Brenda Tang has a passion for sales and is not afraid to admit it. Starting off her post-college career as a general sales associate at Delta Airlines, Brenda worked her way up through middle and upper management in the travel, publishing, and hospitality sectors. She has been General Manager for Taiwan Sales at United Airlines for almost a decade.
Brenda met with Taiwan Business TOPICS Deputy Editor Jeremy Olivier to talk about her career and experience as a manager in some of Taiwan’s most dynamic and competitive industries. A condensed version of the interview is below.
You studied public finance in university. In what ways did this prepare you for your eventual career?
Back when I took the exam to get into university, we didn’t have a choice of which department to go into. I had my wish list, but to my surprise, my score was high enough to study public finance. I ended up really enjoying it. Public finance equipped me with the ability to analyze a company’s finances and to recognize solid financial reports, which are a requirement for a well-run company. This was very helpful for determining what kind of activities I wanted to engage in, what investments I wanted to make – I always consider the returns that are possible with each investment.
I’ve always considered myself to be a “numbers” person. I’m skilled at looking at the numbers and making a good analysis based on that. I think this gave me a very solid foundation for entering into the business sector.
What drew you to the airline industry? What have been the most rewarding aspects of working in this area?
This is a question I like to ask when I interview potential new staff. Why do they want to join United? They invariably tell me its because they love to travel. So, the first thing I tell them is that their love of travel is not really related to the work they will be doing in the company. It’s only a small part.
When I was young, just out of university, I worked in an airline company as ground staff for the same reason as these young job candidates. As my career progressed and I began shifting among the next few jobs in the hospitality and publishing industries, I realized that it wasn’t that I specifically liked working for an airline. What I really loved was working in sales. Every company needs a sales team; we drive the business forward.
I think the most rewarding aspect of this business for me is getting to interact with all different kinds of people. My team is consistently in contact with the Tourism Bureau to discuss joint promotions. We also talk to travel agencies, hotels, car rental companies, Global Distribution System operators, and our customers. These contacts formulate an important part of my professional network. Through this network, I have been able to build more business and make new friends.
What are the main characteristics of the travel market in Taiwan?
I think the travel market in Taiwan is very dynamic and competitive. Taiwanese people, for example, tend to plan their travel very late, compared to our counterparts in the U.S. and Europe, who may book tickets and hotels half a year or longer in advance. There is also a growing tendency among Taiwanese to do independent travel, rather than travel in tour groups.
In the past, Taiwanese travelers relied heavily on travel agencies to book their trips. Now, they are more self-reliant and just go online. This kind of consumer behavior drives ticket fares lower and lower. The industry is very price driven, which makes the airline business quite challenging and has an impact on our company’s sales strategy. We have had to make ourselves think in terms of the internet. We also need to monitor our competitors’ activities so that our products stand out from theirs.
How do the travel preferences of Taiwanese consumers affect the way your team conducts its sales and marketing efforts?
United is the only U.S. carrier with operations in Taiwan. Compared with Taiwan’s two major airlines, China Airlines and EVA Air, which have lots of trans-Pacific flights each day, our share of the market here is relatively smaller.
So, how do we tackle this issue? We have to put a spotlight on our unique selling points. For instance, we are the only airline with a presence in Taiwan that also has a comprehensive U.S. domestic network. As a rule, we try to persuade our customers who need to transfer to choose United for the connecting flight because they will be better covered in case of delays or cancellations. We view these selling points as what make us the airline of choice for our customers.
We also need to take care of our different market segments: our corporate travelers, our independent travelers, our agencies, our distribution channels. We need make a balanced mix of these segments to maintain a solid business intake.
Before you started at United, you held several management-level positions in the hospitality, publishing, and travel sectors. How did those experiences shape your current approach to leadership?
I consider myself lucky in that all of my companies – previous and current – have put a strong emphasis on corporate training. Over the years, I have taken many training courses and workshops, which helped me hone my sales and leadership skills. These experiences also allowed me to build up my business acumen and develop more logical thinking. Because of the training I received, I feel that I can be a good, proficient manager, regardless of which industry I am working in.
Being a good manager requires that you are able to clearly communicate with your staff. We always say that people are a company’s most important assets. You need to discuss things with your staff, to incorporate their input and make adjustments based on that input. You need everyone to be on the same page regarding strategy. This consensus will help you with the execution and implementation.
Where do you excel as a manager? What lessons have you learned from managing large operations?
I think that I’m very good at “change management,” leading a team through organizational change.
Years ago I was hired by a company where management had expressed their concern that the team I would be leading had become a bit too complacent, and a shift in working culture was needed. I went to the company, talked to the staff, gathered all the diagnostics, and set to making a plan that successfully pulled that department out of its lull.
Similarly, after I joined United, we merged with Continental Airlines and created a joint venture with All Nippon Airways (ANA). All of these companies had different work cultures and the question for me as a manager was: how can I lead the team through this process so that once it’s complete, we can still exceed our revenue target?
Once again, communication is key to this process. People need to know what is happening, to take part in the discussions. There can’t be gaps in communication because people will start to get distracted from the task at hand.
After my past experience with this kind of process, I think I’m now very comfortable with leading my team through similar changes.
What advice can you give for someone considering a career in sales or marketing?
Choose sales! When I was young, salespeople didn’t have a good image. If you were around a salesperson, you might worry that they would try to sell you something – not because you needed the product, but because they needed to make the sale. So, we used to feel some antipathy towards the sales profession.
However, my view on this has changed since I got involved in sales. I enjoy the challenge and the need to stay hungry – the need to take advantage of opportunities and take control. I like feeling like I have taken ownership of my career. I enjoy being able to advocate for the customer and to be our company’s driving force, getting good results and reaching our targets. I think these goals are very practical and very motivating.
In the past, being in sales was all about talking, telling the customer how great a product is. But the reality is that you have to both talk and to listen. When you sell something, you don’t just boast about your product; you need to explore your customer’s specific pain points by asking questions and getting their feedback. You then imply that their issues, without a proper solution, will turn into other, bigger issues.
Finally, you propose your particular solution. It’s a two-way street, and if you’re a salesperson who only talks, chances are it’s going to be very difficult to make the sale.
What is your favorite way to unwind after a long week at work?
I love listening to music and going to see movies – particularly courtroom dramas. If I had the chance to choose my career over again, I would love to be a lawyer! I also enjoy doing puzzles, like sudoku and word games. They help me keep my brain active even while I’m relaxing.
For outdoor activities, I enjoy riding bicycles with my husband. Taipei is a great city for cycling, since there are many routes along the rivers and around the city.