In my humble experience, I think it’s true to say that people like to buy from, yes, you guessed it…people. Particularly if the commodity is something that is as inspirational as an electric guitar.
I guess this may sound like stating the obvious, and yet I am still amazed by the wide-ranging difference in shopping experiences and services rendered from independent retailers on the high street. Pretty quickly, one is able to gauge how enthusiastic or lackluster the individual behind the counter is. But perhaps one of the more humorous experiences you may relate to is when you are patiently waiting to be served, ready to bite the bullet on your chosen item(s), and you see the retailer continue to chat merrily away to their current customer about how bleak the future of retail is. “It sounds like we are heading for a bit of a major downturn, what with all the increases in utility costs and inflation,” was the most recent complaint I heard from one store manager in his shop full of people (including my brother and myself), just waiting to be acknowledged of their physical presence, let alone get anything resembling customer service. Or the opportunity to actually buy something.
Just as my brother and I had decided we would leave this particular store, we heard a rather hapless-sounding query: “Did you need any help?” I was actually quite surprised that after the lengthy waiting and listening to all the protracted retailer’s woes being heaped upon the previous customer, along with what the salesperson’s plans were that week, and how busy they had and hadn’t been, that it eventually came to a juncture in their conversation that meant waiting customers could actually spend some money!
I understand the importance of good customer relations, but other less-patient customers were leaving. I also get it, that you need to look after your “regulars” and give them the time they need, but there is a balance between the “social club” mentality and serving people. And, I entirely sympathize with the ever-tightening restraints put upon the retailer’s operational costs of rent, staffing, lighting, heating, insurances, taxes, stock, losses, and more. The list does seem to be almost endless.
Yet I have to say that if it isn’t in fact an uncommon trend that retailers are letting customers slip through their fingers, then that truly is a shame for our high streets. Never more so than now, is it critical to provide good customer service when having to compete with the global shop window of the internet. In a modern society where it’s possible to browse the world, purchase, receive fast delivery, and even benefit from a 30-day-plus return window, then ensuring that each customer is at least seen to is surely a minimum prerequisite. The client has taken the time and effort to physically come to the store, so what can the retailer do, to help?
This presents its own challenges for small businesses with limited numbers of staff, but just a simple “Can I help you today?” or, “I’ll be right with you” can make a huge difference to the confidence customers may begin to place in your business. Just to know that they are going to be seen and treated politely is a big deal. I have even seen a sticky-badge dispenser in one popular high street hi-fi vendor, to which you may avail yourself of and choose the appropriate message printed on it; for example, “I need help,” or “I’m here to buy a TV.”
I mention these observations because there seems to be an increasing trend in some retailers at least to almost enjoy the “keep-you-hanging-on” vibe. For me this hasn’t been an isolated experience. Offering exclusivity of products and services is one thing, but then again, as mentioned before, we are in a quick-serving global marketplace. It’s so easy to buy and return online these days that if you don’t at least acknowledge your customer, can you rightly expect to stay in business when there are so many online options? Perhaps the answer is a resounding “no.”
As a brick-and-mortar store, if the demand is there, one has to try their hardest to accommodate it. The beauty of this is that here lies a genuine opportunity to make a difference in the sales experience. As stated at the outset, people do like to buy from people, but perhaps it could be more accurate to say that people prefer to buy from informative, friendly and helpful people that offer reasonable deals.
Believe me, I know what it’s like as a retailer. You spend all your time, effort and money investing in stock, and become incredibly knowledgeable about the product, only to have your brains tapped for all the valuable information you have garnered from product brochures, trade shows, reps, and hands-on experience, and then find out that your potential customer goes away and buys online for $50 less, safe in the knowledge of having tried out the product in your store. It’s a real challenge to compete, and increasingly so. What can you do?
Become a good people person and improve on closing the sale. My favorite experiences from buying from physical stores have always been because of the human element (along with enjoying the product). That’s one of the reasons why smart distributors invest in sales representatives to press the flesh of their retailers, not least of all to encourage some opportune orders as a result of an unexpected or unscheduled store visit. The reps I enjoyed purchasing from were good people-persons, and the same should be at least equally true of the retailer. Put another way, if the store manager or staff are not good people-persons, why would you want to buy from them in the first place?
Great interpersonal skills are not necessarily commonplace, but boy don’t you notice a difference between restaurants when the table service is professional compared to being provided begrudgingly – and accordingly, which ones you come back to? How much more important may this be if you are selling something that’s an infrequent or even a once in a lifetime purchase, such as a guitar or high-end audio gear? I suppose the better question could be, how many items are they going to buy because of you. Your input, enthusiasm, knowledge and professionalism can make a more than significant difference.
In the same way that buying with confidence is important to a customer, so too it is important for the shop assistant or apprentice to develop a personal confidence in their knowledge and in their customer service skills.
When I was running the Music Instrument Retail Training Apprenticeship Scheme in the UK, I would say that one of the most rewarding experiences I gained from the whole process was seeing the young apprentices develop from shy and introverted individuals, hiding behind their long fringe hair and avoiding eye contact, into bright, punctual and communicative persons with something to offer – with confidence. Seeing young people grow in their confidence as they benefit from increasing their own self-worth as they assist others is really quite special. I think that today, people appreciate this more and more, and are looking to find that refreshing experience of being served by a human being who can help them make informed buying decisions.
You might have heard it said that if you have a good shopping experience, you will probably tell up to five people, but if you suffer through a lousy experience, you may tell 20 people about it. Nobody enjoys bad service! But, even then, if a bad experience is had, the opportunity for the salesperson to rectify it and resolve a matter can make for a better and more meaningful customer relationship than if there had been no issue in the first place. Why is that? Being able to demonstrate a helpful attitude to make things right, along with increased positive communication, builds bigger bridges, and that too becomes a great talking point to share. A problem resolved is sometimes better than a straight sale. It’s all about not neglecting people and their needs, and taking time out for them.
What have been your best and worst retail experiences?
Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/cottonbro.