Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Value of a Customer

I was reading a discussion over at Ravery, sparked by the question:

"What makes you hate a Local Yarn Shop?"

There was a long string of strange and awful stories, from being treated with complete indifference (not a sign from the employee/owner, even after a long browsing session), to being harassed from 2' from behind with a barrage of questions during the whole visit to the store. And the list goes on, and on, and on. I was amazed.

Whatever happened to "The Valued Customer"?

It seems that there are a lot of business owners out there who have forgotten one simple fact: without their customers (i.e. the people that come and give them their business), their businesses cannot exist.

In a market economy, money is the most valuable commodity. It is the most flexible, and offers the most freedom for the one who owns it. LYS owners need it, and customers have it. Or, if a customer doesn't have money to spend that day, the customer is a powerful source of advertising, whether good or bad. A customer is more than a pocketbook in your store--they're a walking, talking, emotive advertisement for your company, and you want to be sure that they work for you. Not against you. When a company has won my loyalty and business, I can't say enough good things about them, and am eager to send more business their way--not just because I want to help support the business, but because I know those who I refer will also have a great experience. And in today's world, that's a rare and precious thing. However, if a business mistreats me, or deals with me in less than an honest and upfront manner, I'm the first to warn others away from them, so as to spare another hapless consumer from the same experience.

With a husband who owns a company, it has been an interesting education, participating in many a discussion about customers, marketing, and all of their attendant subjects. Vern has studied a lot of other companies like his own, and many unlike his, and we've learned some fascinating things about what really makes businesses thrive, and what can kill them. Long story short: make your customers happy. It doesn't matter if you own a dollar store or something next door to Sak's. Your customers should be thrilled with their experience with your company. Period.

So, how does a business go about thrilling their customers?

The first one that often comes to mind is "Have a huge sale!" Saving your customers money is a wonderful thing, and one of my favorite traits in a company. But that can come in many different forms. It's not just lowering the initial price. It can be having a return policy like Land's End or REI: if you're not thrilled with your purchase at any point in your ownership thereof, you can return it for a full refund. I've returned things to Land's End that I've had for a couple of years that just haven't performed as I expected them to. (A failed zipper on a diaper bag comes to mind--it was a poor design and a lighter zipper than was really needed.) It can be not using a computer-controlled menu to "handle" incoming calls. (Man, I hate those!) Or making sure that your CS reps speak clear, concise English, and have the IQ necessary to handle customer issues.

The biggest way I've been thrilled with various businesses, though, is when they take the time to build a relationship with me--to know my face (if not my name), be happy to see me when I come in, and to make it clear that they're willing to do whatever they can to meet my needs. Case in point: there's a health food store here that I've been patronizing since shortly after we moved here. The owners are a husband and wife, (nearing retirement unfortunately), who have been running the little shop for decades. Bill, the owner, knows that cash in hand is far better than product on the shelves, and will special order just about anything he can get his hands on. He loves to deal in bulk (we get 25lb bags of rice and other staples there), and is a pleasure to work with. He still can't remember my name, after me showing up roughly weekly for the last six years, (his memory isn't what it used to be), but he sure knows my face and lights up every time I come in. Add to that the fact that his store has slightly better prices than anywhere else in town, and you've got an excellent establishment.

When it comes to my LYS, it's the same type of story as with the health food store. The employees and owner of the LYS are genuinely nice and friendly people. They enjoy their work, and are an excellent fit for the shop. They all have experience in their crafts (from fiber work to quilting and sewing), and all follow a basic set of good business policies. The store culture has been set up by the owner herself, and it is followed by those who work for her. They have a yarn discount day each week, (which I love!), so even though manufacturers can be really grouchy and communist in their pricing agreements (which only work against them, but they're just too short-sighted to see it), there are ways for less-than-affluent knitters such as myself to be able to knit with really nice fiber.

What it really comes down to is how the business thinks of its customers. If there's a basic culture of respect and decency, with some genuine kindness and basic mathematics mixed in, odds are that the business will be a real success. If a business is lacking in those things, then odds are that they'll survive (and if they're the only shop in town, maybe even do fairly well), but nobody will be glad they did.