09 January 2009

Marketing and Customer Service: What Are You Really Selling, and to Whom?

I spent nine years running a small retail music store with my husband, and an ongoing concern was the physical layout of the space. I watched closely how customers moved through the store, what caught their attention, how they handled merchandise and how their behavior indicated comfort or discomfort.
We arranged and re-arranged accordingly to maximize sales opportunities, extend the length of the customer's visit and to facilitate and simplify the selection and purchasing processes. We moved tables and shelves, added rugs and seating, widened corridors, provided coffee and snacks, created a transaction area with designated “buyer's chair,” redesigned and repositioned price tags, provided surfaces for people to put their stuff down, etc. etc.

We gave the same kind of close attention to how people reacted to what the staff said and how and when they said it, and trained ourselves and our staff to deliver the best possible sales support and customer service. We applied similar methods to our marketing efforts and our website. We were rewarded with increased sales and more satisfied customers – because we took the time and made the effort to understand what they wanted and needed, not just through their words but through their actions, and we altered our words and actions to meet them.

All this makes me a picky consumer today. When I deal with a retail or service outlet I am very sensitive to the merchandising layout and the quality of service, and I'm not particularly shy about pointing things out. No, I don't offer myself as a consultant or try to run anybody's business for them...

I'll give some examples. A pet peeve is salespeople in a bricks-and-mortar location who send me back home to the Internet. I've taken the trouble to visit the store to see things in person and talk to a human face to face, and they suggest I go back home and shop on my browser. This is so wrong in so many ways that I admit I have a hard time even knowing how to begin phrasing my objection. It happened to me more than once in a major department store chain (one that is in serious financial trouble now) and I sent an email about it to the store manager, who I''m hoping was not typical, because his response was personally offensive (after telling me how rude I was, he suggested I needed to get in touch with a doctor).

Very recently, I tried on clothing in a local fitness wear store. The range of merchandise was so limited that there wasn't a single top in my size. For someone who has been working out at the gym for years and is reasonably fit, as I am, this kind of experience is marginalizing, even humiliating. I'm a gym-goer and yet my shape and size put me outside a fitness store's perceived demographic. I shared these thoughts with the apologetic salesperson before I left the store.

Even more infuriating, illogical and downright hypocritical is a detail of the gym itself: No dedicated place for a person to stretch. Maintaining flexibility is an important part of a well-rounded fitness program, right? We all know that, right? But when it comes down to manifesting that by setting aside actual, dedicated space on the gym floor, something intrudes. It might be that thing we learned about in art school called “horror vacui” - fear of empty space – which was part of instructors' teaching us to leave some white space on the page, dammit. But I think it is simply the need of an equipment company to sell or lease equipment having overcome the gym operator's sense of proportion. And once that equipment is there, they keep the sense of proportion at bay to justify the expenditure. The result: no place to stretch. Naturally, I have brought up the issue more than once and we are now at the “nobody else is complaining” stage, which means that the equipment is more important than the customer and if necessary they'll designate me a lunatic and sacrifice my business to the cause. In other words, the gym's unwritten, true mission is to house equipment, not to provide users with the environment for a balanced fitness program.

It's important in any business to take time for a reality check. Ask yourself honestly what business you are in, what your mission is and who your customers are. Then find out if your perception matches that of your staff, and that of your customers. And – MIND THE GAP!

Recommended reading: Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing, by Harry Beckwith.