This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened to me.
Last week, I went to a large electronics retailer in downtown Manhattan looking for a very specific type of microphone. I had a meeting to videotape, and needed what is known as a “boundary microphone” – a low profile microphone designed to pickup the voices of a group of people sitting around a table. I described what I wanted – and what I was trying to do with it – to a salesman in their pro-audio department, and asked if he had any specific recommendations he would make. He confidently directed me to a reasonably price shotgun microphone, telling me that it should work well for what I was looking to do.
Unfortunately, the type of microphone he was recommending was designed for a very different purpose from mine. In fact, it would be pretty useless in the situation I had described to him. It was clear from this that he was just looking to make a sale – even if it meant selling me something that didn’t really work for me. If I hadn’t known enough NOT to take his advice then, I would have ended up with an inferior (and potentially useless) recording – a situation I’m grateful I avoided.
But this type of situation isn’t that uncommon.
When it comes to more complex items, especially in computers and electronics, far too many sales people end up making confident – yet frivolous and uninformed – recommendations to the people they are supposedly “helping”. Their overt conviction may help them close the immediate sale, but it comes at a cost. They end up losing the more lucrative opportunity to convert someone into a satisfied long term customer that would happily recommend them to friends and colleagues. By not investing in the quality of their sales staff, many firms effectively squander the “network value” of their customers to get some kind of short term gain.
While many stores have reward programs for frequent shoppers, they seem to offer little to their truly highest value customers – the “frequent referrers” that keep sending new customers their way. The most important thing a sales person can do is convert a basic “shopper” into a networked “referrer” – even if it means not selling them something on a particular visit.
The more connected we become socially, the more important this approach will become operationally. The “velocity” of word of mouth referrals – both positive and negative – should become a a key operational metric in our 21st century economy. It’s the only reliable way to reach a highly oversold-to and fairly jaded consumer market. Customer service isn’t something that can be ‘bolted on’ at the point of sale. Being customer centric needs to become central to the way any modern organization thinks, plans, and operates. Long term success depends on it.
The role model for this market approach (as they are for many other things) is Apple.
Apple thrives off of referrals. They count on having their existing customers convert the ‘Apple uninitiated’ through enthusiasm and word of mouth. That is why Apple focuses so much on the design, quality, and usability of every product they make. Even the packaging is an experience. But they also invest very heavily in something almost every other electronics manufacturer tend to take for granted – their retail channel. The entire Apple Store experience is first class. All of the people working in the store are both personable and highly trained, and seem genuinely invested in both the company and the products they sell. You can’t help but feel that everything Apple does with their retail stores is designed to create a satisfied customer out of every person that walks in their doors. And they seem to get it right almost every time.
But you don’t need to be an Apple sized company to apply this to your business. At the end of the day, great customer service happens one salesperson at a time. Every contact they have with a potential customer is a chance for them to demonstrate their value and gain that customer’s trust. If they do a good job truly helping every customer that walks in the door, the sales part of the equation will take care of itself.
That’s a lesson far too many companies still need to learn.