Sometimes we put so much effort into this business of being a retailer that we forget what it’s like to be a customer!
Recently, I needed to buy a new car. I knew what make and model I wanted and I knew the owners of several dealerships and could have shopped with any of them. But I’m not a shopper in search of the “Perfect Deal.” I just wanted the car and wanted to be treated fairly.
I went to a dealership owned by someone I know well. I didn’t expect to deal with the owner (as a matter of fact, I preferred not to), but I did drop a name so the associate I was dealing with knew I was a “friend.”
I left angry. I got an inexperienced salesperson, an insult on the vehicle I was currently driving, a run-around from the finance guy and a bottom line to which only a blooming idiot would have agreed. I decided not to buy and simply did not have the patience to explain why.
I was prepared to look elsewhere when I got in the mood again, but the dealership had another plan. It called me several times after my initial visit (I have to give them credit for that) and, finally, someone caught me when I felt like spilling my guts. I told him exactly how I felt about my experience – that the agency had been condescending, unprofessional, inexperienced and too expensive.
The finance manager left a message for me within a few hours – trying to make amends – but my mind was made up. I didn’t return the call. Then the sales manager called (leaving another message), saying my owner-friend really wanted to make sure things were right with me. I left a message in return saying thanks, but no thanks for now. Finally, the general manager called and said, “What will it take?” By this time I was secretly glad my friend the owner had stayed out of the fray. If I had dealt directly with him, I might not have been able to be so honest (there’s a lesson here for those of you who think you need to handle things like this yourself). I told the general manager the same thing I told the rookie sales guy from the beginning. I wanted what I wanted and I wanted to feel that I’d been treated fairly.
Fortunately, the GM heard me – and had the authority and responsibility to do something about my situation. Four hours after our conversation, the dealer delivered an ideal vehicle to my front door to “try out for a few days.” I was offered a financing plan I think is fair and, at last, I was treated as a “friend.”
I just wish we’d been able to avoid all the hassle and hard feelings along the way. The dealer probably wishes the same thing, but at least the GM was smart enough to pursue every opportunity to make things right. Yes, I’m a customer again. But if things had been handled differently, I’d be an advocate.
I’m still glad I didn’t deal with my friend. I prefer to deal with his representatives, assuming that they will extend the same courtesy, integrity and service that he would himself. The fact is that an owner may not be the best person to handle every customer – but every customer deserves to feel as if the salesperson with whom he or she deals is the owner.
Your personal representatives. Many jewelry store owners insist on having a highly visible, hands-on presence in their day-to-day operations and, of course, customers are the lifeblood of your business. But long-term business growth demands that an owner’s time and energy be dedicated to many functions other than selling.
To give yourself time to deal with “the big picture,” you must train and empower your staff to make customers feel special and valued. This is critical to your success and growth. Your customers will feel and appreciate your presence in your store when each associate becomes your envoy, providing service and attention identical to that you would render yourself.
Is your staff able to do this? Do staff people handle problems and questions as you would? When dealing with customers, do they understand clearly their authority and how flexible they can be with store policies? Most importantly, do your customers feel your presence – your integrity, your image, your quality and commitment to service – in the actions of your associates?
Employees who work regularly with your customers must be ready to make decisions, take actions and provide service within a wide range of authority if you expect them to run your business as if it were their own. Responsibility and authority must exist in equal measure. Owners who want employees to be responsible for business growth and customer satisfaction but refuse to provide the authority to act, deliver a mixed message. They’re likely to be plagued by inconsistencies in interpreting store policies, which will leave many customers dissatisfied. This is no way to turn customers into regular clients and, further, into advocates.
The more you empower employees to serve your customers fully, the more satisfied your customers will be.
Standards & expectations. Your employees must know what standards you set for yourself and your business. These standards evolve from your vision, your corporate philosophy and your mission statement.
The first step in employee empowerment is a clear, concise definition of how you expect them to meet and implement these standards. Studies prove that employees are more satisfied and more productive when expectations are clearly spelled out by their employer.
The more simply you define your standards, the easier it is for employees to adhere to them. Avoid rigid rules and regulations; instead, provide clearly established “minimum acceptable standards.” This avoids stifling your most successful associates – those who rarely think in black-and-white or linear patterns. For them, rules appear made to be broken.
Your entire staff must understand your standards, support them and perform to meet and exceed them consistently. They serve as the baseline for decision-making and empowerment within your operation.
Standards apply to everything you sell and everything you do – your merchandise, your repair service, your customer service, your gift wrapping, the way your phone is answered, your store’s appearance. Standards also include a dress code, personal hygiene and adherence to a work schedule. Above all, they include your ethics and professionalism.
Your business standards should permeate your culture.
Clear guidelines. The customer who insists on seeing the boss often is interested only in getting the best possible “value” – namely price or a discount. Don’t make yourself the final authority on price. Your employees should be able to handle even the most difficult price objections without your help if your pricing policies are clearly spelled out and your employees believe that you price your merchandise fairly and consistently, allowing them to offer real “value” to the customer. The best salespeople can illustrate value in terms of features and benefits significant to the customer.
Your associates also should understand your discount policy and clearly know their limitations and authority in extending it. The confidence they portray to the customer must indicate that they are acting as you would in every situation. Well-practiced scenarios will help your staff build the skills they need to deliver your message.
Perhaps the most widely accepted standard for customer service can be defined in this simple statement: the customer is always right. Your flexibility here, whether the customer is right or wrong, has to be tempered by your corporate philosophy and good business sense. In a growing business, goodwill and positive word-of-mouth advertising usually are far more valuable than short-term profit or loss. Most confrontations with customers can be avoided from the outset if employees have adequately developed skills (of which listening is one of the most important) and a firm commitment to your vision of service.
Larger chains generally offer extensive warranties and guarantees which guide their service policies. Independent jewelers, however, have far greater flexibility to make the customer feel special. Know your competition well enough to understand how they would deal with certain issues. Your small jewelry store can compete with the big guys if your staff has the knowledge, skill and authority to be flexible with demanding customers.
Delegate. When a business has your name over the door, it may be hard to let go of some of the day-to-day operations. Stepping back while still getting things done to your standards requires that you commit time, patience and resources to training your staff thoroughly. You must be open to different ways of doing things, too – as long as both methods and results are consistent with your defined standards. Career-oriented associates want the satisfaction of challenge and opportunity. Given the chance, your employees will offer creative suggestions to help you improve and streamline your systems and procedures, improve your customer service, increase your sales and profits and, ultimately, grow and develop your business.
Forcing high-potential employees (generally non-linear thinkers) into mundane routines virtually ensures disappointment – both yours and theirs. Instead, look for ways you can match skills, talents, interests or experience with different responsibilities around your store and give them freedom to perform to their full potential – again, as long as performance meets your defined standards.
Buying and display offer two excellent opportunities to benefit from employee creativity. Many owners insist on doing most of the buying, but front-line associates often know customers better and are more aware of the price points and styles the store may be lacking. It’s a good idea to let your staff work with vendors who stop by your store. Not only will they select pieces with customers in mind; they’ll have a greater commitment to moving merchandise out if they’re responsible for it being there in the first place.
Creative merchandising in your windows and showcases can set you apart from your competition. Out-of-the-box thinking can result in innovative new presentations and eye-catching displays. You don’t need to spend a fortune on new props or signage; a fresh perspective from even a junior staff member can add new life to tired old looks.
People often are unaware of their talent for display. You may not know the extent of the talent hidden among your associates unless you ask for a volunteer, and give guidance, direction and the freedom to exercise creativity. And what if your experiment in creative freedom turns into a disaster? Turn it into a learning experience by making suggestions and offering alternatives until the display meets your specifications (then be sure to ask someone else to take on the challenge next time!).
Your staff probably has some good ideas for moving merchandise around your store, laying it out differently and coordinating new ensembles, too. Let them try. When they’re finished, you may think you have all new inventory! Ask your associates to suggest ways to combine loose colored stones with some of your blanks or semi-mountings. You may find you have designers in the rough within your ranks!
Delegate the task of streamlining procedures and record-keeping to staff members who think in more organized, linear patterns. You may have an employee who, despite your best training efforts, simply doesn’t relate well or naturally to your customers and to whom things seem more important than people. This person may have unrecognized value in your service department or in record-keeping such as mail-list maintenance and client development follow-up. These also are good support people for your associates who are great with customers, spontaneous and engaging, but who have little time or patience for detail or follow up.
The key to unlocking the full potential of your staff is to understand that people differ in the ways they process information and communicate with the rest of the world. Day-to-day frustrations often occur when you try to pigeonhole everyone in the same little box and communicate with everyone in the same style. You’ll be more successful if you paint the big picture (your standards and expectations), allowing each staff member to process the image individually, then give everyone the opportunity to contribute in their own unique way.
Appreciate different work styles and urge your staff to work as a team. Encourage them to balance each others’ strengths and limitations. In this way you’ll build a strong, cooperative and cohesive team whose members keep your best interests in mind along with their own. Value the diversity on your staff – and let them know that you do.
Summary. Customers have many options on how and where to spend their money. To provide a shopping experience that exceeds customer expectations every time, develop a staff – front-line and behind the scenes – that’s empowered to act as if your business were their own. Your role as an owner is to define clearly the intent and mission of your business, to fix a vision of success to that mission and to share your vision with everyone who has responsibility for its fulfillment. Spell out the behavior you expect from your staff. Communicate frequently in a two-way forum, reinforcing your expectations while welcoming new perspectives and different ideas.
Look for individual strengths in each of your associates and link each person to an area of responsibility in your business where he or she can make a significant positive impact. Minimize their inevitable shortcomings by emphasizing teamwork and support systems. Be open to new and creative processes and ideas. Value the diversity in your team and recognize its importance in day-to-day dealings with your diverse and developing clientele. Set clear goals. Make everyone a part of reaching them. Then, set your sights on new and brighter horizons and a growing bottom line – together.