Bending Over Backwards for Customers

Two sisters selling relief from back pain had everything but clients. Here's how they built their business without breaking the bank

When it comes to marketing, Corporate America bandies about big words and backs them up with bigger bucks. Meanwhile, small-business owners implement major marketing efforts on minute budgets. In this occasional look at marketing strategies, Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein will detail a small outfit's marketing strategy and runs those efforts by Chicago marketing executive Meg Goodman.

The Company: Relax the Back, a franchised Chicago retail outlet

The Entrepreneurs: Robyn Sprauer and Marcy Missner, franchisees

The Challenge: Sprauer and Missner, who are business partners and sisters, bought their Relax the Back franchise to sell products that relieve back and neck pain directly to the general public. Because these products are neither daily necessities, nor top-of-mind purchases, they faced the challenge of educating consumers about their offerings and reaching them with a compelling message.

The Need: The therapeutic products offered by Relax the Back are either prescribed by a medical practitioner or sought out by individuals seeking to relieve discomfort. While back pain is one of the most common ailments, Sprauer and Missner had to make consumers aware of their presence in Chicago, bring them into the store, and show them ways to relieve their pain.

After grand opening, business went from "good, to bad, to good," Sprauer recalls. At first, the store was a novelty. Once the newness wore off, she says, it became a retail "destination," a place that customers visit specifically, rather than a store that people stop to check out when driving by. At this point, the franchisees spent a lot of money advertising -- but not always, they now concede, in the right places. For example: They tried radio ads that promised free gifts to bring people into the store, but that tack didn't entice visitors to make purchases, Sprauer says.

The Solution: Foregoing the sweeping marketing approach, Sprauer and Missner turned to providing exceptional customer service. "We try our best to take care of people," says Sprauer. "They aren't just people who buy things from us and go away, they are people who need information, understanding -- and someone who cares about the outcome of their situation."

Relax the Back's Chicago store now loans out special back-relaxing chairs to customers who need them for only a short time. Because customers referred to them by hospitals and rehab facilities aren't necessarily persuaded of the therapeutic value of their products, Relax the Back offers them 10-day to 2-week free trials. The sisters also distribute a quarterly newsletter to their database of 17,000 customers. Their employees are trained to be "educators," rather than salespeople. And Sprauer and Missner send thank-you notes to everyone who shops in their store.

By disseminating free advice and information, they have developed a loyal customer base. Now, repeat business accounts for as much as 40% of sales. Their approach -- based on meeting each customer's individual needs -- has generated priceless positive word-of-mouth about their store.

The Result: Today, after seven years in business, Sprauer and Missner's Relax the Back store is the most profitable location in the franchise and growing.

Expert's Verdict: "It seems fitting that this store is located in Chicago, where a famous retail businessman once said: 'Give the lady what she wants,' says Meg Goodman. "Robyn and Marcy have taken Marshall Field's mantra one step further by giving all of their customers what they want, generating enormous good will and personal recommendations from their customers. I believe they have succeeded where numerous companies have failed: They walk the talk. Instead of telling customers how wonderful they are, they prove it everyday with very personal interactions. When was the last time you got a thank-you note from a store?

"Relax the Back has realized that their products are used by people who are experiencing some level of discomfort. These individuals may not want to admit it, might think they can't afford solutions, or feel totally uneducated about the whole process of acquiring the right products for their specific needs. Through the combination of an educational sales approach, providing free trials, and creating a 'community' of people who share the same needs, Relax the Back has found the very approach for their particular market.

"In my book, for this lesson in Marketing 101, Relax the Back earns an A+."

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