 years, she has worked her way up from junior to senior travel consultant all the way through to management. Eventually, her curiosity around how things worked on the ‘other side’ of the corporate travel fence prompted her to take up her current position as travel co-ordinator for Total. 

“The cross-over has been a positive one,” she says, adding that she believes the experience she gained working as a travel consultant provided her with the right set of skills to add significant value in her role as a corporate travel co-ordinator.

Her greatest challenge in making the transition was learning to compile and present management reports, based on Total’s Goods and Services purchasing process, which governs the in-house purchasing and payment process for the travel commodity. However, she notes that the company’s comprehensive support system assisted her in meeting this challenge head-on. “My line manager, Jabu Khumalo, was a great help in assisting me with management reporting, providing guidance and leadership on numerous issues as well as with understanding the purchasing process.”

Ngcobo says at Total travel bookings are currently decentralised. Employees are able to book their own travel via the company’s online booking system. This is then approved by the travelling employee’s line manager, and then sent on for approval to the travel co-ordinator – a process that Ngcobo believes is helpful in eliminating a great deal of unnecessary admin. “My primary role is to manage our travel booking system and act as the ‘super approver’ for all bookings.”

The company partners with Travel with Flair (TWF) for all its travel procurement needs. The TMC was responsible for developing Total’s travel booking system. Ngcobo says she works closely with TWF on the system, providing them with a comprehensive understanding of Total’s unique needs. “I also did IT training in order to be able to manage the system most effectively.” She adds that Total has developed a very strong relationship with TWF over the years.

Curbing non-compliance

Another big challenge Ngcobo faced when taking up the position of travel co-ordinator for Total South Africa two years ago was traveller non-compliance – up to 85%. But she’s managed to reduce this by 30%.

She says this particular area of travel has been tricky for her to manage but not impossible. “When I first arrived at Total, I was responsible for managing travellers who had been at the company for a very long time. Many of them did not understand why they should suddenly have to change the way they conducted their travel arrangements to comply with travel policies.”

Her solution was to focus her time and energy on constantly educating travellers about the company’s travel programme and the reason for its policies and procedures. To achieve this, Ngcobo makes use of the company’s departmental meetings where she highlights different aspects of the company’s travel management policy and explains why each procedure is important. “I mostly address issues around cost-saving through booking in advance,” she says.

As all Total’s bookings are made through an online system, travellers are unable to book outside of the travel management policy when it comes to the suppliers they select.  “We are very cost-savings driven, so only our preferred suppliers are available on the system. Travellers are guided by what I’ve placed on the system. For example, our programme allows for C-class car hire and if one of our travellers wants to book a bigger vehicle they would need to log a very specific reason for having made that choice on the system. ”

For Ngcobo, the issue of non-compliance relates primarily to situations in which travel is not booked in advance. While many travel programmes stipulate that travel should be booked at least seven days in advance, Total found that this time frame was not working effectively for the company. As such, for the majority of business travel the travel management policy stipulates a longer time period between date of booking and travel.  As a result of enforcing this change in behaviour and adherence to policy, there has been improved planning on the part of the traveller and substantial savings have been made.

In order to encourage advance bookings, Ngcobo closely monitors the company’s travel KPIs and highlights areas where bookings have been made outside of policy. In these cases, she addresses the booking with the traveller’s line manager – what she calls her “name and shame” policy, which is about taking accountability. The line manager needs to explain to Ngcobo why that particular booking was made outside of policy.

Having significantly increased compliance to the Travel Management Policy, Ngcobo believes that this approach is highly effective. “When I first arrived at Total, 85% of bookings were being made after the stipulated period of travel. Now compliance has greatly improved to between 48% and 55%,” she says. But Ngcobo acknowledges that more work lies ahead in improving compliance to the policy and says she plans to approach this with vigour.

Communication is critical

Ngcobo says, ultimately, it is the development of strong relationships between the various stakeholders that form part of Total’s travel programme that enables operations to run smoothly.

As a people’s person, she believes communication is essential and tries to give Total’s travellers a comprehensive understanding of the bigger picture around the business and how the travel programme fits with the company’s objectives.

 “I make an effort to explain the finer details of travel to our travellers,” she says. “This may involve conversations around the intricate details of how airline classes and strategies work, which hotels are cost effective but still comfortable, and when it makes more sense to use Lanseria instead of OR Tambo.” She adds that travellers don’t always understand costs as a result of unnecessary booking changes and how these build up and become quite significant.

Key to great travel management, as far as Ngcobo is concerned, is the ability to put oneself in the traveller’s shoes. “There’s simply no point in implementing policies that travellers are unable to follow or to which they are oblivious,” she says. This is made easier by Total’s travel management policy, which doesn’t distinguish between employees and their level within the company. For example, all employees fly business class on any flight longer than three hours, regardless of seniority. 

Ngcobo’s commitment to developing good relationships with the company’s travellers has paid off. Not only has it influenced a change in traveller behaviour but has also produced trust among Total’s employees; so much so that when travellers do find it necessary to book outside of policy they now seek out Ngcobo and check that they are cleared to do so.  

On the supplier side, Ngcobo is well placed to hold suppliers accountable. As a former travel consultant she understands the ins and outs of the industry and knows when she is being provided with good service and when she is not.  

Extending the travel programme

The volume of travel for which Ngcobo is responsible is set to increase significantly in the near future. Total’s international head office has identified the South African office as the company’s innovation hub for countries within sub-Saharan Africa.

As a result, Total South Africa can expect an increase in the amount of travel into Africa on the part of the company’s local employees as well as see Total employees from other destinations around the world travelling more frequently to South Africa.

Ngcobo says she looks forward to the new challenge, expecting enough of a boost to the company’s travel programme to warrant bringing on board new members to her travel team.   

New company initiatives

Total South Africa recently formed a partnership with SAA Voyager. Through this partnership, SAA Voyager members earn one SAA Voyager mile for every one litre of fuel purchased through Total. The goal behind this was to offer Total customers a value-added lifestyle experience beyond the day-to-day necessity of filling up with fuel.

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