Getting Closer to your Customers
At the dawn of time, shopkeepers served a very small and localized community-their neighbors and their neighborhood. Keeping tabs on what would sell (and what wouldn’t) was a very personalized thing. Ask your customers what they wanted, and make sure it was in stock.
Over the millennia, life, and retailing, has gotten a bit more complicated. But the basic lessons of giving customers what they want are still as valid as they were thousands of years ago.
So, with something this simple, why does it seem so difficult to survive? Well, competition is a bit tougher these days. Merchandising, distribution, marketing, negotiation, all are significantly more challenging. Oh, and then there’s the economy.
But at the core, the essence of successful retailing is still in the basics listening to your customer, and giving them what they want at a perceived great value (not necessarily price), no matter what business you’re in.
Listening to your customer comes in various forms today. It’s sometimes as simple as watching inventory, what’s selling/what’s not. With retailers that have customer cards (your CVS card, Pig Card, etc), customer sales data is easier to capture and analyze-making sure that particular stores are stocking more of the things they want.
More sophisticated outsourced companies can help analyze your sales data and, through predictive modeling, identify the types of products certain types of customers will want. This can assist you from things as significant at where to locate your next store, to as minute as which toothpaste offer to email particular customers.
This type of analysis helps you predict future actions based on what has happened in the past. And while this is highly valuable in many cases, it is not the “be all end all” of understanding your customer. Ford would still be selling Model T cars if they only analyzed what their customers had bought in the past and continued to provide the same product.
So, staying in touch with your customers just as the shopkeepers of long ago must have done and making sure you’ve got your finger on the pulse of what they’re thinking, how they’re thinking, and what they’re needing, is vital for long term survival.
For small businesses, this might be done with one-on-one conversations with your customers. What do they like/not like, and what would they like to see you provide? It might be talking with customers you used to see, but don’t see any more. What happened? Why don?t they shop with you any more? What can you provide?
For larger businesses, this might take the shape of primary research-reaching out to larger groups of customers and watching behavior, testing hypotheses in small groups and validating in larger statistically valid scenarios with the help of outside experts.
Especially in this economic environment, where price seems to trump all, “value” is the name of the game. Most of us cannot win on price alone. It needs to be something else. How do your customers define value? In-store service, unique product lines, delivery, courteousness, depth of knowledge, reward programs? What takes you out of the commodity business and puts you in a unique position? Sometimes, customers can not verbalize what they have not experienced before. So, you’ve got to do your homework to make sure you truly surprise and delight every customer as often as you can.
Be a student of your industry, a student of marketing, tap into marketing specialists, and be a dreamer. Dream about “what if”, and share those dreams with your customers. Ideas could be simple? what if you were open at night? What if you washed your customers? cars while they shopped? What if you created an easy app to aid in decision making? What if? And test those theories, just as the shopkeepers.
As I wrote this column, I was trying to do just a couple of things. First, to challenge you to make sure you’re really keeping in touch with your customer base. And in addition, make sure you keep your ideas simple. The execution of ideas may be complex, using sophisticated approaches and resources, but always keep the customer’s busy life in mind. The easier to understand, the easier to use?the more successful you may be!
Ran on Sept 11 2011 in Charleston Regional Business Journal