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What you learn from questions

A demgraphic study within a question

The story is told of a young boy named Johnny. He walked into the corner drug store and placed five $1 bills on the counter, asking the pharmacist to give him dimes so he could make phone calls. (It is a very old story.)

Johnny sits down in the phone booth in the back of the store and begins to make calls. With each call, he tells the person that he cuts grass as a summer job, and for a very cheap price, would like to cut the lawn of the person on the other end of the phone line.

The pharmacist watches and listens to Johnny as he makes each of the 50 phone calls. And in hearing one side of the phone conversation, the pharmacist can tell that none of the 50 phone calls have resulted in a sale as Johnny closes with, "Thank you anyway. Goodbye."

As Johnny walks back through the pharmacy he has a big smile on his face. The pharmacist is curious and asks how young Johnny can be so cheerful when he has failed to make a single sale.

The explanation by Johnny was, "I already cut each of their lawns. I just wanted to call to see if a cheap price could buy their business away from me. I must be doing pretty good."

This is a great story of a young business owner who understands the value of learning from his customers. In each of the calls, Johnny learned that his customers were pleased with their service provider and his work. We could see this story as one that teaches us about the value of giving good customer service.

And while that lesson is in this story, we look at the story of Johnny and his phone calls as a lesson that teaches about a business that listens to its customers to help the business decide what to do.

If we could get more of the businesses within our Main Street districts to perform an exercise similar to what Johnny did we would undoubtedly see businesses that look and sell in a manner that is substantially different from what they are doing now.

Let’s look at the situation from several perspectives. The first is to ask why is it that the businesses currently look as they do. One of the reasons is a lack of originality. Whether the business is owned by an original or is part of a chain, there is often the thought that a certain type of business has to look a particular way.

As the business is opened, they look at other businesses within the industry to see what they should look like and the products and services they should offer. While there is a certain degree of logic in this strategy, what is lacking is originality.

You and I see it every day. Driving through a community last week, we saw a new strip shopping center. There was nothing that gave us any reason to remember this shopping center or see it as anything outstanding. It did however, give the idea for this article as we drove through the parking lot and counted the number of doors in the shopping center.

There were 17 doors; fifteen of the seventeen businesses were identical - from the height of the ceiling and the depth of the business to the width of the storefront and the amount of glass in the front. What about the other two businesses in the plaza? They were the businesses on the east and west end of the plaza.

Try to think of any two types of businesses that need to have identical store designs; you probably can’t. So, why is the shopping center designed such that all 17 stores are identical? Probably because the architect designed something that looked attractive; maybe they wanted something that was going to win a community award for looking good.

Maybe the architect was trying to design something that was so generic that most any type of business could use the location. The space might not be the ideal space, but the space could at least be acceptable and adapted to what the business needed. Definitely the architect did not display a working knowledge of the needs and unique aspects of small businesses.

The same type of situation occurs with the small business owner; it actually happens to chain stores. Take a look at two of the largest chain store bookstores; take a look at two of the chain store drug stores; and from the mall take a look at two of the chains that sell bath oils and soaps. The challenge when you walk in one of the stores and then the competition is that you cannot tell one from another.

From this it stands to reason that most small businesses want to make the difference between them and their competition to hinge on only a couple of points. The first is that they want to think they can claim ‘great customer service’ as one of their differences. And the second difference they often want have is with their product selection.

Of course, if you go back and take a look at the pairs of chain store drug stores, bookstores, and bath oil shops you will find there is little difference in the product selection they offer.

Let’s go back to Johnny and his customer survey. Take Johnny’s idea and move it into some of the businesses within your district. Instead of asking the traditional questions about the customers shopping experience, much like the surveys you are asked to take after staying in a hotel, let’s suggest the business begin to ask customers a different series of questions.

How about a store in your district asking customers about when they like to shop? Sure it may be the norm for businesses within the district to open at 9am; but what if a business finds there are a number of parents that would like to shop just after 8am after they have dropped their children at school?

Then there are the customers that are looking for items they cannot find in other businesses. We observed a traditional hardware store that morphed several times because of their having a ‘Johnny’ experience of a different nature. In listening to their customers they heard questions about pool and spa supplies, bicycle repairs, vacuum cleaner repairs, and truck rentals.

Hearing multiple customers ask about where they could purchase these products or have these services performed, the store became quite different over a period of several years. The one product for the pool that the store added became a complete department with water analysis and pool servicing for both residential and commercial applications.

The question of the bicycle repair led to the hardware store getting a retired bicycle shop open to come out of retirement to offer part time repairs in the hardware store. And from there, there came a full line sporting goods department.

Similar situations occurred as a result of the customer’s comments about vacuum cleaners and rental trucks. And there were more changes as the store continued to listen to their customers. As the store changed, there were those from within the hardware industry that looked at this store and remarked that there wasn’t much about the store that was still a hardware store.

The response from the owner of the store to those comments was, “This doesn’t look like a hardware store to you because you are not a customer of my store. However, to the customers of my store this is exactly what a hardware store should look like because they have told me what the store should look like.”

And within the comments from the hardware store owner is the lesson that Johnny learned about his customers. It is also the lesson that many small businesses within the many Main Street districts should learn about their business.

The successful business is the one that has seen the mold for the business, whether it begins with the architect of the building or the chain store that is seen by the many customers, does not have to be the mold for their business. The success comes by listening to the customers tell what they are wanting, and if the customer is not telling the business what they want, then it becomes the responsibility of the business, just like Johnny, to ask the customers what they want to buy, when they want to shop, and any other question that might help the business owner to learn how they can earn more of the customer’s business.

So, as a ‘customer’ of this column, what do you think? What do you need?

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This article is copyrighted by Tom Shay and Profits Plus Solutions, who can be reached at: PO Box 1577, St. Petersburg, Fl. 33731. Phone 727-464-2182. It may be printed for an individual to read, but not duplicated or distributed without expressed written consent of the copyright owner.

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