How to lose me as a customer

Here’s a story about two business who don’t understand how to build strong customer relationships.. and two who do.

I bought a couple of suits at a men’s store at the Meridian Mall the other day. You can probably figure out which one it is. The service was good and the suits looked great.

Then they took me over to the shirt area. Even thought I was exuding “I’m done” signs, the guy walked me through four shirt/tie combinations that “we recommend for this suit”. Then they tried to sell me travel bags and cedar hangers. Sheesh! When we got to the register, he asked me if I was satisfied with my experience. “Make a note on my member rewards account,” I said. “Don’t sell me stuff I haven’t asked for.”

This morning I forgot to get gas at my favorite East Lansing gas station (H&H Mobil at Hagadorn and Haslett Roads. Get all your gas and auto repairs done there. They rock..). I was in a hurry and decided to try a newly remodeled filling station just soutwest of campus. You can probably figure out which one it is. We’ll call them “GasVision”. When I fired up the pump, I was carpet bombed by a barrage of commercials on a huge screen that was incorporated into the pump stand, interspersed with micro segments of so-called entertainment.  There was no mute, no way to turn it off.

I won’t go back there again. And I’m telling all of you about it.

Let’s be clear. I am always up-selling. In my professional role, I constantly seek ways to add value to people’s lives. But I do it by ascertainment, by learning about their interests and passions. If I sense that there isn’t a fit, I shut up.

When I tweeted about my GasVision debacle, my friend Lucy Ann Lance responded that “the world is one big ad”. That feels like it’s true. Even when we spend money to get away from it all on a cruise, we’re a captive audience, enticed to by what they sell on the boat. My guess is that the mall men’s store doesn’t make their money on the suits, they make it on alterations and extras, high margin items that you could probably get somewhere else for less, if you were willing to look for it. They live or die by how well they can convince you to buy what you don’t need.

Lets contrast this to my typical experience at H&H Mobil (Get all your gas and auto repairs done there. They rock.). Their facilities are impeccably clean. They hire people who enjoy being there. Most of them have worked at H&H for years. Whenever I’ve asked them about a repair item, they always try to find ways for me to avoid spending money. “That can wait,” or “we only need to think about doing these things right now” are examples. In one case, the mechanic put my car on the computer when the Check Engine light came on and said, “Faulty sensor”. He reset something and sent me on my way. No charge. They also give me advice on recommended providers when they aren’t able to do what I need. Perhaps most telling, was the day I saw a Chevy Volt parked in their lot. When I asked who owned it, the station owner said, “It’s mine. Want to take it for a drive?” He would have tossed me the keys if I had the time.

There are two ways to sell. One way is to knock as many doors as possible and hope that the law of averages coughs up enough customers to satisfy your need. This is how telemarketing and spam email generates a pay-back. Brute force over a large universe is certain to generate sales. But at what long term cost? The other approach is much more subtle. You build rapport and align their passion with your appropriate product. This process longer, but the sale usually takes care of itself.

My friend and fellow Spartan Jim Marshall knows this one by heart. When the economy threw him out of his conventional sales gig, he bought a Sandler Sales Training franchise and started teaching people how to build profitable, mutually beneficial relationships. When I saw him over the recent holidays, he was just moving into new quarters that were three times the size of his previous location. He still prospects these days, but a significant portion of his bandwidth comes via satisfied clients. He has satisfied so many customers that the referrals they bring more than cover his available bandwidth. By the way, his business grew during the recession.

The best relationships are worth nurturing. Patience, perceptiveness and a calm persistence make up the recipe. But most of us know when it’s time to stop selling, or we risk blowing the relationship all together.

As much as businesses would like us to think otherwise, the customer is still king. If we accept substandard performance, we’ll continue to get it.

I hope that some one from GasVision learns the H&H lesson. I want them to thrive. We need more successful businesses in town. But unless they turn off the TV when I’m filling up, they will have to do it without me. And I think I’ll buy my suites at Holden Reid from now on.