Shops and the personal touch

 

That friendly hardware store

Times are changing

There is no question that shopping has moved on in the last couple of decades. It has moved to out-of-town retail parks and it has moved on-line. As a result, many shop premises in the UK are empty, and the owners of those shops that remain are struggling with their businesses, just to keep afloat.

When town and village shopping areas on what used to be the main drag dwindle away, so does the sense of community. People always used to feel that they belonged in the area they lived; a sort of neighbourhood spirit. All that gets lost when shopping moves away. It even affects the other centres of gathering such as community centres, and the local pub is not what it was in terms of old-fashioned gatherings of friends.

Queen of Shops

Even Government has recognised that there is a social change as a result of the drift from the High Streets. We have had a very commendable report from Mary Portas, “Queen of Shops”, as to how to cut through the bureaucracy and red tape and also to change the thinking of the local authorities.

Even so, local shop owners need to think how to engage their customers so that they “belong”. It is all about getting a following, and in a way it is the same process as getting one on Twitter or Facebook. Businesses have to be interesting, and chatty, and when they discuss their products it needs to be in a friendly helpful way, with no blatant selling.

Getting personal

My own local village has two major supermarket companies who have small stores by their standard. It is not really fair to our local (franchise-owner) grocer, but that is life. However the four obviously successful shop businesses in our local community all have one things in common, and that is the personal touch.

A while back I mentioned our local Chinese takeaway.  Actually, we have two, but only one cooks your food to order in front of you. People love to watch.

Then we have the bakery. That is quite a distinction from a bread shop, which just buys in its products. If you pass the bakery in the small hours (I don’t very often) you can see the bread being baked. All food shops of this sort probably need to buy in a certain amount, but if we can say that what we buy is locally produced that induces that sense of belonging. The bakery staff also recognise their customers and chat, again making a connection we don’t get in the supermarket.

In our village, we get the same experience in the fish-and-chip shop as in the bakery. The staff are friendly, and we can see our food being freshly cooked.

The fourth great business is the hardware store. One might expect they would struggle against the out-of-town retail and DIY outlets. Their secret is that their staff are so helpful. If you cannot see an item you want, they can usually find it somewhere. If not they can order it. If you need a special light bulb for your granny’s night light they will find it and fit it for you. They are more expensive than the big store in the shopping park, but you get great service, and save the cost of expensive fuel.

Old-fashioned value

What do all these businesses give you? That’s right: value for money, that feeling that they what they offer is worth paying for. They can charge more than the big outlets because they have to in order to be profitable, but they also have a loyal customer base. That is known as goodwill, and it is so important.

In a sense, these businesses over-deliver, or at least they appear to. That extra personal touch is so important in keeping the loyalties of all our customers, whether or not we are High Street businesses Those that run shops in the High Street or village street can still make it once again the Main Drag, but it will take that personal touch.

Do you remember to get personal in your business?

 

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Customer service and that nice warm feeling

 

Putting your stamp on the business

French bread and letters

We all like a bit of a moan sometimes. At least, I do. Recently on Twitter I complained that I had missed the post as the local collection was made early. I just saw the back of the van as it drove away.

To give them great credit, @royalmail responded within a couple of minutes and registered my complaint via Twitter, complete with reference number. I don’t know how far this will be followed up but I immediately got the feeling that they do care, so my feelings towards Royal Mail became a lot warmer.

I have mentioned before our local baker in the village. They have great products in the bread, and they are very friendly and helpful and allow us to reserve our favourite loaves over the telephone from 7:30 AM onwards. This sort of service inspires loyalty and of course testimonials since my wife and I tell everyone what a brilliant bakers shop they have.

Hospital hospitality

As a family we have seen rather a lot of hospitals recently. I guess we cannot avoid them all our lives.

This past week we spent the entire day at one. I really cannot praise too highly the service, but in particular the helpful friendly caring staff who made us so comfortable (patient and patient’s moral support) and looked after us so well. Of course no one really wants a reason to go back to a hospital, but we would certainly recommend it to others in need, and if we have to be hospitalised ourselves, I hope it is there.

It’s how they do it!

All bakers’ shops sell bread though not all bake on the premises as our does. Our baker stands out because we are made so welcome and can rely on top service. So we recommend them.

Our posties mostly do a very good job, and it makes me feel better about them that the business follows up on complaints rather than shrugs its shoulders.

A great hospital is worth knowing about and great service will help spread the word as well as allaying concerns about having to be admitted.

If we serve well our clients with a smiling face they will recommend us more easily. Smile!

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How to get the best out of our employees and co-workers

In the late seventies, when of course I was very young, Britain organised a recession all for itself. It was punctuated and marked by industrial disputes and strikes, notably by the seamen, the public service workers, and of course the rail workers. I need to say that this is not going to be a union-bashing piece or even a Government-bashing piece, though we have a scene now in a new recession which is quite reminiscent of those bad old days. People now forget the strikes of the seventies were the raison d’être for the confrontation with the miners during the Thatcher years. There was an understandable feeling of “never again”. With hindsight, the approach might not have been quite right, but the thing about hindsight is that you do not have it until after the event.

At the time of writing we have threats of a national strike by the postal workers (threats of staff cuts and modernisation of working practices), and a strike by Corus steel workers (closure of its final salary pension scheme to new entrants, i.e. mainly people who have not joined the company yet). One by National Express Rail workers (pay offer above inflation deemed insufficient) has been settled. One supposes that all these disputes are over genuinely perceived issues without a political agenda.

These strikes make me feel quite uncomfortable in that they can make the recession worse, affecting productivity through travel difficulties and raw material supply, as well as cash-flow, so important to many businesses including especially, small businesses. It really shouldn’t be funny, but there is a comic absurdity in all this, at a time when even the TUC is forecasting that there will be 4 million unemployed within the next year or so.

The confrontation and posturing we see on both sides of these disputes between major employers and unions is certainly not the sort of behaviour we would want to see in small business, and indeed we do not see it very often. However, unfortunately management and workers can still take very entrenched positions, particularly over productivity and in respect of staff absence. It can happen in respect of pay too.

Fortunately the small business owner is in a much better position to do something about these problems and to put matters right. It involves taking a friendly approach which might be alien to the big employers and their workforce representatives. Being nice to someone is certainly never harmful. So, if there is a productivity problem we, our small business owner or SME director should say to the workers individually or together (it depends on circumstances) “I know that you are doing your best, but we really are not getting the results we expect. Do you have a suggestion as to how we could get through more work? Is there a problem you can identify and something we can change?” That way the staff will feel happy that they have been asked and feel more valued. We will be giving them some responsibility for their work and there may well be something the business could change to make the system better and get more work done. At the same time, the staff will feel more able to volunteer issues that concern them and give useful feedback without being asked.

In the case of staff absence, it is always best at the earliest stage to talk to the individual because there may be an area in which we can help. Again, the person will feel valued, and perhaps one could allow some flexibility on working hours if there is something which keeps the person away from work. Of course, common sense must prevail, but again we encourage collective responsibility. Even pay issues are best resolved by talking first, and individual incentives related to personal productivity can also encourage valuable feedback.

None of this is novel, but both small business employers and their staff can get into entrenched attitudes if they do not talk enough or at all. We have nothing to lose by being friendly and kind to those who work for us. I have always found that if our team members like us, they will respect us and try harder to please, which of course benefits them hugely, as well as our business.

© Jon Stow 2009

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