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1:25 PM   December 22, 2014
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Customer Service as a Secret Weapon

The old-fashioned way of gaining and keeping customers.
By Donna Garrou

Last week, I was in a foul mood. Another employee had just quit. His “notice” was to call and tell me he wouldn’t be back. As a result, I was in the back doing his job, trying to figure out how I’d get everything done, not just today, but tomorrow and the rest of the week, when a pair of odd characters walked in. The son was sipping 7-Eleven coffee through yellowed teeth, wearing a T-shirt with holes in it, and the father was in dirty overalls. They asked if I knew where they could replace a tray for a large round wrought-iron cage they’d owned for about 30 years. Because that type of cage is obsolete, I said it would be very difficult to locate parts. They then said they might have someone make a tray. I explained having one made, as well as having the cage re-powdercoated, would cost them at least $300. Perhaps their bird might be ready for a new cage. 

As they were leaving, I noticed the older man admiring a stainless-steel cage, so even though I figured price might be an issue, I asked if he noticed the features that made it easier to clean. I joked this cage had a tray that would never need to be replaced. The son came over, we walked around the cage, and both marveled at the removable cage skirts and cup holders, the toy hooks, and all the “recent” innovations. When I mentioned the price (more than $1,200), they laughed, expressing a bit of shock, to say the least. They said they’d go home and try to determine the brand of wrought-iron cage, hoping I could order the new bottom. I silently wondered if I’d ever see them again.  

The next morning when I opened the store, they were there, waiting to buy the new stainless cage. I demonstrated how to take it apart, so they could easily assemble it at home. While their bird “hadn’t played with a toy in 15 years,” they liked watching my birds play, so we spent some time picking out a nice selection. In addition, although they had been buying seed at Wal-Mart for years, they wanted to know what I recommended for their bird, thanked me for explaining the differences between the foods, and went home with a supply.

They even called me after they got home to thank me and said their bird was swinging around in its new space like a youngster. 

The bottom line? They spent $1,500 that day because I gave them plenty of good, old-fashioned customer service.
 
Customer Service Eliminates Competition
These folks would not buy off the Internet because they would not see the cage’s features demonstrated nor even have known to look for a replacement. They would not spend that much on a cage in a large, impersonal store because one-on-one help or education on the cage’s value isn’t available. How many times have you bemoaned the fact that you will never be able to compete with the Internet or the big-box stores? Well, they don’t have the secret weapon that is only available to you.

Many books and articles seek to define and pinpoint exactly what customer service is. We sometimes lose sight of just how simple it is. In my store, it means good communication with a sincere smile. Even people who say they are “just looking” are in your store for a reason. Once you get customers talking, especially if they talk about their pets, sales will follow.
 
Service Means Value Educating
A more typical example: A woman came in looking for cockatiel food, saying she usually buys it at the swap meet. This meant she was accustomed to paying about $1 a pound. Sure enough, she balked at $6.99 for a 2-pound bag. Even though I feared she might not be listening to me, I took the time to explain that our seed is nitrogen-flushed, which means it will not harbor any seed moths and will be much fresher than her usual fare. I gave her a business card and told her I’d love to hear from her if her bird prefers it. Relaxing a little, she asked me why her bird keeps chewing up his perches. It turned out he had no toys. I explained all birds must have toys to chew on to fulfill their instinctual need. Since she was reluctant to buy a toy at that time, I gave her a few pieces of shredder material to tie onto her cage for him to try, while also getting her to buy a bag of millet for a little dietary variety.

Monday afternoon, she was back—and smiling. She said her neighbor saw how much her bird liked the food, and asked her to stop by to pick up some millet and food. I gained two customers, who are now spending 3 1⁄2 times as much for their pets’ food, because I communicated and showed I cared. I also did not judge the woman on her ability to pay, despite signals she would not. I expect in time to turn her into a repeat customer with a cage full of toys and a better diet for her bird.

What not to do? Overreact to the economic climate by slashing prices (as I could have done in the example above) and losing your service focus. A large retailer that sells musical instruments in my area is advertising it has in-store computers set up for Internet price comparisons—and will match them! This store was known for its personal service and knowledgeable sales staff. By abandoning its successful strategy to chase price shoppers, it will most likely alienate its core customers. 

In challenging economic times, it is important to remember you have the advantage. No Internet site, no matter how user friendly, can ever duplicate what you and a well-trained staff can do for your customers. No amount of square footage or fancy fixtures can educate a customer like a few minutes talking with experts like us. 

That’s my strategy, and I’m sticking to it. <HOME>

Donna Garrou, one of our Retailer of the Year Runners-Up, owns BirdStuff in Orange, Calif.


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