Archived Story

Don’t lose sight of real imperative in business

Published 3:36pm Monday, October 10, 2011

It happened to be a garden nursery this time, but I have had the experience in other retail places. I have done business with this nursery for many years, and there has been the usual turn-over of employees for a seasonal business. Yet, I do not recall ever having had a bad experience with any employee. I have never been dissatisfied and only a few times unsatisfied, and I may have been to blame.

A successful business plan focuses not on an immediate sale but on building a customer base for years of profitable business.

I overheard a conversation in a local outlet for a big box store. A customer had called for help because she did not know she was looking at the product she needed. The sales person asked the customer how she wants to use the product. There followed, then, a discussion between not a customer and a sales clerk but between two householders who respected each other. After questioning, the clerk reached the conclusion the product would not meet the customer’s needs. She reminded the customer could buy the product and try it in case it might work but return it if it did not. But she also advised that another store had what the clerk herself uses in her own house and that, moreover, it was half the price.

I am not sure what would have been the store manager’s opinion of this transaction. If he was sent from corporate to manage the local store before moving on to a larger store in a larger community, he might have fired the clerk for losing a sale—unless he understood how to do retail business in Austin.

Yes, the sales clerk lost a sale. But the store gained a customer. As the store visitor — only a potential customer at the moment — left, it was with gratitude that the clerk had actually gone “above and beyond the call of duty.” She had demonstrated what really counts: care about the customer as a person. The product was secondary.

I should think the woman left convinced this store is a friendly place and its employees her friends. If she didn’t, I certainly did.

There are some store clerks who have the ability to project themselves into the customer’s situation and view the store’s products from a consumer’s perspective. What matters to customers is not what the store wants to sell, but what the customer needs. Many sales managers — pressed as they are by their superiors for increased sales — think only of sales. The focus of all sales personnel should be primarily on the customers and their needs. If what the store offers does not meet these needs, it is counterproductive to sell whatever it happens to have.

When customers are sold “a bill of goods” rather than products that meet their needs, they become resentful. They resent the store and even the sales person who “got” them. They don’t trust the store, and they don’t do further business there.

Some years ago I showed interest in an item of clothing just released for runners. The clerk should have found a tactful way to tell me it wasn’t for me. It was, well, too tight for an old man. I recognized this when I put it on and became disgusted with the clerk who sold it to me—let me buy it. He would have taken a risk by redirecting my thinking, but it was a reasonable risk. What it required was enough respect to trust me to recognize his effort to help. He took the greater risk in what he failed to do.

He made the sale, but he cost the store a customer.

When a customer leaves a store empty handed, the store has not necessarily failed. The clerk who waited on the person might well have done his or her job successfully. What counts is not that a sale has been made, but that a relationship has been established, which will lead to continuing sales.

Doing business is not about making money by selling products or services. It is about providing products and services needed by consumers and, thereby, making money.

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