Service With Much More Than a Smile: Personalizing Customer Relationships

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On Thursday, May 29, approximately one hundred booksellers attended ABA's Marketing Workshop, held during BookExpo America in Los Angeles. The session, moderated by Michael Hoynes, ABA's marketing officer, focused on strategies and tactics that independent booksellers can use to gain a greater share of current customers' business and to introduce new customers to the unique values of independent bookstores.

Hoynes began the session by providing a brief overview of the current book market. He noted that, based on current industry projections, the number of new books sold in the U.S. in 2007 will be equal to, or less than, the number sold in 2000. In the adult trade book area, the industry has experienced only slight increases while the seasonal factors are now equal among the four quarters of the year. There is more impulse purchasing with adult books, which suggests booksellers should consider how they utilize in-store promotions on books that may be bestsellers in their market.

Overall, Hoynes continued, the industry data suggests there is a maturing book buyer and that fact opens several opportunities for independent bookstores. Adults 45 years and over now account for 63 percent of adult book purchases, 33 percent of teen book purchases, and 40 percent of children's books sales.

Hoynes recommended that independent booksellers adopt the strategy of "Person-to-Person Marketing."

"This will enable the bookseller to utilize relationship-marketing tactics that treat each customer differently, while also tapping into one-to-one tactics to obtain more sales from each individual customer," Hoynes said. "At the same time, booksellers can follow the principles of permission marketing to attract new prospects, one prospect at a time."

Panelist Tom Ehrenfeld, former editor of INC Magazine and the author of The Startup Garden: How Growing a Business Grows You (McGraw-Hill) followed Hoynes and shared insights gained from his studies of independent businesses. Ehrenfield explained that being "personal" in business is the hallmark of independent businesses, and most notably for independent bookstores.

"I think the basis for [growth] starts with being personal: The personal values that you bring to the store, the way that you connect personally to the customers that come," Ehrenfeld said. "Growing a business grows you. What are the specific skill sets you need to develop to be able to realize the unique value -- the personal mission and value and connection that you deliver to your customers -- and how you can continue to deliver that in a more robust and powerful way?"

Regardless of how long the business has existed, Ehrenfeld believes there is a need to ensure that the business has all the appropriate resources to grow, as well as to enhance the owner/manager's personal managerial skills. He suggested independent booksellers consider the following principles:

  • Align around a common mission with a mission statement that outlines the uniqueness of the business. It should not just be about "selling books," but more about what makes "your business" unique or what your business can provide that others cannot.

  • Set boundaries with employees so they can help manage and grow the business. Owners and managers should find ways to "step back" from the business to evaluate what needs improvement, including how the business approaches customer service or new business opportunities that may go beyond selling books.

  • Ensure your business has "financial literacy," which translates into understanding how the business makes money and knowing what new revenue opportunities exist. Are there related product categories that can generate more store revenue as well as attract new consumers to the store? This also requires evaluating current customer service practices to ensure the store meets the new consumer's needs and expectations.

  • Benchmark with other retailers, including major chains in other categories, to discover new ideas that may be adapted to the bookstore. You may find customer service activities that are not expensive and could work very effectively for your business. You might also consider an "outside counsel panel" of other independent businesses to help you evaluate customer service practices and make suggestions for improvement.

Harry Beckwith, a well-known consultant on branding, founder of a successful small business, and author of Selling the Invisible (Oxmoor and Warner) stressed that good customer relationships are the key to a successful business.

Most consumers buy the relationship and the service of the business -- not the "thing" being sold, and that includes books, he explained. Knowing customers and understanding their needs as individuals makes all the difference in retaining the customer, generating more revenue from each customer, and attracting new people to the business -- and that starts the moment the customer walks in the door. "You want to know how to sell me a book?" Beckwith said. "Two simple words: 'Hello, Harry.' It could not be simpler…. I get goose bumps when I hear it."

Beckwith outlined some key elements for the bookseller who wants to build strong customer relationships:

  • Speed -- a business demonstrates the importance of each customer by the speed in which it responds to inquiries. This does not mean there is an immediate solution, but, with a speedy response, a bookstore demonstrates it cares about that customer. It shows the consumer that the bookstore feels the person is important, which establishes a sense of customer loyalty. As such, booksellers might want to evaluate how they currently respond to consumer inquiries. "Speed communicates importance," Beckwith said. "Make me feel important!"

  • Customer greetings -- in the store or on the telephone. How often does a small retailer overlook the opportunity to welcome each consumer that visits the store, either an existing customer or a new prospect? Is the staff reminded to greet individuals as they enter the store or to have a friendly greeting when answering the telephone? "No other single act of customer service correlates so strongly with the satisfaction of your customers than the way they are greeted," Beckwith stated.

  • Apparent expertise -- Customers want someone who appears to be an expert in their field, Beckwith said. He noted that, in research conducted with one of his clients, a veterinarian, it showed that, on a scale of one to 10, vets in blue lab coats were given a 7.1 competency rating by customers; vets in white lab coats, a 7.8 rating; and vets in white lab coats and with a stethoscope: 8.6. "It's all in what you wear," he said. "Being a child of the '70s, I didn't always look like this…. I'm not fond of the notion that we judge a book by its cover, but customers do."

Jack Mitchell, chairman and CEO of Mitchells and Richards, two clothing retailers based in Connecticut, and author of Hug Your Customers (Hyperion), began his presentation by explaining that he was recently a panelist at a retail convention, and that the general focus of the speakers preceding him was "doom and gloom," specifically regarding chain competition.

Mitchell said that when it was his turn to speak, he took his allotted seven minutes to talk about how important his customers are to him and his staff. "I got all hyper and worked up," he said. "I believe it's all about customers, serving customers, and extraordinary service, and how you take customers from being very satisfied to being extremely satisfied."

Following his presentation at the retail convention, the president of a large clothing retailer commented, "Next you're going to tell me you hug your customers."

"Doesn't everybody?" Mitchell said he responded.

"But then, of course, I realized they don't," Mitchell told BEA attendees. "What is a hug? It's a metaphor for anything that exceeds your customer's expectations -- anything that personalizes the relationship."

Some examples of what Mitchell considers hugging your customer are:

  • remembering the name of your customer's dog
  • calling a customer to make sure he or she is satisfied after a purchase
  • having a kids' corner with TV, books, and treats
  • knowing your customer's golf handicap
  • introducing customers to business contacts
  • letting your customer use your office to make a personal phone call.

"It's hard to execute these things," Mitchell said. "I admit, it can get boring to sell suits, but if you have the mindset that, at the heart of a transaction is a personal relationship, you will have fun with what you do ... and the numbers will follow. All of a sudden, one day you will wake up and be very profitable. I maintain that knowing your customers is the key to your success -- hugging them one at a time."

One crucial aspect to knowing the customer is maintaining an up-to-date database. "You cannot remember every single thing about your customer," Mitchell said, and explained that pertinent details should be keyed into customer files. "You should know every name, and their address, office phone number, cell phone number."

Of course, to offer customers quality customer service, store owners must hire the right people to carry it off. "You don't give customer service in a vacuum, you give it with real people," Mitchell said. "How do you find and hire these people?"

Mitchell explained that it's crucial that you hire honest people, and even suggested giving psychological tests prior to hiring to ensure this. In addition, staff should be confident and competent, positive, and, most important, have "the passion to listen, learn, and grow and be the best." -- Michael Hoynes with reporting by David Grogan