Home' Charter : 0911 Charter Sept Contents 40 Charter I September 2011
Opinion > Enterprise
in hard times
Listening to what your customers want is half the
battle in trying to win business in hard times.
Sue Prestney FCA
One of the many by-products of travel
is that you experience how business is
conducted in other countries. We can learn a
lot from these experiences – how to do it and
how not to do it.
Anyone who has visited markets in places
like Egypt and parts of Asia will know how
it feels to be surrounded by a pack of local
vendors all thrusting identical items of minimal
interest and dubious quality at you, all trying
to outdo each other in frantic sales patter. If
you do make the fatal mistake of showing
even a glimmer of interest there is no way out
but to buy something. You then discover that
the number of items you are pressured to buy
increases commensurately with the number of
the vendor’s offspring – and these vendors do
all seem to be remarkably fecund.
The problem with these aggressive tactics is
that you buy less than you would have done if
you had the opportunity to look at the wares
without being assaulted. Many people avoid
looking altogether and simply run the gauntlet of
vendors with eyes ﬁxed rigidly on the pavement.
I did meet one vendor, Alfred, who sat
quietly in his stall, allowed customers to
browse, politely offered assistance and
information and, not surprisingly, made
many sales to battle-weary Western tourists,
because, as he explained, he had found out
from listening to them that they hated being
bombarded. In being prepared to sit quietly
in his stall and wait for customers to come in
Alfred took a big risk. We have to remember
that these vendors are often in countries with
no social security and no minimum wage.
If they don’t sell anything, they don’t eat
anything either. If they seem desperate to
make a sale, that’s probably because they
are desperate to feed their family. But Alfred’s
risk paid off – because it was soundly based
on listening to his customers.
Contrast this with a not untypical buying
experience at home. After trying in vain to get
the attention of sales staff in department stores
and car dealerships, you emerge thinking it
must be too easy to make money if that is the
degree of interest the business has in selling
you its products. But of course the attitude of
sales staff who have a salary and know they
are going to eat tonight is not representative of
the owners of the business who are most likely
poring over sales and cash ﬂow reports and
wondering whether they are going to be able to
meet their commitments.
The further away owners are from the
shop ﬂoor, the more chance there is that
the staff who are on it are not delivering the
message the owners want them to and,
importantly, are not feeding back messages
they are receiving from the customers.
No businessperson can afford to distance
themselves from the customer. Small
businesses have an advantage over their
larger competitors in that owner/managers
can be, and usually are, personally in touch
with most aspects of the business and
particularly with customers. Some owner/
managers even allocate themselves a sales
territory just to stay in touch and I know a
number of them who have responded to
ﬁnding themselves in the slow lane of the
two-speed economy by taking on direct
handling of important customers.
This may seem to be an inappropriate use
of scarce CEO time, however establishing
and maintaining a competitive advantage
relies on knowing what is most valuable to
your customers and being able to provide
it better than your competitors. This is even
more important when times are tough.
Nothing beats a personal dialogue with
customers to nail down this most crucial
element of business strategy.
Customer surveys may not elicit the
constructive responses you need – or indeed
any response at all – and feedback through
sales staff can be ambiguous and self-serving.
A face-to-face meeting with a key customer by
the owner/manager reinforces to the customer
their importance to the business and is more
likely to prompt forthright, useful information.
As the structure of the economy changes
it will be those businesses that listen closely
to their customers and are prepared to adapt
accordingly which will survive. As we know,
consumers are eschewing traditional retail
experiences and this is a wake-up call for all
businesses that markets’ and customers’
needs can change quite rapidly.
ACT ON WHAT THEY SAY
I recently witnessed a hotel manager hold a
meeting with some guests – he may not have
received the feedback he expected but what
he heard had the potential to signiﬁcantly
increase the proﬁtability and longevity of the
hotel, as long as he was really listening.
And this is the bottom line. There is no
point taking the time to meet your customers
if you are not intending to listen to them and
act on what they say – that is worse than not
speaking to them at all. Bailing them up for
the sole purpose of extracting a desperately
needed sales order risks missing the strategic
value of the interaction, like the market
vendors who consistently deal face-to-face
with their customers but fail to ﬁnd out what
they really want. This leaves the door open for
someone else – like Alfred – to do the listening
and take market share from you.
Sue Prestney FCA is from MGI Melbourne and is
the Institute’s spokesperson on SMEs.
As the structure of the economy changes it
will be those businesses that listen closely
to their customers which will survive
Links Archive 0811 Charter Aug 1011 Charter Navigation Previous Page Next Page