Customers at Closing Time

As I was driving to work this morning, I was thinking about a follow-up to yesterday’s post, Don’t Do This.  You may remember that our dealer, Successful Sewing and Vacuum Center, made a $1,000 sale because his competitor, Foolish Sewing and Vacuum, had blown off the customer because it was five minutes until closing time.  Overnight, reader Jen had commented on the post, asking how Foolish might have better handled the customer.  You can read my answer under "comments" on the original post.

I think there are really two issues for Foolish Sew and Vac.  One is the lack of training/poor attitude of their salesperson.  But more important, at least in my humble opinion, is the fact that the consumer was able to leave Foolish S/V at 6:00 pm, their closing time, drive fifteen miles in heavy rush-hour traffic, and reach Successful Sewing and Vacuum Center while they were still open.

No one expects an independent retailer to match the big boxes twenty-four hours a day operating schedule, but they do expect you to be open when they need to shop. 

My first job, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, was in a neighborhood department store.  We were open from 9:00 until 6:00 every day except Monday and Friday when we stayed open until 9:00.  From Thanksgiving until Christmas we were open every night until 9:00.  That was great.  All of our competitors kept similar hours.  Most women didn’t work in those days and when men had to shop, which wasn’t all that often, they came in on Monday and Friday evening, or on Saturday.

Times have changed.  Most women work outside the home and people in general work longer hours. If your customer can’t buy what you sell at a twenty-four hour Wal*Mart, they can order it over the Internet.  There’s a simple formula for deciding whether you need to be open longer hours.  You can read it  in my response to Jen.  Simply put, if you can stay open longer hours and sell enough to cover the additional expense, you should do it.   Some customers will  see your "closed" sign and come back, many won’t.

Bob Negin has a good post on this subject on his web site.

Protect Yourself

There’s a discussion on another forum concerning a number of current scams against retailers.  They’re all similar with the intent of getting free merchandise from unsuspecting merchants.  In general, the scam artist contacts a dealer, either by phone or email, asking for quantity pricing on several high-end products, usually to be used in their business.

The scammer may actually contact the dealer several times, giving the impression that he or she is seriously considering the pricing or that there might be other dealers competing for the sale.  (S)he may even order a "sample" using a good credit card to gain the dealer’s confidence.   Finally, the thief "agrees" to the purchase, either by credit card or check.  The credit card number will turn out to be either bogus or stolen or the check will bounce and the dealer will be out the cost of several pieces of high-end merchandise.

This scam isn’t new.  The only thing that’s new is the method of communication and payment.  I remember may years ago, when Tacony Corporation was in the television business and I was the salesman, we were approached by someone who wanted to buy a quantity of TV sets for a new motel.  He wanted to pay by check.  When I told him it would have to be a cashier’s check I never heard from him again.  Sadly, he was able to get a local dealer to ship him the TV’s. 

My former boss taught me a very valuable lesson many years ago.  He said that whenever a sale seemed too easy, ask the question "How did we get so lucky?"  Big sales don’t normally just fall into our laps.  If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t. 

If someone approaches you to buy an unusually large quantity of merchandise, protect yourself.  Don’t take checks or credit cards from strangers without properly identifying them.  Ask for certified funds or cash.  Be suspicious.  If someone identifies himself as "Mr. Smith" but has a thick foreign accent, that should raise a red flag.  If they identify themselves as a minister, as many do, that’s another red flag.   If they’re in a big hurry to make the purchase, that’s another one.  If you ask them to fax you a copy of their credit card and their driver’s license and they tell you that their fax machine is broken…….you get the idea.

You certainly don’t want to miss a big sale, but you work too hard for your money to let a con artist take it from you.

In a previous post, I listed a number of good sources for information on frauds and scams.  If you missed it, here’s a link.

Don’t Do This!

Thanks to a reader, who asks to remain anonymous, for the following story.  I’m passing it along knowing that anyone who takes the time to read a business blog would never do anything like this, but it may give you a laugh.  You may nod and smile because you’ve heard similar stories.  Or you may frown and your blood pressure may go up because you’ve had someone who works for you do something similar.  In any case, here’s the story.

Our reader, who I’ll call Successful Sewing and Vacuum Center, was working late one evening when a customer came into his store looking for a vacuum cleaner.  The customer is in the cleaning business, so he was looking for something that would do a good job.  In fact he was looking for a specific high-end brand.  Successful sells the brand.  They also sell our Simplicity brand.  The customer was sold on the benefits of the Simplicity over the other brand and Successful successfully made the sale.

But that’s not the end of the story.  Mr. Successful asked the customer what had brought him to his store.  The customer had driven fifteen miles in rush hour traffic.  He had been to another store.  I’ll call them Foolish Sewing and Vacuum.  The clerk (I refuse to call people like this sales people) had informed him that he was the sewing machine guy and so couldn’t sell him a vacuum.  The vacuum guy wasn’t there.  I have to agree with Mr. Successful when he says, "His next statement blew me away."

The customer asked "sewing machine guy" if he could just look over the store’s selection of vacs and pick one out himself. The response?  "Sorry, we’re closing in five minutes."  Did I mention that the customer spent nearly $1,000?

Obviously there are a lot of things wrong at Foolish Sewing and Vacuum.  Maybe a Wal*Mart employee can get away with telling a customer "that’s not my department", especially if he or she makes the effort to help the customer locate someone who can help.  But, I’m sorry.   If you’re the only person working in a sewing machine and vacuum cleaner store, you’re not the "sewing guy" or the "vac guy".  You’re the guy.  You’re it.  Even if you’ve never sold a vacuum cleaner in your life, even if it’s your first day on the job, if the store is merchandised properly (signs, hang tags, literature readily available) you should at least be able to walk the customer through the product selection.  (Of course, the fact that Mr. Sewing Guy was left alone in the store would make you think that he wasn’t a rookie.)  This particular customer already had a pretty good idea of what he wanted, including the brand.

The second and equally serious problem with this story is the statement "Sorry, we’re closing in five minutes."  I know what it says on the door.  I know that you may have somewhere to go after work.  I know there are a thousand reasons why you may be anxious to leave, but you just can’t blow off a sale because of the clock.  Even if you’re getting married in an hour, there are ways to handle the situation that don’t include sending the customer fifteen miles down the road to spend his or her money.

Like I said, I don’t think anyone who reads this blog would ever treat a customer the way Foolish Sew and Vac did, but it might be interesting to show this story to your sales staff and brainstorm how they would handle a similar situation.  Of course, if you’d like to share anything with your fellow readers, feel free to comment here.

Going Above and Beyond

I’ve never worked at an amusement park, but I imagine that most of the time it’s a pretty low-stress job.  I’m sure there are exceptions, like when Chevy Chase shot John Candy in the backside with a B B gun because the park was closed (National Lampoon’s Vacation).  Or, if you work in the sales department on the last day to buy season tickets at the early-bird discount.

Sdc
Silver Dollar City
is an amusement park just outside of Branson, MO.  My wife and I go there a few times every year, so we usually buy season passes.  The deadline for the special price was this past Saturday.  Naturally, being the prince of procrastination, I waited until Friday to place my order.  (Actually, my lovely bride had tried to place a phone order on Thursday, but the line was busy all day.)

I got up early Friday and tried to place an on-line order before I left for work.  Everything was fine until I pushed the "buy" button and got an error message that said there was a problem with my order.  That was it.  No other explanation.  Now what?  If I order again will I end up with two sets of expensive tickets?  If I don’t order again will I miss out on the special?  I decided that I would call them directly.

As Mrs. B found out on Thursday, there was no getting through on the phone.  I tried several times during the day with nothing to show for my effort except a busy signal.  I finally gave up and sent the park an e-mail.  I explained the problem hoping they would take pity on the procrastinator and either extend the special price or let me know that the original order went through.

The story got interesting when I received an email from the SDC sales office Sunday afternoon at 1:00.  The office was working on Sunday.  Unfortunately I wasn’t so I didn’t see the email.  At 4:00 Sunday afternoon they called me.  Again, because I wasn’t home, I missed the call but they left a message.

To make a long story short (too late?) my order hadn’t gone through.  The huge number of customers who had waited until the last meeting had swamped the company’s web site and their phone system.  They worked all weekend to catch up.

Parks like Silver Dollar City are in the business of making people happy, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at such a high level of customer service.  But I’m sure the reservation agents were under a lot of stress during the last few days through no fault of their own.   Debbie, the lady I talked to when I called back was cheerful and helpful and apologetic that I had been inconvenienced. 

Had the park ignored my email, or told me that I shouldn’t have waited until the last minute to order, I would still have bought the tickets, even without the discount.  I would have written it off as being my own fault for putting things off and wouldn’t have thought any less of the park.  The park would have actually made a few extra dollars not giving me the discount.  I would still have been a satisfied customer.

By going above and beyond, putting on extra people over the weekend to take care of the overflow of customers, the park made sure I was more than satisfied.  They gave me more than I expected (they usually do) and kept me as a LOYAL customer.  That’s how you build up positive word-of-mouth.

Some years ago, my department did something really stupid that made a key customer very angry.  I was out of the office at a trade show and wouldn’t be back for a few days.  But, knowing how ticked off this dealer and his salespeople were, I knew it couldn’t wait.  I got on the phone and dictated an individual apology to each member of the dealer’s sales team along with a gift.  I called the owner on the phone, accepted responsibility for the mistake, and assured him that it would never happen again.  The dealer turned out to be one of the best customers I ever had.

It’s not very hard to keep satisfied customers satisfied.  But when you can turn an unsatisfied customer into a loyal one, you know you’re doing something right.

Is the Courtship Over?

From Creating Passionate Users comes an interesting post on how businesses are like marriages.  When you’re courting, you’re on your best behavior, but once you close the deal, things change.  The change that takes place after the wedding has been the subject of too many jokes to count, but there’s a lot to the analogy.

According to Kathy Sierra, the author of the post, "It’s been said that the secret to a good marriage is… don’t change. In other words, be the person you were when you were merely dating. Don’t stop paying attention. Don’t stop being kind. Don’t gain 50 pounds. Don’t stop flirting…..Unfortunately, too many companies are all candle-lit dinners, fine wine, and "let’s talk about you"
until the deal is sealed. Once they have you (i.e. you became a paying
customer), you realize you got a bait-and-switch relationship."

I suppose the most extreme example is the battle of the cell phone
companies.  They offer you the moon if you’ll switch carriers, but a
week after you make the change, they’re offering everybody else the
moon plus a couple of stars.  I hate to generalize, but I will anyway.
They all seem to devote all their energy to getting new customers and
very little to keeping the ones they have.

You can read the full post here.

Tvma   DISCLAIMER.  I don’t know why people do this, but the poster uses an image of an obscene gesture.  The rest of the post is very good, certainly worth your time.  But, linking to it doesn’t mean that I approve of the picture or want to subject you to it if it offends you. If that sort of thing bothers you, please ignore the above link.

Spring Training

If you live in or anywhere near a Major League Baseball city, you’ve no doubt seen a steady stream of print and broadcast reports from spring training.  Ballplayers are  running and stretching and working on the fundamentals of the game.  These men are professionals.  Is it really necessary for them to go through such basic training every year when it’s just been a few months since the end of the season.  (Especially in St. Louis, where our world-championship team played well into October.  :-))?

The answer is "yes".  Even the best players have to constantly work on conditioning and the fundamental skills they need to play the game.  The real question is "Isn’t the same thing true for all of us?"  Whatever we do for a living, there are certain basic skills that must be executed well every time we come up "to bat".

Maybe a little "spring training" is in order for us, too.  An article in Monday’s Akron Beacon Journal lists some tips to help your business grow.  Some of them are very basic.  But, as we’ve said here many times, it’s easy to get so caught up in working in the business that we forget to work on the business.  Some of the Journal’s tips are:

  • Regularly review, update, and modify your business plan.
  • Visualize your business in three to five years.
  • Communicate your growth strategy and vision with others involved with your business.
  • Defend your competitive advantage.
  • Recruit and retain the right people.

There are a few others, but notice that these five all involve the long-term.  While it’s critical to give today’s customer the best possible shopping experience, it’s even more critical to plan for tomorrow’s customer.  To go back to the spring training analogy, it’s nice to win games in March, but spring training is all about building for the future, for those summer and fall games when it really counts.

Confidence in Small Business

Each year the Harris Poll conducts a survey of U.S. adults on the subject of leadership of major institutions.  This year’s results are in and small business leaders received the number one ranking.  Not only that, small business leaders is the only category where more than half of those polled expressed  a "great deal" of satisfaction.   Confidence in small business leadership is at least twice as high as twelve of the sixteen groups mentioned on the survey.

The 54% ranking for small business leaders is an increase of nine percentage points over last year.  Here’s what the results look like:

Harris_poll_1

©2007 Harris Interactive Inc. All rights reserved.

Selling Candles

Over the weekend I went to a craft fair with my wife.  (I know, guys, I’m jeopardizing my man card by going to one of those things, but in my search for blog material I was willing to take one for the team.) I’ve noticed that most of the exhibitors at these things are either eating, talking to their neighbors, or working on their particular craft so the customers are pretty much on their own.

One of the things my bride was looking for was candles.  After the Thanksgiving candle/bathroom fire incident, she only buys candles that come in jars.  She has a particular favorite that always exhibits at craft fairs, but not this time.  So, she was a "hot" prospect for a new candle supplier.

We walked past about a thousand candle booths but nothing caught her eye.  Just when it seemed that we would go home candleless we passed yet another candle booth.  We slowed down a bit and the man behind the counter asked "Do you burn soy candles?"  This was the first time anyone had made any effort to speak to us unless we had actually stopped and handled their merchandise.  My wife said "yes".  (She didn’t mention that we also burn wallpaper and artificial plants.)

His next question was brilliant.  "Can you use your soy candles as skin conditioner?"  What???  As you might imagine, that stopped my bride in her tracks.  He had a candle sitting on one of those warming gadgets that you use to keep your coffee hot so it was liquefied.  He grabbed her hand and rubbed some candle on it.  "How does that feel?"  Naturally, he knew the answer.

He went on to explain that he doesn’t use dye in his candles (obvious from the fact that they were all the same color), so the only ingredient was soy, a natural moisturizer.  It’s a hand cream.  It’s a candle.  Amazing!  To make a long story short, we walked away with two candles ($32.00!), one soft hand, and an instruction sheet on how to burn your candle (with an order form for additional candles on the back).

So, what happened here?  Why, in a veritable sea of candle sellers, did this guy get our money?  First, with so much competition, not just from other candle sellers, but from every other decorative doo-dad seller competing for the consumer’s dollar, he stood out.  He made contact.  He wasn’t eating, or socializing, or reading, or crocheting.  He was talking to potential customers.  That’s job one for anyone selling anything.  People buy from people, not from merchandise stacked on a table (or in a store). 

Second, he didn’t just initiate a conversation.  He could have said, "Hey, lady!  Wanna buy a candle?"  Instead, he had a story to tell.  Candles as cosmetics.  Something we’d never heard before.  Then, he didn’t just put the product in my wife’s hand, he put it into her hand.  She could touch it, feel it, smell it.  He involved every sense except taste. 

He didn’t stop there.  He also told an environmental story and a decorating story.  Because his candles were all white in color, you don’t have to worry about your favorite flavor clashing with your decorating scheme.  (They’re also cheaper to make and he doesn’t have to carry as many sku’s.)  Finally, he offered the extra benefit of the instruction/care sheet.  Even I know how to operate a candle, but he made it seem like a big deal.  Plus, as long as she keeps the instruction sheet, she also has his order form.

Book Winner

Congratulations to Modern Vac and Sew Centers of Dresher, PA, winner of our February book give-away.  A copy of Bob and Susan Negin’s book, Marketing Your Retail Store in the Internet Age, is on it’s way to Dresher.  The winner was chosen from email subscribers to Mine Your Own Business.

An email subscription is the best way to keep up with our blog without having to check the site, or a feed reader every day.  Email subscribers receive every item posted to MYOB right in their email mail box.  Subscribing is easy.  Just enter your email address in the box on the right.

Rats!

By now I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the rodents running around in Taco Bell/KFC stores in New York City.  Yum Brands, the owner of the chains, has closed a number of stores owned by the local franchisee and has hired an expert in "pest control in urban areas" to review the affected stores.

Ben McConnell, at Church of the Customer points out that more than 660,000 people have viewed the 27 videos on the incident posted on YouTube.

It’s 2007; the twenty-first century.  What once would have been a local problem is now a "shot heard around the world."  As Ben points out, Yum Brands seems to be reacting properly, if a little slowly. 

Nobody’s perfect.  We all make mistakes.  But we’re now judged by a worldwide audience, not so much by our errors, but by how we respond.