Customer Service: Marketer vs. Merchant

By Jeanne Bliss

At Lands' End, where I spent the early days of my career and realized my passion for being a customer zealot, we called ourselves "direct merchants." Back then (in 1984), catalog shopping was still largely an unproven, uneven experience for customers. My job was to make sure that as we grew at 20%-30% a year, we remained true to the core of our business.

At Lands' End, that meant acting as merchants when it came to customers—extending honest, personalized service to customers based on how we would like to be treated ourselves.

Dick Anderson, who succeeded founder Gary Comer as president of Lands' End, was the one who told us to act that way. It was brilliant because it gave us all a compass (and an attitude adjustment) during a time of extremely rapid growth. It also kept us on course when things were moving slowly.

Thinking Like a Merchant

Anderson explained what he meant to be a "merchant" in this way:

"We are all merchants. And for me, that is an honorable and vital identity—even in this day when it is fashionable to hold forth on the subject of marketing in all its forms. I don't decry that exactly, but I'm more comfortable considering myself a merchant. And here's why.

A marketer deals with many; a merchant deals with one.

A marketer moves from the mind; a merchant moves from the heart.

A marketer is logical; a merchant is perceptive.

A marketer does business across the world; a merchant does business across the counter.

And finally, a marketer bets his all on a system; a merchant bets his all on his store."

And in a world where products and services are available in hundreds of variations, the companies that think and act in this manner still get a disproportionate piece of the overall pie.

Trusting the Customer

For example, Zane's Cycles in Connecticut sells $13 million of bicycles a year from a single store and lets prospective customers take a $6,000 bike for a test ride with no identification or collateral. They lose two bikes a year to thieves but demonstrate their faith in their customers rather than beginning the relationship questioning a prospect's integrity.

And the Container Store decided that everyone should be like Gumby—flexible; they hire only 3% of all employees who apply and invest four times the average in their employees. The result? Double-digit growth every year since 1978.

Some are saying that all customers are concerned about right now is price. I challenge that. The decision to compete on price alone happens with the proverbial stroke of a pen from the CEO or CFO. That's a copycat action, and those types of reactive solutions alone won't cut it now.

It takes no special skill to follow the leader or be the (momentary) leader with the lowest price. Companies that are thriving (yes, thriving) in this sluggish economy do more. They have made deliberate decisions about how they would run their business, and they live out those decisions every day. The most important of those decisions is the one that determines that taking great care of their customers is the highest priority.

How do you do that? Here are some actions and examples that do not cost a thing—except passion and commitment.

Hire "nurturers" to take care of customers. You can identify this natural ability in the interview process.

As much as there is a tendency to move customers quickly in and out your doors in the name of efficiency, resist the approach of managing by volume numbers. Today's customer wants and expects to be cared for as an individual. Remember, a marketer deals with many; a merchant deals with one. For example; on "Black Friday," as customers were standing in cold lines to get into stores in the middle of the night, customers commented, "Some coffee would be nice."

One intern at a Best Buy (BBY) store decided to pass out coffee, hot chocolate, and doughnuts to keep the crowds calm. Think what a small touch that would have been for other businesses; how little it would have cost; and the word of mouth that would have spread because of that "nurturing" gesture.

Go through your policies and procedures and manuals and lists of "do's and don'ts." Empower your frontline, customer-facing employees. Be relentless about cutting out those rules that make your frontline folks have to bounce back and forth between themselves and a manager to take care of a customer or extend a special gesture they feel is warranted.

Take a page from Zane's Cycles that gets rid of the rule book for customers, or from Wegman's that gets rid of the rule book for employees, telling employees that the major rule they all live by is "No Customer Can Leave Unhappy." Some companies feel that in a down economy customers are more likely to take advantage of them, and they need to pump up the rules on exchanges and refunds. Do people's morals really go out the window just because they have less money in their pocket? Be the company that trusts your customers. Remember, a marketer moves from the mind, a merchant from the heart.

Get out from behind your desk, out of your warehouse, or away from the computer screen and be where your customers and the folks who serve your customers are.

Be agile, be on the lookout for what people are asking for, and then be responsive. If you do something for one customer in need, spread the idea through your employees to extend the gesture, too. Being responsive and empathetic and adjusting how you do business for your customers now will pay off as the memory of your kindness stays with them. The word will get out, and your customers will become vocal advocates for your brand. Remember, the marketer is logical, a merchant is perceptive.

Be in your community, where your customers live and shop, and know what is going on at a personal level in their lives.

Care enough to find out what will make a difference in their lives. Be creative and deliberate in figuring out a way to respond. Remember, a marketer does business across the world; a merchant does business across the counter.

Decide to be the company that tells your customers, your employees, and the marketplace about who you are and what you value—in your decisions and actions.

When you make a decision, it results in action. And the accumulation of those decisions and actions becomes how people describe you and think of you. It becomes your story. So decide what story you want told about your company and your people. Your "storefront" is the accumulation of your decisions and actions. Remember, a marketer bets his all on his system, a merchant bets his all on his store.

Love is irrational. Customer love is a reward for what some consider irrational business behavior. Companies who grow because of their bonds with customers do so because they aren't always looking over their shoulder at what each decision will get them. In fact, sometimes they decide to look out for their customers in spite of what it is costing them. In their minds, elating the customer is first.

Reevaluating in the Downturn

The rest of the business story (profitability, productivity, stock price, market share, etc.) will take care of itself. Two years of research for my newest book proves this point. The research was nearly completed in 2008 when the economic downturn hit, and every company's performance needed to be reevaluated and validated as differentiating in the marketplace. I found they all sustained growth in 2008 (and subsequently 2009) or they stayed considerably ahead of their competitors.

Good decisions and deliberate conditions on which these companies run their business sustain them in good times … and bad. This list includes the No. 1 home health-care provider in Canada, "Nurse Next Door," Griffin Hospital in Connecticut, the Container Store, W.L. Gore, Edward Jones, Trader Joe's, and Zappos, to name just a few of the companies.

So what story is emerging about who you are and what you value? Having customers who love you tell your story will make your business grow. Make decisions that will earn you the kind of story you want told.

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