Taking On All Challengers
By Howard Whitman Home . Furnishings Business Magazine
By Howard Whitman Home . Furnishings Business Magazine
Retail is, by nature, a competitive occupation.
While we all want the furniture industry as a whole to prosper and grow, the sad fact is, it’s only human nature to want to do better than the “other guy” down the street. Sometimes getting the edge over your competitors could mean the difference between celebrating your store’s anniversary or posting signs for your going-out-of-business sale.
In today’s constantly changing market, outperforming competitors requires daring new approaches for running your business. Fortunately, noted retail consultants Rich Kizer and Georganne Bender (kizerandbender.com) were on hand at the Summer 2007 Las Vegas Market to offer some “battle tactics” in their discussion provocatively titled “Neutralizing the Competition.”
Older Rather than Younger
Perhaps you’ve heard of Kizer and Bender. They’re the pair that go to such lengths for research that they disguise themselves (in full costumes and makeup) as senior citizens to experience client stores as older customers.
One of the main reasons they do this: “The customer base is getting older rather than younger,” Kizer said, “and it’s changing the way we do business at retail.” Therefore, entering a store as older folks is simulating typical customers.
And what does today’s customer base want? “Service and experience,” Kizer said. “This is the age of experience and direct market fulfillment. You compete for the customer’s mind.” He added that when customers buy from you, they “join a club. It’s a culture, a mental attitude.”
Kizer and Bender said that in their travels around the country, they look for unique attributes that enable businesses to stay ahead of their competition—even from outside the retail community.
Hotels, for example, are one type of business in which the pair often sees sterling examples of standout performance. Kizer cited the Breakers Resort Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., as just such an organization.
“As we drove in (to the hotel), Andy the gardening guy said ‘hi,’” he recalled. “All employees there make eye contact (with guests) and say hello.
“We can learn from ‘The Breakers Culture,’” he added. “The staff makes you feel like a valued guest. They gush (about you). Ninety percent of customer service is treating a guest like a guest to your home.” Another attribute: when customers ask a question, employees don’t point them to a destination—they personally take them there.
This approach, he said, can be successfully utilized by your employees—and not just salespeople, but workers at every stage, including the people who deliver furniture to customers’ homes.
Another attribute of first-rate hotels: Shoppertainment—the art of making a stay (or in your case, a shopping trip) a completely enjoyable and memorable event. “They create an experience you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “Every detail is covered,” and every detail is first-rate. He cited one store that applied the Shoppertainment approach, ensuring satisfied customers by sending a yellow rose in a vase to every customer following delivery. Such relatively easy and inexpensive perks could seal a positive experience for the consumer, and help ensure they return to your store when they’re once again on the look for furniture.
Sell Your Story
Making shopping at your store an unforgettable experience is only part of the battle to outsell your competitors, Bender said. “You have to sell your story,” she stated. “Why did you get into the business? What has happened since you’ve been in business? That’s your story.”
“The stories we tell our customers are the same (type of) thing,” Kizer said. “We want customers to repeat them to someone else, to pass along why they come to us—or in your case, why they come to your store.”
A major, vital part of your story, Bender advised, is the testimony of your satisfied customers. “Get customers to share their stories,” she said. “Use their testimony in your ads, and in (promotional) e-mails. Post testimonials in your store. Let customers tell their story in the advertising arena.”
Timing is also an essential element of making the most of customer testimonials, she added, saying “Practice rapid-fire word of mouth (RFWOM). Put it out fast—via a MySpace site or e-mail blast.”
Questions Bender suggested you can ask customers to prompt RFWOM included:
• How did your purchase help you?
• How did our sales associate help you out?
• How long have you been a member of our family?
• Did you meet your spouse or significant other at our store?
Takin’ Care of Customers
One of the tasks Kizer and Bender typically carry out for clients is to count the points of abuse. By this, they meant to list the various elements of a shopping experience that could possibly alienate (and lose) customers.
An example of this cited by Bender: when a customer calls the store, she gets an answering machine with multiple options. Having to digest the list of options and then choose one puts callers in an uncomfortable situation, and gives the impression they’ll get impersonal care in the store. A far superior approach is a phone recording that guarantees callers will have a live consultant on the line within 60 seconds.
Bender also mentioned store policies as a potential source of customer abuse, saying, “We tend to write policies that are good for us. (But) you have to be a customer advocate.” And your store policies should reflect that, and should be geared to meeting customers’ needs above all else.
She urged retailers to focus on rewarding loyal customers—not just bringing in new ones. “Don’t take loyal customers for granted,” she said. “Call them to tell them about special sales. Some stores tend to gear sales promotions to new customers, and neglect the ones who’ve shopped from them in the past.”
She suggested developing a “Customer Care Kit” to hand out to shoppers as they enter the store, saying it should include “items that make sense for your business, such as a measuring tape, pen and notebook.” This small investment will enhance the shopping experience and help turn browsers into buyers.
She also suggested doing some research to find out how customers perceive your store to help you improve service. “It’s not how you view your store,” she said, “it’s how your customer views your store that’s important. We create the perception of perfection—you do something cool, and customers come to expect it every time. I expect wonderful things (as a shopper).”
So Bender advised doing some informal polling, stating, “Ask your customers, ‘What was your favorite experience in the store? What makes my store different? How would you describe my store to a friend?’” She recommended keeping a journal of their responses—not for use as public testimonials, but to identify what’s working—and what needs improvement—in your operation.
“Customers hold you at a high standard,” Kizer said. “When they have high expectations, they’ll be more disappointed. How can you over-deliver? Deliver (products) before (they’re) expected—have the products ready early. Your attitude should be, ‘I know what you expect—watch what I do.’”
Brag About It
In addition to getting testimonials and quality-control feedback from customers, Bender suggested tooting your own horn.
“Put together a brag sheet,” she said. “Write down every service or convenience you provide. Get your employees to do the same thing. They may list things you forgot about.”
From there, she said to compile the various lists into one comprehensive list of things to brag about, have it printed up, and use the copies as a bag stuffer or customer handout.
Panic, Mission or Sauntering Through
Kizer provided some insight into his and Bender’s techniques for researching customer/consultant interaction: “Every Saturday, we camp out in stores and watch customers. Some are in a panic, a rush. Some are on a mission—they’ve been in (the store) before, or to a competitor, and have got to make a decision today. Some are on a walk in the park—not on a mission or in a panic—they’re just sauntering through.”
He said they closely watch browsers’ first encounter with a sales associate: “We look for a prompt greeting to break the ice. We time how long it takes until the first introduction.”
He suggested implementing their “Seven-Tile Rule,” in which your associates greet customers before they’ve walked the length seven floor tiles into the store.
He also mentioned Wickes Furniture’s method of sorting out the “sauntering” customers: the store has “Just Looking” buttons casual browsers can use to ensure that salespeople won’t bother them until they’re ready and ask for help.
Promotional events, Bender said, are a vital part of gaining shoppers’ attention—and drawing them away from competitors. She suggested staging one or two events each month.
Charitable functions, such as drives to bring in food or other essentials for the underprivileged, make great events. “You may ask, ‘What’s that got to do with selling furniture?’ Everything. You create that perception (of a store that gives back to the community),” she said.
Non-charitable functions that she felt can draw attention (and customers) to your store included Halloween costume contests, or participating with other stores in a “Girl’s Night Out” promotion in which groups of women can go from store to store, getting a free gift in each as well as a coupon that will entice them to return and buy.
Sizzle on the Steak
Finally, Bender suggested recognizing those special salespeople who go above and beyond—the “Sultans of sizzle, the ones who put the sizzle on the steak”—with a good perk such as a VISA gift card.
“Hand it to them right on the sales floor,” she said, as that would encourage their colleagues to ramp up their own efforts. “When you’ve got somebody who’s that pumped, how would you like to be that person’s next customer?”
She also offered an idea for store managers and executives to promote recognition of your sales staff: “Put 10 pennies in your right pocket. Transfer one to your left pocket every time you give a compliment to an associate. You want to move all 10¢ each day.”
With these strategies for improving your public profile, service levels, store traffic and sales performance, you may be able to get the advantage over competitors as your grow your business.