The Biggest Business Challenge


By Steve Lewis

During the past several months, I’ve read several surveys that report on “the number one” concern of small business owners. Inflation, poor credit, factory closures, the collapse of the auto industry, the war in Iraq all have been featured in one way or another.

These are all serious issues but they are all beyond the control of the small business owner, and therefore make it impractical to be proactive about them in our business planning… all we can do is adjust as circumstances dictate and move on with making a living. And in that way, I really don’t think any one of those problems can be labeled “biggest.”  To begin with, what determines a big problem depends on the industry and your location. For a store owner in a small community the biggest problems might be changes to a local bylaw governing signage, while for a charter-boat operation, weather can be the bug-bear. Neither of these is likely to show up on the business journalist’s radar and they are not going to be featured on the six o’clock news, but that doesn’t make them any less influential.

One challenge when putting surveys about the economy and how it affects small business is that they generalize. Issues specific to one industry or a segment within that industry are not targeted. In a simple sentence, Generalizations are easier to report on.

That’s not to say surveys cannot be helpful. One of the best customer service tips I know, was learned as a result of a survey my old company sponsored for clients in the retail sector.

That survey asked what SHOULD BE the number one concern for small business owners. It targeted specific concerns that related to customer satisfaction, and included input from customers… the classic 360 degree survey.

The outcome was interesting and surprising… and relevant to our industry. It highlighted that the biggest issue was Communications. Everything else paled compared to it. Sure, customers expected to be able to see and touch the products they were interesting in. They wanted choice. They expected to get value for money, and they wanted after sales support. But key to forming and cementing a relationship between the customer and the retailer was communications.


Makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, we live in the communications age, and certainly it seems logical for our customers to expect us to share information with them, so there are no surprises there. What did shock us a little though was the shape and form of the “complaints” the survey turned up about poor communications.

It was a laundry list of what not to do in the retail environment and ran the gamut from confusing answering machine messages to badly organized mailings about store specials.  But number one was that customers complained about retailers not listening to them.

There were lots of different specific complaints and pitfalls described but the scenario commonly painted was: “I explained what I needed, but did not get what I wanted… at least not on the first try.”

The lesson to be learned from this is an obvious one: Listen to shoppers in your store, and your chances of making them a customer are increased. This is so much a part of Retail Business Guidelines to Success that we were honestly surprised that it was not universally followed. But it was not.

And the situation does not appear to have changed much: at least, not based on my experiences this past weekend.

I was shopping for plants in a newly opened garden center in the next town. One of the owners served me and although she may have wanted to win me as a customer, she failed miserably. During our conversation, she interrupted me several times to give orders to staff, became distracted by things going on in other parts of the store, answered a phone call and when I eventually finished explaining my landscaping problem, had to ask me to repeat most of it.

Now, that’s an extreme case but certainly it is not an isolated one. It points out some of the issues that can turn a potential customer away. She failed to open our relationship with the very basic message that she cared about what I had to say and that she was interested in helping me out.

You may find in your own experiences in these competitive times even the BIG Box stores are catching on to the need to retain the customers they all ready have. Have you noticed…gone is the day of when you asked for an item and a  store employee would point over their shoulder and murmur the aisle, now they drop what they are doing and lead you directly to the product!

Your store may not be so big that you must lead every customer to an item but engaging them is a MUST.

At the base level, initial communications between store owner and customer need to establish several key points. This includes forming some level of trust, establishing that you are qualified to help, showing that you are willing to listen and interpret what’s being said, understanding questions politely, and understanding what’s actually needed. This informs a fundamental attitude shift from “What can we sell you?” to “What needs do you have that we can help you meet?” And to understand what a customer needs, the store owner/staff member has to listen to the problem.

Sometimes, listening is a creative exercise. Someone comes into a store and asked for a widget but the problem they describe doesn’t require a widget at all.  Creative listening, and creative problem solving is a key difference between the shopping experience in a store and online. As store owners and dive professionals we have to make sure that our skills in both areas are not getting rusty. Most importantly, do we listen? Do we know the right questions to ask (the high gain ones) to tease information from a shopper? Have we thought of the customer’s real needs BEFORE suggesting a solution? And does that solution solve a problem without creating another one?

The garden center I was in last week had some great deals and some unusual plants, but the owner did not win me as a customer. I’ll go back to the local nursery where they listen to me and care about my garden… or at least that’s the impression they give!



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