[This article titled appeared in the July 4/11, 2011 issue of Floor Covering Weekly.]
Your marketplace: is it designed for experts or for consumers?
By Christine B. Whittemore
“Today's marketplace is designed for experts, but we aren't all experts.”
Sheena Iyengar, author The Art of Choosing
BRITE ’11 Conference
Who is your marketplace or retail store designed for? Is it for experts or for someone with little knowledge – let’s say a consumer?
Imagine stepping into the cockpit of a passenger jet and having to fly the plane despite no prior knowledge or training. How would you make sense of the gauges and instruments? How would you know what’s critical and what’s not? How would you interpret instructions from the control tower? The situation would be impossible unless you were flying with an expert pilot.
A place designed for experts makes no sense without specific knowledge or training about what’s within. Otherwise, it overwhelms and repels. It offers dense technical information that can’t easily be reconciled with finding a perfect solution. It generates feelings of inadequacy, ignorance and frustration.
For an expert, that same landscape is comforting and filled with discoveries, camaraderie and easy-to-evaluate solutions. Experts easily sense common patterns or differences, and can make value judgments based on preference, relevance and knowledge. That expert pilot would make immediate sense of the otherwise mystifying gauges and instruments and intuitively know how to proceed safely.
How many of our flooring customers are experts? How many feel comfortable in the expert-focused retail marketplace we’ve created?
Many consumers purchase flooring infrequently [possibly every 7 to 10 years] and, if they remember, most of what they learned the last time is irrelevant given changes in product offerings. Most feel anxious about making mistakes and are on guard because they expect to feel stupid and patronized or even deceived by sales representatives. Although they have armed themselves with research, everything about the retail experience reinforces the fact that they aren’t experts.
Imagine that our airliner’s pilot is incapacitated and you have to land the plane. An expert in the control tower would identify the controls to pay attention to, group them into areas of interest, and coach you in sequences of actions using those controls. So by careful instruction, you can manage an expert’s job.
Similarly, Sheena Iyengar, whom I quote above, recommends three techniques for helping customers make sense of a marketplace designed for experts.
1. Carefully trim or cut your product offerings. Doing so carefully can increase sales and improve profitability. It also eliminates redundant options for customers. Trader Joe’s strategically curates its product selection offering only 4,000 SKUs compared to 50,000 SKUs carried by traditional groceries.
2. Categorize using your expertise with the product category to make meaning of the choices available and simplify the decision making process. It’s invaluable for novices and comes naturally to experts. Best Cellars groups wine into 8 easy to understand categories, offering more information and choices within each category. Critical with this technique is focusing on how to be useful to the chooser, rather than the creator of the category. [Does organizing a store in terms of soft and hard surfaces make sense when customers rarely come in specifically asking about flooring for their hard or soft room?]
3. Condition for complexity. Think of it as methodical coaching or hand-holding to get your customer comfortable and engaged in the process of dealing with many choices. Iyengar recommends engaging customers with ‘shallow’ questions at first and then proceeding to more involved options. As a result, customers don’t become emotionally exhausted early on, deciding then to opt out of the decision-making process. Added bonus: satisfaction with choices made increase significantly [read: no buyer’s remorse!].
One last bit of wisdom to consider: the ideal number of choices that our perception and memory can handle is “the magical number 7 plus or minus 2”. Although experts can handle more in their area of expertise, anytime we as novices are faced with more than 5 to 9 options, our brains shut down and we walk away.
If your retail marketplace is designed for experts, how do you help your customers navigate choices? How would you apply Iyengar’s three techniques of trimming, categorizing, and conditioning to transform your retail experience so it welcomes new customers as well as expert ones?
Remember, your goal is to land the plane, not crash it.
Although about Surfaces 2011, the insights captured in this Floor Covering Weekly article, published in the February 21/28, 2011 issue remain relevant to this day, particularly if you are serious about connecting with customers!
Let me know if you agree.
Surfaces 2011: Connecting With Customers
By Christine B. Whittemore
Have you considered what goes into ‘connecting with customers’? It’s a question that characterized my Surfaces 2011 experience. Yes, my three education sessions focused on connecting with customers. However, every session I attended reinforced that theme. Here are highlights from Surfaces to share with you relating to ‘connecting with customers’.
- Before selling anything to anyone, build trust, establish credibility and create meaning for customers. In other words, develop relationships, banish the hard sell and focus instead on active listening to determine what matters to them.
- The more passionate you are about customers, the better you will differentiate yourself from your competition. Be a relentless customer advocate. Listen, follow up and don’t assume it’s all about price!
- Follow up after every transaction. Multiple touch points with customers create meaningful relationships; they signal that you care. Be sure to survey customers, obtain feedback, address issues in real-time and learn from every interaction.
- Be unforgettable! In your follow up, in your retail experience/store, your focus on customers, your online experience, your emails and communications.
Marty Gould from Focalize illustrated the value of making meaning for customers with a radio spot he created based on web content extracted from participants’ websites. The result: a bland, boring, meaningless, generic gobbledygook sales pitch that tried to be all things to all customers. Better to think specifically about those customers whom you can help, and create messages and content that credibly connect with them. Be real, be human; explain how and why you care. [If you haven’t already, you might enjoy David Meerman Scott’s Gobbledygook Manifesto.]
Jim Dion reminded the audience how futile it is to beat the Big Boxes on price. Better to focus on what they can’t do: customer focus, deep product knowledge and relentless attention to details. How you execute those details beats everything. Your store is about the people within the store and how passionate all of those people are about the business and building customer relationships.
According to Matt Selbie from Opiniator, of all the reasons businesses drive customers away, 55% are service related issues. In other words, by not addressing fixable issues, businesses force customers to defect. Even though 95% of companies collect customer feedback, only 30% make decisions based on that customer input and the majority never let customers know that action has been taken as a result of the feedback. Address those service issues and you’ll connect with customers! By the way, customer retention affects profitability as it does loyalty and referrals.
Imagine, as Mark Lauzon from Advanced Fabrication Solutions described, that the person you’ve hired to paint your interior trim calls, visits and touches the job up every few months after the job is completed without your prompting him. He does so not to sell, but rather to ensure customer satisfaction. Talk about being unforgettable. That is what you are striving for when connecting with customers. Other advice: banish the hard sell, particularly on the phone. Build trust. Don’t ever forget the personal, human element. Look people in the eye. Pay attention to what’s happening in your community [it will affect demand]. Consider creating an advisory council to connect with customers and inspire brand ambassadors.
As many of you know, I have been immersed socially and digitally since 2006. Although the various tools of social media can be used to communicate traditional one-way messages, where they shine is by enabling you to connect with customers. The tools allow you to be human, approachable, trustworthy, passionate in your areas of interest and also unforgettable.
With a caveat. You must focus on what matters to customers, rather than on you [e.g., you may have received the Nobel Peace Prize, but can you install my carpet?]. You need to truly ‘walk in her shoes’ and be sensitive that your sales pitches aren’t spamming customers or that you aren’t intruding on personal conversations. How well do you understand what customers are searching for? Can you provide them with meaning, information, solutions? Can you make your experience seamless for customers so your physical store or showroom communicates the same messages that your social and digital presences do? Can you truly connect with them? Will you?
Comments, reactions? What have you implemented to connect with customers since Surfaces?
'Green should feel good
' appeared in the January 17-31, 2011 issue of Floor Covering Weekly
Although focused on sustainability, the article relates green to the retail experience and the marketing of flooring.
Green Should Feel Good
By Christine B. Whittemore
In the midst of the ongoing economic doom & gloom, what has inspired me most is Green. I’m entranced with Green roof and Green wall buildings, GeoHay protecting the Gulf Coast from oil devastation, community-based stewardship of critical waterways such as the Conasauga River, and witnessing my child learn about Green at school as she eagerly participates in community garden projects.
Green is innovative, creative, collaborative and beneficial. It produces tangible results: energy savings, better insulation, diminishing greenhouse gases, protecting the shoreline… It’s a positive journey toward a better world. Green makes me feel good.
So why doesn’t buying green make me feel better?
In the marketplace, I’m intuitively skeptical of green claims. I assume it’s all or mostly greenwash; I resent being fed a mound of green gobbledygook, signifying nothing, which leaves me feeling that I’ve been had. Combine that with the complexity of the flooring purchase process sans green, with seemingly thousands of shades of beige to wade through, and I’m stressed before even reaching a decision!
I want to feel good as a result of my purchase decisions. I don’t want to feel stupid and too many aspects of buying – whether green or not – make me feel stupid.
I’m not alone.
According to MSNBC, 15 retail practices really annoy customers! From up-selling, bait and switch and too much fine print, to rebates and constantly rearranging shelves and a few more in-between. These practices make customers feel stupid, which in turn makes them angry and unlikely to buy.
Many of those irritating retail practices parallel the ‘Sins of Greenwashing’ described in Terrachoice’s 2010 “Sins of Greenwashing” Report. These include: hidden trade-offs, no proof, vagueness, irrelevance, the lesser of two evils, fibbing and worshipping false labels… The report states that “more than 95% of consumer products claiming to be green were found to commit at least one of the “Sins of Greenwashing”.” Interestingly, Big Box stores were almost twice as likely to offer legitimate green certifications as either specialty stores or green boutiques. That means that Green is more likely to feel good for customers shopping at Big Box stores…
Imagine banishing the reputation-damaging claims of Greenwash and embracing instead the positives of Green: sincerity, authenticity, transparency, intense customer focus, fierce refusal to misrepresent and a desire to involve your constituents in this Green journey.
Here are tips for ensuring that Green Feels Good for you and your customers.
1. Embrace transparency. Jack Laurie in Ft. Wayne, IN deliberately replaced all product labels so they transparently stated pricing to establish trust with customers. That was in November 2008 when I visited. Don’t deliberately obfuscate. When in doubt, simplify and clarify.
2. Assess how green your green products are. Understand your green claims. If they aren’t fully green, be realistic about what benefits they offer. When in doubt, banish Greenwash!
3. Participate in your community’s Green programs and activities. Go help clean up your local river. Donate dated carpet samples to community gardens to keep weeds down. Offer your store as a community meeting place. Green is social; it’s about community. Be part of it!
4. Review your own business’ energy practices. Are you energy efficient? Do you recycle? How well do you and your business associates practice Green? If you look at your processes from your customers’ perspectives, might you uncover improvements that also support your customer-focus?
5. Make your store more efficient for customers. Time is our most precious resource. Can you rethink your store so it resolves the frustrations customers experience when they shop? Can you edit your store selection so that the options make sense for your customers? Can you make better use of the various communication tools available to listen to and communicate with customers?
Green should feel good. Are you ready to make buying Green feel good, too? Do you want to sell Real Green? Or are you just going to slather on the Greenwash?