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Payroll is Not Just a Line on Your Profit & Loss

My dad was a journalist. Got his degree from University of Michigan in 1965 and started writing for the Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper right out of college.

He worked for his future father-in-law at Toy House all through high school and college to pay for that degree and even worked part time around his journalism job to help pay for the expenses of having a new family.

There is a legendary story about how he got his start at Toy House when my grandfather gave him a 40% raise to lure him away from another job at age sixteen.

Four years after college my dad got another job offer, this time to move to New York and write for Newsweek. Once again my grandfather made my dad a substantial counter-offer 33% higher than the Newsweek offer to stay and work full time at Toy House.

1974 – 25th Birthday of Toy House
My dad and grandpa are in the white shirts on the left. My sister and I are in the clown costumes in the middle.

Now some might say my grandmother was behind this offer. She didn’t want to see her grandchildren (my sister and me) leave town. But my grandfather knew a good employee when he saw one. He always told me …

“You can never overpay for great help.”

Talking about Sears these last few days has struck a nerve. Along with the comments here, I’ve received emails with stories of families with long ties to Sears.

One long-time reader of this blog told me how his grandfather who worked for Sears for 33 years talked about how they changed their employee stock options program in the 1980’s. He speculates that started some of their “well-trained staff” attrition. 

Wikipedia tells of how Sears changed their hourly pay structure in 1992 that ended up cutting pay for several employees. This followed on the heels of Walmart and Kmart surpassing Sears in total retail sales in 1990 and preceded by a year the demise of their catalog. Coincidence?

Circuit City did the same thing in March 2007, cutting starting hourly pay and laying off 3,400 higher-paid employees. Less than two years later they liquidated.

In both cases the C-Suites were only looking at payroll as an expense to be cut instead of an asset to invest in.

You can treat your employees as an expense instead of an asset and get away with it. Amazon has done that for years. Even their new round of raises was offset by a cut in bonuses and other benefits (and was politically motivated to decrease the chance of Bernie Sanders getting the Stop BEZOS Bill passed).

It only works, however, if you didn’t treat your employees like assets first.

I may be biased but I think my grandfather had it right. How you treat your employees affects how they treat your customers which affects your bottom line.

Go find some people to overpay.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I wish I could have paid my employees better. I wish I could have offered them better benefits. Since I couldn’t, I did other things to help them out like grant all their time-off requests, work with the schedule to make sure they got the hours they wanted, feed them every now and then, train them, treat them with respect, give them responsibility, pay a stipend toward their continuing education, celebrate their birthdays and achievements, and bring in a masseuse during the Christmas holidays. Even when you don’t have the budget there are things you can do to make your staff feel appreciated.

Two Forks in the Road for Sears

In 1988 Walmart opened their first Supercenter in Washington, Missouri. The Supercenter concept heralded Walmart’s entry into the highly-competitive, low-profit, huge cash flow, repeat-traffic driver grocery business.

Two years later Walmart surpassed Sears in total sales to become the largest retailer in America.

By 2004 Walmart was capturing one out of every four dollars spent on groceries and remains the biggest player in the grocery industry.

Walmart ad in Vogue Magazine

In May 2005 Walmart did something completely unexpected. They ran a full-page ad of their new fashion launch in Vogue Magazine. Yes, Walmart and Vogue. No, it wasn’t a designer pajama line to wear when you visited a Walmart. Walmart wanted to do to fashion what it had done with grocery.

There was only one problem. Fashion isn’t a commodity like groceries. One year later Walmart reported declining sales for the first time (at a time when most retailers and the economy were booming). By 2007 they scrapped their foray into fashion and went back to what they did best—sell mass-produced items at cheap prices. When the economy tanked in 2008, Walmart found itself back on top with sales growth and cash flow.

I tell you this story in our discussion of the lessons from Sears filing bankruptcy (part 1 and part 2because it illustrates what can happen when a company tries to diversify the right way and the wrong way. Walmart’s model is built on selling cheap goods cheaper than anyone else.

Their foray into groceries made sense. Fashion, not so much. When Walmart began selling groceries it vaulted them to the top of the retail mountain. When they got away from what they did best, it caused them to falter.

Sears made the same mistake in the 1980’s and never recovered.

Sears made its living in the same style as Walmart—selling lower-priced items. One difference, however, was that Sears sold “value” more than price. The well-trained staff* would talk you out of the most and least-expensive versions of their appliances by showing you the “value” you got from buying something in-between with a lot of bells and whistles.

Sears also made its living by having stores near urban centers, but also a catalog to serve the less-represented rural areas.

This recipe put them on top of the world.

COMPETITION

While Sears had made a living selling to rural markets through their catalog, Walmart was quickly encroaching their territory with actual stores. Walmart went after the rural markets that didn’t have the retail glut of the urban locations, the same rural markets where the Sears catalog was most popular.

Walmart also used its growing power with vendors to bully them into better pricing to undercut the competition and define the sales in terms of “price”, not “value.”

Whether through hubris or ignorance, Sears ignored this threat and instead focused on diversifying their portfolio.

CORE VALUES

Back in 1930 Sears had launched Allstate Insurance, a value-based insurance company. The success of that led Sears to get into three other industries in the 1980’s—financial planning (Dean Witter), real estate (Coldwell Banker), and credit (Discover Card). 

Like Walmart and grocery, Sears and insurance was a fit. Insurance is a product people have to buy but want to buy it affordably (value). Like Walmart and fashion, financial planning and real estate were not a good fit for Sears because they aren’t sold the same way. Sears was sinking valuable time and resources into ventures that weren’t consistent with their Core Values or their primary business model.

Sears divested themselves of those entities in the 1990’s but by then the damage was done.

Walmart and Kmart surpassed Sears in sales in 1990. Walmart had redefined the lower-priced goods market, begun the serious race to the bottom, and infiltrated the rural neighborhoods where the Sears Catalog had been the lifesaver for so many families.

MAIL-ORDER BUSINESS

In 1993 Sears discontinued the catalog. The catalog business had shifted dramatically in the 1980’s because of the fanatical growth of retail stores in America. Why order it from a catalog when you can pop into a nearby store and get it today? The glut of retail, the cost of shipping, and the 7-10 business days shipping time was enough to kill the commodity catalog shopping that was the Sears catalog.

The only catalogs making it were for specialized companies selling specialized goods not found in stores (LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, REI, Signals, Orvis, etc.).

Then along came Amazon.

In 1994 Amazon launched their site. While there were a small handful of people who recognized the power of the Internet and what it could become (my buddy, Hans, actually pitched Borders Bookstore on the idea of selling online before Amazon launched and was laughed out of the room), I’ll forgive Sears for not seeing the potential.

Kinda …

Sears already had the mail-order business infrastructure set up. Sears already had the cataloging of hundreds of thousands of items done. Sears already had enough stores around the country at that time to set up a BOPIS system that even Amazon can’t yet match. Sears was part of a joint venture with IBM called Prodigy, so it was even involved in the Internet in its infancy!

This isn’t to say that Amazon wouldn’t have eventually cleaned their clock through better data, better customer-centric focus, and better operations, but just imagine if instead of trying to diversify, Sears was instead looking at new ways to do what they already did, only better and with the full use of the newest and latest technologies?

The lesson in all of this is simple.

First, understand fully and clearly who you are and what you do.

Second, don’t let anyone else do it better than you.

Sears let Walmart and Amazon do Sears better than Sears while Sears was busy trying to be someone else. Because of their size, it is a slow, painful death, but the choices that led to the bankruptcy were made in the 1980’s and 1990’s when Sears chose the wrong forks in the road and stayed on those paths too long.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS *I don’t know when it happened, probably in the 1980’s, but at some point Sears got away from their “well-trained staff.” Whether it was a cut in money for training programs, a shift in management away from training as a whole, a cut in payroll, or simply a belief that sales-training didn’t matter (a common thought in the 1980’s when everyone was selling at a high clip), Sears lost this competitive edge it held over the competition, especially Walmart.

PPS I did this exercise a couple times with my staff, but it was a question I asked of myself several times a year. “If I was going to open a store to compete with Toy House, what would I do?” When you ask and answer this question, you find the weaknesses in your model that can be exploited. You find where your competitive advantage is thinnest. Not only does this question help you find where competition could hurt you and shore those areas up before the competition strikes, it helps you constantly explore options for doing what you do better.

Solving the Merchandising Equation

My dad had a super power. It was merchandising. He could take 400 square feet of product and fit it into 280 square feet of space with room left over. And it would look amazingly good! I think he would be a master at Tetris if he ever gets a handle on using a computer or video game console.

He didn’t need a plan-o-gram. It wouldn’t have worked in a store like ours anyway. The stock was always changing and always in need of rearranging. He could just look at the boxes, visualize it, and make it work.

I used to always say, “My dad is spatial.”

The Groovy Girl aisle

The challenge to our merchandising was our long aisles of shelves. We were closer to a grocery store in design than a boutique store. But unlike a grocery store where you might start at one end and snake your way up and down each aisle until your basket was full and your list complete, in our store we had to create visual pictures to draw people into each aisle.

I likened merchandising to a trying to solve a complex equation with several variables. We were trying to accomplish all of these goals at once with each aisle:

  • Organize everything by Category
  • Organize everything by Brand
  • Organize everything by size and color
  • Organize everything by price
  • Eliminate any wasted space or gaps between products
  • Make the first four feet of an aisle visually compelling and inviting
  • Make sure the bottom shelf products were visible and easy to read
  • Put the most profitable items at eye-level
  • Put some kind of visual break in the middle of the aisle to draw you into the aisle (either through color or shelf positions)

My dad could do all those things instinctively. I had to teach myself this skill through trial and error, through understanding why each of those bullet points was important so that when compromises needed to be made, I knew where to make them.

Morris Hite taught me something that always helped.

“Advertising moves people toward goods. Merchandising moves goods toward people.”

First and foremost your merchandising needs to be eye-catching.

You need to get the customer interested in wanting to see more. You need displays that “pop” and draw the eyes their way. Because of the design of our store with our long aisles, I focused on the first four feet of an aisle (the only part you can see while walking down a main aisle) and the visual break in the center. The rest fell into place after that.

Endcaps, tables, and free-standing displays are a whole different set of challenges. Along with being visually compelling and neatly organized, these need to tell a story. It takes a different set of skills and talents to make powerful displays that tell a story.

I never acquired that skill. I was more in the category of, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Fortunately I had some people on my team with a better eye than mine. I turned them loose on endcaps and free-standing displays.

Not everyone on your team will be skilled at merchandising. Some can learn. Others won’t. Cultivate the good ones, the ones with an eye for design and storytelling. Turn them loose on your store.

For everyone else, teach them to Stock, Straighten, and Dust.

  • Stock: pull all items from backstock out to the floor and make sure there is an ample amount of each on display.
  • Straighten: put items back where they belong and pull them to the front edge of the shelf
  • Dust: (yeah, this needs no explanation)

While bargain hunters (transactional customers) are willing to dig through heaping messes of products to find the best deals, your Relational Customers will lose trust if your store is a hot mess. You’ll lose sales when your customers (or even your sales staff) cannot easily find what they need.

There is an art to properly merchandising your store. There is also a science. Paco Underhill, in his book Why We Buy, outlines the science quite clearly. I read that book six times in the year I spent working on plans to completely remodel the store. It is worth reading (again).

By the way, normally I start a topic by discussing the “why.” Today I started with the “what.” Tomorrow I’ll tell you why those first four feet and the visual break in the center are so critical. Stay tuned.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I hate stores that are a hot mess. I won’t go in them. My mom is the same way. She gets physically ill in messy stores and won’t go back no matter how good the deal. But we both love stores where the merchandising style could be called “whimsy.” Surprise and delight us. You’ll win. (By the way, we aren’t alone. There are many shoppers exactly like us.)

PPS Yes, there is a FREE eBook on the Free Resources page called Merchandising Made Easy. You should check it out.

Where Are the Employees?

Last year I did something I had never done before. I went shopping on Black Friday. No, not in the early morning hours with all the mobs. I’m not that kind of shopper. I went out in the afternoon to see what the stores looked like after the mobs had left.

It was exactly what I expected. I had to fight the urge to want to straighten and re-merchandise the empty, messy shelves. (I actually did some straightening in Target just to get it out of my system.)

Some of my former employees have reported the same feeling. They find themselves straightening racks and displays constantly. If you’re a merchandising neat-freak like we were, I’m sure you’ve done the same.

This was taken mid-day on a Saturday in September!

Just recently one of my former employees was in Macy’s. She was straightening a rack, as is her habit. Nearby was a group of young men searching for an employee. They were singing, “Oh Macy’s employeeeeeee. Where are yooooouuuu?”

They saw her and asked hopefully, “Do you work here?”

When she said, “No,” they returned to their singing and standing on their tiptoes trying to find help in the cavernous and employee-less department store.

As she told me this story, two thoughts came to mind …

First, if your employees don’t have that urge to straighten and rearrange the displays in other stores, you haven’t trained them well enough.

Second, the lack of well-trained employees on the sales floor will be the downfall of the department stores, not Amazon, not the economy, not their failure to latch onto some shiny new tech, not their website, not their omni-channel efforts, not their advertising.

All the traffic in the world won’t matter if there is no one to take care of that traffic.

Don’t make the mistake that has shuttered the stores of JC Penney’s, Sears, Bon Ton, Younker’s, Elder Beerman, and so many others.

Train your staff well and have enough of them on the floor to make a difference.

That will be the winning formula this holiday season.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I used to have a red polo shirt. I wore it into Target once. Once. Retailing may be one of the lower rungs on the employee food chain, but when you find the right people and train them well, you get a team where retail is in their blood. They will get mistaken for employees in other stores on a regular basis. That should be a goal you strive for your team—to have the kind of people who want to make the shopping experience better no matter where they are.

Three Stats to Tell You All You Need to Know

I went to a presentation last night. As you know, I am all about continual learning. Education is one of my Core Values. This presentation was at TechTown Detroit, a small business incubator that helps launch tech and retail businesses. Mary Aviles of Connect 4 Insight put on the presentation. Mary is also the Director of Strategic Development for Tech Town.

The presentation was “Designing the Customer Experience.” (I’m sure you can guess why that piqued my interest.) The goal was to give these start-up and pop-up retailers some ideas to help them be ready for the holidays.

Mary gave out three stats I want to share here. (Note: I was not able to get the source from her on these stats but I know she did her research.)

STAT #1

24% of all Amazon Sales are from customers who went to a brick & mortar store first.

What does this mean? Nearly one-fourth of all of Amazon’s business is from customers who were disappointed by their in-store experience. Nearly one-fourth came from customers who chose to go to a store first but didn’t get their needs or expectations met.

In other words, customers are choosing brick & mortar, but our lack of selection or lack of service or super high price is driving them online.

STAT #2

40% of customers change their minds in the store because of the in-store experience. 

What does this mean? The in-store experience affects a large number of sales both to the good and to the bad (some of those 40% are more inclined to buy, some are less).

In other words, almost half of your customers are going to make their final buying decision based not on the product or the price but on your ability to offer them a quality shopping experience (or not).

STAT #3

80% of customers report that they would be willing to pay up to 25% more for an item because of a quality experience in the store.

What does this mean? Experience actually outweighs price. Four out of five customers say experience combined with the desire to own the item right away can get them to pull the trigger, even if the price is a little higher than online.

In other words, you can win over a lot of customers with your in-store experience, even if your prices are a little higher than the Internet.

The bottom line to all of these stats is this …

The in-store experience you are providing has more of an effect on your sales than pretty much everything else you do.

If it isn’t your number one focus, you might want to change your gaze.

The good news is that you still have time to schedule The Ultimate Selling Workshop for your team prior to this holiday season. Mary has the stats to convince you why you need to improve the customer’s experience. I have the nuts and bolts of exactly how to do that. Call me.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS You have four days to lock in the special fall savings offer of only $2,000 for The Ultimate Selling Workshop. At 12:01am October 1st the price goes up to $3,500 (or more depending on time and travel). It is still a steal at the regular price. We already did the math. I’m offering the incentive price to get you to book now so you can have your best holiday season ever.

PPS If you are a retailer in Detroit or considering starting a retail business in Detroit, TechTown has amazing resources and programs, and a dedicated, smart, caring staff. You should check them out.

How Fast Do You Solve Her Problem?

You call a number. You get a recording, a menu of options. You listen to all the options before pressing two. Another menu. This time you press one. Now a recording offers you yet a third menu. You select three and a recorded voice comes on to say, “Please hold while I try that extension.”

Twenty minutes of horrible music and a voice interrupting every so often to say, “Please stay on the line and the next available representative will help you,” you finally get a live person on the other end of the phone. You explain your problem patiently only to hear …

“Hold on while I transfer you to someone who can help you.”

Aaaarrrrrrgggggghhhhhhhhh!!!!

Another fifteen minutes or so later you get someone equally unhelpful. You’re ready to hang up except you now have over forty minutes invested in this call. Your frustration levels are through the roof. Your anxiety is peaking. You’re about to rip someone’s head off if you don’t eventually get satisfaction.

We’ve all had that experience. Many of us have experienced it more times than we care to count.

Then we walk into a retailer with what we believe to be a simple problem, find a clerk to help us, explain our problem, and hear …

“Hold on while I find someone who can help you.”

We immediately go back to the frustrations and anxiety of all the other times this has happened to us.

Sure, you’re not a phone tree with endless menus and unhelpful people. Sure, you solve the problem with the second person she sees. Sure, your customer doesn’t have to wait thirty minutes like she did on the phone with that other company.

None of that matters. You still caused your customer to feel all those negative emotions first.

This is why the best stores empower the first person who greets a customer to be able to solve all of her problems and take care of all of her needs.

The customer walking through your door with a problem is already worked up. She brings with her the baggage of every forty-minute phone tree fiasco. She brings with her all the frustrations and anxieties of all the interactions with untrained, useless “salespeople.” She’s loaded for bear and ready for a fight.

Then you spring the, “Hold on while I find someone,” phrase on her.

When she explodes on you, it isn’t really you. You’re just the straw on the camel’s back. But those feelings she has are now associated with you whether you like it or not.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You can empower your front line staff to solve her problem by teaching them this simple three-statement approach:

  1. “I’m so sorry you have this problem …”
  2. “Let me see if I have this straight …” (explain the problem back to her as your heard it and ask for clarification)
  3. “What would you like us to do?”

Always apologize. Notice that the apology doesn’t necessarily imply guilt or fault. The apology simply acknowledges that she has a problem and sets her at ease.

Then repeat back her problem to show that you were listening. Sometimes just being heard is all a customer really needs. It also gives you a chance for clarification to understand the problem better and time to think about how you would want to solve the problem.

The last phrase is the kicker. Great Customer Service is when you meet a customer’s expectations. The best way to know what she expects is to ask. And since an unhappy customer is your worst enemy because of the negative reviews and bad word-of-mouth, it is vital you know exactly what she wants.

Once she tells you what she wants, the best thing to do is give her that … and a little more.

More often than not, when you first put the customer at ease and show her you are listening to her problem, by the time you ask her what she wants she will ask for less than you were likely prepared to give. Even if she does ask for a lot, instruct your staff to give it to her. It is worth it in the long run because of how it makes your customer feel.

“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou

Empower and train all of your staff to handle all of the problems immediately and you will control how your customers feels. Speed does matter. (Plus, if your staff are handling all the problems, you’ll have fewer interruptions throughout the day to get your work done. Win-win!)

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Every now and then a customer will make an outrageous request. It is still worth it to meet that request the first time. If she becomes a repeat problem then you have the right to adjust what you do for her. But since these requests will be so few and far between, they won’t cost you nearly as much as you think. Plus, since you’ll be better managing the way customers feel about you, you’ll have more happy customers than ever before. Instead of worrying about the cost, think of it as an “advertising” expense where you are buying positive word-of-mouth (or at the very least buying the lack of bad word-of-mouth), and the fact you just made a customer’s day. Those are two benefits that will help any business.

Vacations – Do You Take Them? (Why You Should)

Before I started working full time at Toy House, the staff used to dread when my parents would go on vacation. It seemed that every time they returned they fired a key employee. They only took a couple weeks off each year, one in the spring and one in the summer, but their return usually meant someone was on the chopping block.

If you’re a small business owner, you might already be saying to yourself, “That’s why I won’t go on vacation. When the cat is away, the mice will play.” Although mice playing was the cause of a couple of those firings, more often than not it was the chance to get a break, to think critically about the business, and to have a fresh perspective that caused most of the terminations.

Those breaks were critical to their success.

No, they didn’t stop thinking about the business while they were away. No business owner is ever fully “off the clock.” But they found ways to relax and enjoy themselves. The key was the surroundings.

By taking a vacation they got away from the day-to-day grind, the fires constantly needing their attention, and the phone calls, customers, and other interruptions that consume most of the day. Those breaks allowed them to spend some time thinking more about the big picture of the store.

YOU NEED A VACATION

Owning your own business is supposed to be fun. It usually is. Yeah, there are headaches. Yeah, there are long hours. Yeah, you have to wear too many hats, several of which you’ve never been properly trained to wear. Yeah, you rarely ever get chunks of time to accomplish the bigger goals.

If you never take a break, however, you’ll eventually feel like the business is a ball and chain holding you captive.

A vacation gives you a chance to recharge your batteries. That, alone, is worth its weight in gold. It also gives you that freedom to think the big thoughts, to look at your business from outside the bottle, to decide if you have the right people in the right seats on the bus.

HOW TO TAKE A VACATION

How do you take a vacation when there is only you and a handful of part-timers? How do you take it when you don’t have someone you trust to handle the money? How do you take it when you’re worried about the mice playing?

SYSTEMS

One way to help your employees handle things in your absence is to give them a system to follow. Spell it out. Do step A, B, and C in that order. Systems help you have consistency. Systems give you checks and balances so that you can quickly find errors and correct them. Systems also make training easier.

GO-TO PERSON

You don’t have to have a “manager” for you to leave the store, but you do need a go-to person, someone to make the final decision on any matter that should arise. You can even assign two go-to people, one to handle any customer issues such as complaints or questions about returns, and one to handle other issues such as problems with shipments or receiving.

Remember that not everything has to be handled right away. Requests for donations can be left behind until you return. So can advertising opportunities and sales reps. Be clear about what you want them to handle and what you want them to hold for your return.

Your biggest issue with your go-to people will be trust. If you know your business’s Core Values and have hired people who share those values, then you can always remind them to stick to the values and follow the mission of the store. While they won’t always do exactly what you would do, if it is consistent with your values, then it will be just fine in the end. I always left on vacation with this one goal for the team—make the customers smile!

ASSIGNMENTS

There are certain tasks you might do that need to be done in your absence such as receiving merchandise, stocking shelves, or cleaning the store. Assign those responsibilities to your team. Give each person one area to be in charge. Then hold that person accountable for getting that particular task done. (Note: this is if you don’t already have a manager in place to handle and assign these tasks.)

Some of the areas to assign:

  • Opening/Closing
  • Receiving Merchandise
  • Stocking Shelves
  • Cleaning Inside and Out (especially the bathroom)
  • Counting Money/Making Deposits

Assignments not only help ensure things get done, they give your staff the chance to show off what they can do. Some of your team will step up in your absence and truly shine. They have been chomping at the bit for more responsibility and more to do. When you return from vacation, make sure you recognize and reward those people. I sometimes gave my key people time-and-a-half when they had to step it up. We called it “battle pay.”

Others might not step it up. They might shrivel at the daunting task before them. They might make excuses. They might become the mice you dread. At least now you know who they are and whether you want to keep them on the team.

Your vacation helps you separate the mice from the (wo)men.

If you are wondering whether you can afford to take a vacation or not, I will tell you that the benefits of taking a vacation are so great that you do your business a disservice by not taking one.

  • It recharges your batteries
  • It helps you see your business more clearly
  • It helps you see who is ready to step it up to the next level on your team (and who needs to go)
  • It pushes you to put the systems into place that you know you need anyway
  • It teaches you how to delegate
  • It removes the ball-and-chain

Like paying yourself a salary, this is something else all the owners of professional businesses do, too.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS You don’t have to go on a two-week African Safari to get those benefits. If you’re scared about it, start with a long weekend or two. Take a Thursday and Friday off to make it a four-day jaunt. More of the back office business stuff happens Monday-Wednesday anyway. Just get far enough away that you won’t feel compelled to “pop in for a quick visit to check on things.”

PPS When you get back, there will be fires to put out. There will be situations to evaluate. There will be things left undone. You’ll put those fires out, evaluate the situations, and get everything done fairly quickly, in part because your batteries are recharged, and also because you just learned how to delegate.

When you evaluate your team and how they did, if they tried their best but it wasn’t how you would have handled it, give them the A for effort. Say something like, “I truly appreciate your effort in handling this. Good job. Next time, however, you should try doing this …” Think of it as a teachable moment that will make your next vacation even better.

Give Them a Title

There are two series of books that have influenced my business life directly. One is a series of five books I first read as a child and have re-read several times since, until the books are barely holding together. I have read them twice to my own sons and am now reading the first book to a friend’s son. The second is a trilogy that came to me as a gift and I have talked about in this blog quite often.

This blog is about that first series of books. (You can follow the link in the previous paragraph to read about the trilogy.)

The Chronicles of Prydain Book #1

I don’t think Lloyd Alexander was thinking about business lessons in 1964 when he wrote The Book of Three, the first in his five-book children’s series The Chronicles of Prydain. Having read the entire series more times than I have fingers, however, I keep finding lessons on every page.

The opening chapter of the first book introduces us to the lead character, Taran of Caer Dallben. We don’t know much about him other than he helps tend a garden and take care of an oracular pig, but he wants to be a big hero. He wants a title to go with his name, so Coll, his mentor, gives him one … Taran, Assistant Pig Keeper.

For the first three books, he is known as Taran, Assistant Pig Keeper. (In book #4 he becomes Taran Wanderer. This book was the light bulb idea that sparked my book Hiring and the Potter’s Wheel: Turning Your Staff Into a Work of Art.) Although he desired to be a warrior of noble blood, mostly what he wanted was to be something, anything, to simply have a title and purpose.

Your staff have that desire, too. They HATE wearing a name badge that says “Trainee” because they know it means customers don’t trust them or treat them with respect. They want a title, preferably one that sounds important, that gives them some respect.

I see this as a creative opportunity.

While not everyone can be a store or department manager, you can make them managers of specific things like:

  • Manager of Smiles
  • Manager of Problem Solving
  • Manager of Question Answering
  • Manager of Greetings and Salutations
  • Manager of Product Knowledge
  • Manager of Finding Lost Products
  • Manager of Sunshine
  • Manager of Giving Customers an Experience They Will Never Forget That They Will Have to Tell All Their Friends About and Drag those Friends to the Store on Their Next Visit

Okay, maybe that last one won’t fit on a name tag, but you get the idea.

The point is that a title gives an air of respect. A title like the ones above also gives a fresh air of cheer, sets a customer at ease, and lets the customer know this person is (hopefully) trained to help. Most importantly, the title gives your employee a sense of importance, a purpose, and even a goal to aspire to.

One other benefit is that when you make a big deal out of giving your employee a title, especially when it is something cool and fun and even personal with layers of meaning, it shows that person that you care.

The more you care for your staff, the more they will take care of your customers.

Yeah, I got all that from a children’s book.

“Take inspiration from wherever you find it, no matter how ridiculous.” -Roy H. Williams, aka The Wizard of Ads (yeah, that other series of books)

Decorate your staff by giving them fun, meaningful titles and watch how they grow into those roles.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS The more personal and fun you make the title, the more benefits you will see. Your employees will work harder and your customers will be quicker to trust them with just this simple little act. It is the little things that make a difference.

PPS Get rid of your assistant managers (the titles, not the people). Make everyone a manager of something, even if it is simply a “Shift Manager.” The word “Manager” says authority. “Assistant” says “not yet good enough.” Make them all good enough to solve the customer’s problem and take care of her every need, and give them the title to declare it.

How to Learn From the Best

Yesterday, I buried this little gem in the post. Let’s take it out and polish it a bit.

“If your store isn’t the store everyone points to in town for having the best customer service, your service isn’t good enough. Yet.”

There is always that one business everyone believes is the best retailer in town. Several years ago, when I did a full-day workshop on Customer Service in Manistee, MI, a sleepy little Lake Michigan town with a year round population of around 6,000 people and summer visitors measured in the hundreds of thousands, I found their best retailer.

I came into town a day early to check out the shops. I braced myself against the sleet and snow on that cold, wet, wintery March day and made the rounds. The shops were open, but mostly empty. It was off-season, and not the best day to be out on the streets. One store, however—Snyder’s Shoes—was hopping. They had several customers in the store when I entered, but the staff still made a point of greeting me. Even in a sleet storm it was obvious who was the king of retail in town.

Snyder’s Shoes, Manistee, MI

The next day, as the attendees were filing in, I got the confirmation as I overheard one person say, “What is Snyder’s doing here? They’re already the best retailer in town.”

At the end of the day, however, when he was asked what strategies he hoped to implement from the day-long training session, Dan, the co-owner of Snyder’s said, “Every single one I possibly can.”

I feel for the other retailers in Manistee. They aren’t being measured against their competitors. They are being measured against Snyder’s.

Customers don’t measure you against your competitors. They measure you against every retail experience they’ve ever had.

So how do you compete against that? How do you raise your bar that high?

You have to do your homework. Ask your staff to name the stores they think offer the best customer service in town, then plan a road trip to visit them. Watch how those stores interact with their customers. Look for the differences between what they do and what you do.

Visit all the stores your staff named. You can do it in groups or pairs. Take notes. Ask these questions …

  • What do they do better than us?
  • What do they do different than us?
  • What do we do better than them?

The first question shows you what you need to tweak or improve. We all have things we need to tweak or improve. Getting a list by comparing to what other stores do is far better than just trying to brainstorm it yourself.

The second question shows you where you are different. Sometimes different is good, sometimes it isn’t. You have to decide, based on your core values, if you want to change things or highlight the difference.

The third question is your calling card. This is the area where you’re winning in the minds of your customers. If there isn’t anything you are doing better, you have serious work to do. If there is something you’re doing better, find out how to do it BEST. Raise the bar so high no one will be able to match it.

Now is a good time to take this road trip. You have time to visit stores before you get too busy. You have time to implement those changes before the holiday season hits. You have time to tweak your advertising message, your promotions, and your marketing to highlight your strengths and differences.

Two more questions you might also want to ask …

  • What do they do that we can’t?
  • What do they do that we won’t?

The first shows your limitations. The second is your biggest differentiating factor. Both answers give you power and show you where you stand not only in the retail landscape, but also in the eyes of your customers.

“Knowledge is power.” -Sir France is Bacon.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Note: If you ask your staff who is best and they don’t immediately say, “We are!” then you know you have some serious work to do. If they say they are the best, ask them who is second best and go visit those stores.

PPS One more thing you still have time to do … Hire me to do The Ultimate Selling Workshop with your team. You’ll transform your team to the point that when they say, “We are!” you and your customers will nod in agreement.

Change Your Viewpoint to See Your Business Better

I was sitting in a conference center in Louisville, Kentucky for a presentation by Rick Segel in May 2009.

Rick asked the crowd, “Raise your hand if your product selection sucks, if you just don’t have the goods people want.” No hands went up.

Rick then said, “Raise your hand if your store has lousy customer service, if you’re treating customers poorly.” Again, no hands went up.

One more time Rick said, “Raise your hands if you are gouging the heck out of your customers with your prices.”

Since two surveys I had done showed customers already believed that about us, I raised my hand. “Ooh, me! I do!” Rick tossed me a free copy of one of his books and said thanks for being honest.

The point Rick was trying to make was …

Every business thinks they have Great Selection, Great Service, and Great Prices.

Most of us are wrong. We have either wrongly convinced ourselves of our greatness or justified away our flaws. We think, “If only more people would come through the door they would see how great we are.”

The truth is …

If you were truly Great, more people would come through your door.

Our problem is one of perception. We see the business through our own perception, from inside the bottle. Our customers have a completely different frame of reference. We compare ourselves to our mass market competitors and say, “See? We are soooo much better than them.”

Our customers compare us to every store they’ve ever visited and say with a sigh, “I wish [your store] was more like [my favorite store].”

If you want to find your blind spots, you have to look at things differently. You have to look at your business from your customers’ perspectives.

PRODUCT SELECTION

To improve your product selection, create a “No List”. This is a list of all the items customers come in asking for that you have to say, “No, I’m sorry we don’t. Can I show you an alternative?” (By the way, that or “Can I suggest a store that would have that item.” are the only two acceptable answers when you don’t have a certain product.)

If a customer walks through your doors or calls you on the phone asking for a certain product it is because the customer perceives you to be the kind of store that would carry that product. If you’re constantly saying no and not showing the alternatives you would rather carry, you’re flying directly in the face of customer perception. If there are one or two products on that No List every week, you need to look into either carrying those products or the next best alternative to those products. Otherwise your product selection will not be considered “Great” in your customers’ eyes.

CUSTOMER SERVICE

What percentage of your business is repeat business? Make an educated guess. Your repeat business is a direct reflection of your Customer Service. If your Customer Service is Great, meaning you’ve met her every expectation, she will be back.

What percentage of your business is referral business, people who have never been in your store but came in because a friend told them (or better yet, dragged them in)? This is a direct reflection of how often you did more than a customer expected.

“Surprise is the foundation of delight. If you expected something to happen and it happened, there is no delight.” -Roy H. Williams

If all you do is meet expectations (Great Customer Service), you’ll get some repeat business. To get referral business, however, you have to raise the bar even higher. If you aren’t getting a lot of repeat and referral business, then you don’t have Great Customer Service in your customers’ eyes.

One last thing to consider … If your store isn’t the store everyone points to in town for having the best customer service, your service isn’t good enough, yet. (And if it is, then the bullseye is on your back so you better be doing something to keep raising the bar.)

PRICE

This is one area where you’ll have a hard time changing perception. When we did our surveys we were regularly considered “Over-Priced” and “Expensive” compared to Walmart, Toys R Us, Meijer, and Target. All four of those stores talk about low prices and saving money in every ad they run. There is a built-in perceptual bias that all indie stores are more expensive than their mass competitors. The interesting part of the survey for me was that we also owned the word “Value.” That’s when I knew my prices were okay. Yes we were Expensive because we carried more expensive items. But the customers saw the Value in those items.

Remember, too, that not everyone shops on Price. Make your prices competitive and sharp, but more importantly, hone up on the Product Selection and Customer Service elements, and people will see the value you offer.

Every store thinks they have Great Selection, Great Service, and Great Prices. Most stores are wrong. You can’t measure whether you have Great Selection, Great Service or Great Prices from any of your spreadsheets. You can’t see it from behind your cashwrap. You have to look at it from the customers’ eyes. That’s the only point of view that counts.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS You can win over some of the perceptual bias on Pricing. The blueprint is in the Free eBook Pricing for Profit. Most stores who have followed this pricing have reported back how customers perceive their pricing to be much more competitive. All of the stores who have followed this pricing have reported back increases in profit margin because of it. What do you have to lose?

PPS Even if you think your Customer Service is Great, ask yourself …

  • What would happen if your staff was better at building relationships with your customers?
  • What would happen if your staff was able to close more sales?
  • What would happen if your staff was able to increase the average sale?
  • What would happen if your staff learned to work together better as a team?

How would that change things for you?

One downside is that you would be busier. You’d have to write more orders (increasing your turn ratio and your cashflow). You’d have to look into hiring more people to handle the increased traffic. You might even have to consider a new location to expand your business. If you’re okay with those hassles, contact me to run The Ultimate Selling Workshop with your team.