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.

Jonathan Katz Speaks about California Academy of Sciences at Events in San Francisco, Feb 27 and April 3

Cinnabar CEO Jonathan Katz, executive producer of 35,000 square feet of multimedia exhibits for the celebrated, new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, will speak on two industry panels in the San Francisco area, Feb 27 and April 3, 2009.

Feb 27:
With the exhibits “Altered State,” (executive produced by Katz) the Academy adopted a bold stance on the issue of climate change. The panel, “Exhibitions: Experimentation, Risk and Reward,” takes place Feb 27 at the Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco. It addresses the rewards and challenges of experimentation and risk-taking in the museum sector – daring to try something new in a community that is traditionally risk-averse. It is moderated by Ann Marshall of the Autry National Museum. With Katz on the panel are Kitty Connolly and Karina White of The Huntington Library and Jonathan Spaulding of the Autry. This session is part of the California Association of Museums Annual Conference running Feb 25-28. More info: www.calmuseums.org.

April 3:
“The Living Building” is a by-invitation event for the design community, focusing on the professional teamwork that created this breakthrough facility. This panel discussion takes place April 3 at the Academy. It is presented by Metropolis magazine and Coalesse, and the discussion will be led by Metropolis editor-in-chief Susan Szenasy. Katz is joined on the panel by Brett Terpeluk of Studio Terpeluk (architecture), Paul Kephart of Rana Creek (ecological design), and Jean Rogers of Arup (design & engineering). More info: coalesse.com or phone 866-645-6952.

Katz brought his innovative creative approach, his green-building expertise, his efficient management style and his company, Cinnabar Inc., to the production of 35,000 sq. ft. of original, new exhibits and multimedia for the Kimball Museum of Natural History within the new California Academy of Sciences. As executive producer, Katz assembled and oversaw the creative team to develop the exhibits on a modular, sustainable scale to complement the architecture, fulfill green building criteria, minimize power usage while meeting high project standards, adhere to the Academy’s budget and timeframe, and facilitate future modification.