The Changing Face of Retail: Part II: The recipe for becoming Amazon-proof - Jan 2018

By Jim Dion

I hope that you have spent the last couple of months exploring the new augmented reality apps and seeing first hand how they can empower people to measure their own projects, how they can enable a customer to see what a new floor or room will look like, and how easy it is becoming for customers to expect even more. Technology is raising the bar for every company as our customers come to expect apps and tools that will make their lives easier. But just knowledge of technology and equipping your company with the latest technology will not likely be enough to save you from the potential threat of Amazon and other online companies. As previously stated, the customer will be comparing everything you do and offer to what they are experiencing with other companies, and that is why to be technologically fluent as well as offering your customer the convenience that technology promises is just “table stakes” in tomorrow’s game of retail.

I spent a part of last summer working in Japan and was very impressed with what I found to be the ultimate antidote to competition, and this fall in Italy I found the exact same vaccine being used. I am sure that you are wondering what Japan and Italy could possibly have in common that would be the solution to the threat of Amazon in the United States: a customer-centric culture.

Tip O’Neill, the speaker of the House during the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, said that “all politics is local,” reflecting his belief in the importance of the personal and close relationships of local government to the people. The immediacy of trash collection, well-maintained roads, safe streets and other local concerns, O’Neill felt, were far more important to people than national issues. We can almost update that saying and prescription to “all retail is local,” and that is especially evident in Japan and Italy, as well as many European countries.

One of the first things you notice about businesses that have nothing to fear from the threat of Amazon is that the owner of the business is front and forward; she is always there to greet you when you arrive at the store; she is showing her employees, by example, how to greet and treat customers. The feeling that you are important to the business is palpable from the first moment you enter the store to the very last interaction. The warm and thoughtful greeting, the interaction that is never felt to be intrusive but is always attentive and ending with the final interaction, which is always a warm invitation to return. This same familiar style is also apparent to customers in their ongoing business with this style of company. These companies let you know that you are important to them in so many ways. Emails appear infrequently, but always with a message that is personal and welcome. Postal mail reminders of events, sales, warranties and birthday wishes are all part of an ongoing commitment to maintaining the relationship without a feeling of too much or too little communication.

How does your business compare to this model? Would you say that you are Amazon-proof, or are you just waiting for any competitor to take your customer? Too many businesses today believe that they are close to their customer and provide amazing customer service when the truth is that they are mostly like every other business out there. The acid test is the answer to this simple question, “If your business closed today, this instant, how many customers would really notice or care?” If you are truly honest in the answer, you will immediately see the work that you have ahead of you.

Great Amazon-proof businesses are almost indispensable to their customers. They are not an afterthought or an out-of-sight, out-of-mind business. In order to become this indispensable to your customer, many changes must take place. It begins with every day, every moment, truly being in the business. This sounds simple; however, with all the distractions-our phones, our families, our personal lives-it is not that simple. Being in the business means having a mindset that asks the simple question: is what I am doing right this second helping my customer? Mindfulness of our ultimate mission of existing for our customer and spending every moment thinking of how to make dealing with our business easier, better, faster and more memorable for a customer is what is required. This is not an easy mindset to acquire.

Too many things today get in the way of operating a business that is completely customer-centric. Often, we create procedures that help us and policies that protect our companies but not our customers. One of the steps on the way to Amazon-proofing your business is to critically examine all your policies and procedures and identify which ones are for your convenience and protection and which are for your customer’s convenience and protection. This must be done with your team-the most important lesson any business can learn is that the business is never just one person, it is the team. Your customers may see you as the face of the business, but they see your employees as the real company. If your team is not in complete alignment with the vision of the company, the customer will see and feel that dissonance immediately. I have believed all of my adult life in a very simple axiom, that people will support what they helped to create, which simply informs us that when employees are not told what to do but are part of the decision process, the outcome is so much better. You can never deliver an Amazon-proof experience to your customer without the commitment of your team. Notice that I said commitment and not participation. Words do matter. A team that just participates is not enough. There must be true commitment to the vision of the company and the translation of that vision with every customer interaction. Every employee must come to work every day and commit every moment of every day to helping the customer.

So, as soon as you can, gather your team together and ask them to create a list of the ways that they see the company interacting with customers right now. Describe every point of interaction in person, on the phone, via email, on your website and any other way your customer communicates or interacts with you. After you create this list, then identify how many of these interactions are customer-centric and how many are company-centric. In other words, how many times do we ask a customer for information that does not directly help them? How many times are we just going through the motions and not mindful of what we are really doing? And how can we alter our procedures and actions to be customer-centric?

One way to judge your business’ success in this endeavor is to consider when the last time was that it received a customer accolade. Amazon-proof businesses receive customer kudos almost every day. When your customers are raving about you, they are not looking to go anywhere else. How are you making sure that this happens? It is not done by itself. You must have a system that creates customers who love you back. But it begins with you loving your customer first.

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