I recently observed a potential customer approach a direct marketer’s booth and peruse the items for sale. Just when the customer pointed to an item and was about to ask a question the vendor turned her back and began using her cell phone. The customer was cut off, mid-air. The customer waited patiently and when the vendor finally looked her way, she once again started to ask a question. Unbelievably, the vendor looked down at her phone and again turned her back. This time the customer walked away.
Granted, most vendors are much more attentive to potential customers. And if the communication was imperative, the vendor could have asked the customer for a moment’s grace. Unfortunately, many of us see this type of interaction happening to others as well as ourselves far too often today. Customer service may not be dead, but it sure seems to be flopping around in today’s marketing environment.
The paramount benefit of direct marketing is bridging the gap between buyer and seller – in establishing not just a transaction, but building a relationship. An alternative marketing author puts it bluntly: “You can’t outsource relationship building.” You either put in the work and initiative to train for and deliver excellent customer service, or you pay the consequences.
Many unsuccessful customer exchanges stem from the inability to truly engage with customers. For customers, “seeing is believing” – knowing that a seller is interested in the person as well as the transaction. The reverse is true as well – as a seller, are you observing what your customer is looking at, how they feel about your product and what will create in them in a repeat buyer?
It’s okay to ask initial questions or make a comment about your product and see where the conversation leads. Some sellers see this as being too forward or poking into a person’s business, but customers will let you know if they are simply buying a product or willing to engage in dialogue. This holds true especially when produce sampling is involved. Some customers want to look at or taste a product and then buy, while others want to know the back story about the product and the company before making a decision. Engagement with a customer is not about expecting extensive feedback, but about establishing that first, and vitally important, connection. This dialogue then provides helpful information about consumer preferences and subsequently responding to customer needs.
You can make a product or develop a service only to learn that consumers are interested in different packaging options, another level of pricing or elevated value concepts that haven’t even crossed your mind. Training employees, family members and partners to recognize the importance of customer engagement sets the tone for how you expect to conduct a business with integrity and a desire to succeed.
Beyond “seeing” and engagement, you need to respond to customer interactions as the next step in relationship building. If you ask for customer feedback, you should be willing to relate, react and reposition your venture in response to what you hear. Customer suggestions may not make sense to you as a producer, but if you can relate to the customer as a fellow buyer, you may more fully understand what the need is. You may not be able to implement all suggestions, but you can communicate that to your customers in open and honest information sharing. And you may find it necessary to reposition your venture to take advantage of trends and niche markets by listening and reacting to feedback from a variety of sources.
Convenience is driving more customers to non-relationship building networks, but direct marketing, whether in tasting rooms, markets or farm stands, has a familiar emotional relationship that many of us still find important. Learning how to engage customers – to really see them for who they are and what they bring to the table – bridges the marketing gap and establishes relationships. Why does customer service matter? Retail guru Sam Walton is credited as saying “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”
The above information is presented for educational purposes and should not be substituted for professional business and legal counseling.